Francesco Durante was a leading composer of church music in the early eighteenth century, as well as an internationally renowned teacher in Naples. His compositional output is unique: Although he did try his hand at opera, Durante never really attempted to compete in that theatrical medium, unlike almost all of his colleagues in Naples at the time. His gift was simply not for opera, but rather for church music: He created works in all genres and styles of devotional and liturgical music. Though never prolific, Durante was concerned with quality, not quantity, which points to how well the teaching profession fit him. Because he was always dedicated to artistic concerns and remained open to new ideas, he was a much sought-after and revered maestro.
From a large family, Durante was first influenced by his father, who served as a singer at the parish church. When his father died, his uncle, Don Angelo, became his next mentor and in 1702, he enrolled in the Conservatory of S. Onofrio a Capuana to study with his uncle, the primo maestro, and violinist Gaetano Francone. After three years at the conservatory, he had his first known creative work, a scherzo drammatico, performed in Naples in 1705.
Little is known of his life between that point and 1728. There is speculation that he went to Rome to continue his studies. His concentration on sacred music, plus his interest in concertos and keyboard music, point to Roman influences. Regardless, he was definitely back in Naples when he began as primo maestro at the conservatory of Poveri di Gesù Cristo in 1728. Pergolesi was one of his students there. During this period, his famous Sonate per cembalo divisi in studii e divertimenti were published (1732). Also from this period were the Requiem in G minor (1738) and the Missa in Palestrina (1739). The works from these years show a composer with a firm grip on his craft, often looking forward but still sensitive to inherited traditions as well as to contemporary tastes.
He resigned from the Poveri in roughly 1738 and his activities are unknown until 1742, when he accepted another position at S. Maria di Loreto. There, his students included such future masters as Fenaroli, Sacchini, and Speranza. In 1745, he was also given the head position at S. Onofrio and he continued both teaching positions until his death. In his last decade (when his students included Piccinni and Paisiello), Durante was considered the most distinguished of all Neapolitan teachers. Luckily, his creative imagination never wavered with age, allowing him to produce the Mass de'morti (1746), considered the most important orchestral requiem from that era. In all his late masterworks, one finds unique thematic and structural shape as well as emphasis on expression and orchestration
There are few details available about his personal life. His first wife, Orsola de Laurentis, died in 1741, ending 27 years of unhappy marriage. He married Anna Furano in 1744, then after her sad death in 1747, he married Angela Anna Carmina Giacobbe, a former house servant. Durante was simple-mannered, yet profoundly wise when it came to artistic matters. Dedicated to his students' welfare and education, Durante was, in turn, always spoken very highly of by his pupils.
Interestingly enough, two popular arias attributed to Durante that are consistently included in modern anthologies of Italian songs -- perhaps two of the only works for which he is still recognized -- are actually just solfeggios or vocal exercises to which elaborate accompaniment and text were added in the nineteenth century. He wrote many didactic works and even in his non-didactic compositions there are signs in the scores revealing the teacher in him (i.e., cantus firmi and canons that are labeled for the students' benefit). Having been such an important teacher in Naples, Durante was remembered long after he died. In 1767, Rousseau perhaps over-exuberantly praised him in 1767 as being the supreme master of harmony in Italy and the world. Needless to say, his famous Magnificat in B flat (second version) was still performed and still heavily praised at the end of the nineteenth century. Certainly, the great contributions Durante made to the development of eighteenth century Neapolitan church music as well as instrumental music merit such generous homage.