Italian composer and conductor. He produced several operas in Italy, but had little success until 1807, when he produced La vestale in Paris. In 1820 he went to Berlin as music director to Frederick William III; his greatest success in this post was the opera Agnes von Hohenstaufen (1837). He was hindered throughout his career, however, by his difficult and quarrelsome personality, which led to his dismissal on more than one occasion.
His family intended him for the priesthood, but he ran away to Monte San Vito, where an uncle allowed him to study music. When he had advanced sufficiently, he returned home and was allowed to study at the Conservatorio de' Turchini at Naples from 1791, where his teachers included Nicola Sala and Giacomo Tritto. In 1796 he produced his first opera in Rome, having run away from the Conservatory, but he was readmitted at the intercession of Niccolò Piccinni, from whom he learnt much. He now produced one opera after another, and in 1798 went to Palermo with the Neapolitan court, which took refuge there and appointed him music director in the place of Domenico Cimarosa, who refused to leave Naples.
In 1803 he left for Paris, where he taught singing and tried his hand at French comic opera, but made his first real success with the serious opera La vestale in 1807. He was appointed composer to the Empress Joséphine and in 1810 became director of the Italian opera at the Théâtre de l'Impératrice, giving the first local performance of Don Giovanni. In 1812 he was dismissed, but the Bourbon restoration in 1814 reinstated him. He soon sold his post to the soprano Angelica Catalani, however.
In 1820 he was summoned to the court of Frederick William III in Berlin as general music director to the Prussian court. He was not on good terms with the intendant, Count Brühl, though he succeeded in introducing excellent reforms at the court opera; but his success was obscured in 1821 by that of Weber's Freischütz, which aroused an appetite for German opera, as distinct from foreign opera set to German words. In 1822–23 he visited Dresden, where he met Weber; he also visited Vienna and Paris. In 1838 he spent the summer in England to study English history and local colour for an opera about the poet Milton, differing from an earlier one, which was never finished. On the king's death in 1840 his position became more and more difficult; this was partly his own fault, for he quarrelled with the new intendant, Count Redern, and became involved in a law-suit, and after much trouble and threatened imprisonment he left Berlin in July 1842. He went to live in Paris, and visited Dresden in 1844 to conduct a performance of La vestale rehearsed for him by Wagner. In 1848 he became deaf and returned to his birthplace, founding a music school at Jesi.
In recent years Spontini's operas have enjoyed a limited revival, with performances in Europe of Fernand Cortez, Agnes von Hohenstaufen, and Olympie.
WorksOpera and stage Italian operas, including I puntigli delle donne (1796), Adelina Senese (1798), L'eroismo ridicolo, Il finto pittore, La finta filosofa, La fuga in maschera, and eight others; operas in French and German, including La petite maison (1804), Julie, ou Le pot de fleurs (1805), Milton (in French), La vestale (1807), Fernand Cortez (1809), Olympie (French, revised in German as Olympia, 1819), Pélage, ou Le roi de la paix, (1814), Nurmahal (German, after Moore's ‘Lalla Rookh’, 1821), Alcidor, Agnes von Hohenstaufen (1837), Les dieux rivaux (with Berton, R Kreutzer, and Persuis); festival play with music on Moore's ‘Lalla Rookh’ (original version of the opera); ballet for Salieri's Les Danaïdes.
Choral and vocalDomine salvum fac and other church music; cantata L'eccelsa gara for the victory of Austerlitz, coronation cantata for Nicholas I of Russia; vocal duets and trios; songs with piano or harp; Sensations douces.