Pietro Antonio Cesti
• 1623 — 1669
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Antonio Cesti was an important composer of the seventeenth century Italian Baroque, particularly in the field of opera. Born Pietro Cesti, he adopted the name Antonio when he joined the Franciscan order. He had already been a choir boy in Arezzo. Although details of his musical training are uncertain, it seems likely he studied with Abbatini, and possibly with Carissimi and Luigi Rossi. He joined the Franciscans in Volterra in 1637, was elected organist of the Cathedral there in 1643, and in 1645 was confirmed as master of music of the Volterra seminary and of the Cathedral.
The powerful Medici family became his patrons. Through them, he became acquainted with a literary group called the Accademia dei Percossi, who wrote texts for his cantatas and, eventually, opera libretti. It has been assumed that his first successful opera was Orontea, produced in Venice in 1649. However, evidence suggests this opera may have been written in 1656 for Innsbruck. Whatever the case, Cesti built an increasingly successful career as a secular composer and singer. He was reappointed at the cathedral in July 1649, but there were clearly conflicts between his vocation and his increasing material success outside the Church, which led to a love affair with the married singer Anna Maria Sardelli. Salvator Rosa, one of the members of the Percossi, wrote of it, "it is ever thus with anyone who would behave as though he were neither friar nor layman." In October the Superior-General of the Franciscans rebuked his monastery for permitting Cesti's "dishonorable and irregular life." Undeterred, Cesti wrote two more popular operas for Venice, Il Cesare amante, and Alessandro vincitor di se stesso, in 1651 and 1652. Cesti left the monastery in 1652 to accept a position at the court of Archduke Ferdinand Karl in Innsbruck, Austria. Although he made some trips back to Italy (primarily to recruit singers) he remained in that position through 1657.
He then moved to Rome, evidently with the ulterior purpose of ingratiating himself with the Pope so he could be released from his vows. Cesti, a fine tenor who often took leading roles in his own and others' operas, sang for the Pontiff four times, was released from his vows in March 1659, in the understanding he would remain a secular priest, and that year joined the Papal Choir. In 1661 the Pope granted him leave for a temporary trip to Florence in connection with the wedding festivities of Duke Cosimo III of Medici and the French Princess Marguerite Louise d'Orléans. From there, he went straight back to Innsbruck and Ferdinand Karl, while the angered Pope threatened to excommunicate him.
Cesti went on with continued success in opera and was even rewarded by the Archduke with an abbotship. When a new Duke inherited in 1665, Cesti moved with him to Vienna, affording him even greater scope for his operas. He died in 1669, and some sources indicate that his death was rather sudden, suggesting he may have been poisoned.