Italian opera composer Amilcare Ponchielli ( 1834–1886) was born in Paderno Fasolaro, near Cremona. His musical career began at a very early age: he was nine when he won the scholarship of the Milan Conservatory. Barely two years after leaving the conservatory, he wrote his first opera, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), based on Manzoni’s famous novel, and it was as an operatic composer that he eventually achieved fame. The early phase of his career, however, was not marked by success. Though he won a professorship at the competition of the Milan Conservatory, he lost it due to intrigue, and he was forced to fill in unrewarding positions in small towns. He wrote several operas along the way, but they were none too successful initially.
These disappointments notwithstanding, Ponchielli earned valuable experience as the conductor (capobanda) of wind orchestras in Piacenza and Cremona, where he composed over two hundred pieces for wind ensembles. He earned great success with the first wind arrangement of the popular song, Carnevale di Venezia, with festive marches that celebrated the unification of Italy, and privately commissioned funereal compositions. The turning point in his career came in 1872, with the great success of a revised version of I promessi sposi. It brought him a contract with the music publisher Ricordi, and made him a welcome presence in the musical establishment of the Milan Conservatory and La Scala. Further successful compositions were to follow, and after the Milan premiere, his operas and ballets regularly went on to be performed in the major centres of Europe’s musical life. The libretto of his best-known opera, Gioconda was written by Arrigo Boito, an important composer in his own right, who adapted the same play by Victor Hugo which had already been set to music by Saverio Mercadantem, and then by Carlos Gomes.
Whilst marked by splendid musical solutions, the operas that succeeded Gioconda, like those that preceded it, were not to remain on the repertoire for long. In the end, it was this single work that earned Ponchielli a place in musical history. His contemporaries nonetheless acknowledged his art, and he came to influence the next generation of composers, such as Puccini, Mascagni and Giordano. The former two he also taught at the Milan Conservatory, where he was a professor from 1881 until his death in 1886.