Discovering the Depth of Music by Ferdinando Paer

Jun 22, 2017

It's not as if I've never heard of Ferdinando Paer.  

Recently I've gotten to know Paer's oratorio Il Santo Sepolcro (The Holy Sepulcher). I came across a new recording of this work in our wonderful music library

I've scheduled The Holy Sepulcher for Music in Mid-Ohio at 8 p.m. this Sunday, June 25.

It turns out Paer is a composer worth getting to know. He was born in Italy, in the duchy of Parma in 1771, and died in Paris in 1839.

Parma has long been home to talented Italian composers. Paer grew up alongside the great-great grandfather of Giacomo Puccini. Giuseppe Verdi was born in Parma in 1812 — by which time Paer had attracted the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte, who counted himself the composer's No. 1 fan.

Paer had worked extensively in Italy and Austria. His father was an Austrian, hence the Germanic sounding last name. While Bonaparte's controversial career was about to crash and burn, his influence nonetheless carried enough weight for Paer to be named director of the Paris Opera, a post he held for 22 years.

Paer wrote over 30 operas for Vienna, Paris and Rome. Paer's​ Leonora (Conjugal Love) used the same source as Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. Paer's opera is worth hearing, but it must be said that Beethoven's is the opera that endures.

Bonaparte may have been Paer's No. 1 fan, but Beethoven and later Schubert counted themselves among Paer's admirers. Not bad.  

Il Santo Sepolcro is an oratorio about the crucifixion and burial of Christ and the promise of the resurrection. It is not strikingly original. But it is very well crafted, the work of a top professional.

The grief of Mary Magdalene and the hope of Joseph of Arimathea are set to music that stops just short of over-the-top emotion. Paer was a classicist who wrote lovely melodies and gave the right understatement to dramatic and emotional situations, with just enough sublime moments to keep us listening.