Jacopo Peri known as Il Zazzerino: the inventor of opera

Composer Jacopo Peri in his performance costume of ‘Arion’

The Italian artist Jacopo Peri, who was known under the pseudonym Il Zazzerino, was born on the 20th of August 1561 (died on the 12th of August 1633).  Born in Rome, he was a composer and singer of the transitional period between the Renaissance and Baroque styles.  Il Zazzerino is noted for being the inventor of opera and for his significant contribution to the development of dramatic vocal style and performance in late Renaissance and early Baroque opera.

Jacopo Peri studied in Florence with Cristofano Malvezzi, who was an Italian organist and a famous Florentine composer of the late Renaissance.  Jacopo Peri’s cooperation with Malvezzi allowed Peri to have his instrumental work and a madrigal published by 1583.  Peri began to work in various churches as both an organist and a singer, where his vibrant talent attracted the attention of the wealthy and art-dedicated ruling family – the Medici family.  His new patron became Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who had just ascended to the ducal throne after the quite mysterious death of his elder brother – Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

At the Medici court, Peri was employed as a tenor singer, keyboard player, and a composer. Among his earliest works were music compositions for plays, intermedi, and madrigals.  In the 1590s, Peri befriended Jacopo Corsi, who was the leading patron of music in Florence and was also associated with the House of Medici.  Peri and Corsi both tried to make the contemporary music closer to classical Greek and Roman works, endeavoring time and time again to recreate the ancient Greek tragedy in the style of the most acclaimed Greek tragedians such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.  Ferdinando de’ Medici welcomed their efforts and supported them.

The Prologue to ‘Euridice’, from the score published in Florence in 1600

Peri wrote his first work that is called an opera today.  It was the opera ‘Dafne’ composed in about 1597, which was first performed during the Carnival of 1598 at the Palazzo Corsi.  The libretto of ‘Dafne’, created by Ottavio Rinuccini, survives to this day complete, and at least 2 of the 6 still surviving fragments belong to Jacopo Corsi.  It would have been tragic for Peri to learn that most of his parts written for ‘Dafne’ were lost over centuries.  Peri’s next work –‘Euridice’ – was performed as part of Marie de’ Medici and King Henry IV of France’s wedding celebrations in 1600.  The opera ‘Euridice’ was almost entirely composed by Jacopo Peri, with additional music by Giulio Caccini and the libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini.  Based on Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, this opera recounts the story of the legendary musician Orpheus and his beloved wife, Euridice.

Peri’s gravestone in Santa Maria Novella

Ferdinando de’ Medici loved ‘Euridice’ so much that he sponsored the improvement in the new version of this opera.  Peri applied recitatives in the new version of his work: in Italian being ‘recitativo’, this musical device was a style of delivery that allowed a singer to adopt the rhythms and delivery of ordinary speech.  Recitatives went between the arias and choruses of ‘Euridice’, and added the dramatic action to the whole composition.  In later years of his life, Peri produced other operas, some of them created in collaboration with other composers such as ‘La Flora’ with Marco da Gagliano.  Peri also produced a number of other pieces for various court entertainments at the Medici court.  Giulio Caccini, another Italian singer and composer who also worked for the Medici for some time, was Peri’s rival.  Il Zazzerino’s influence on later composers was significant, although already after Ferdinando’s death in 1609, Peri’s operatic style was perceived by some as rather old-fashioned compared to the work of younger composers such as Claudio Monteverdi..

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville