Grandly and misleadingly called "one of the most famous figures in eighteenth century music" by over-specialized musicologists, Giovanni Battista Martini was an important personality in the narrow confines of Italian music and counterpoint pedagogy. Described as both affable and arrogant, Martini was a supportive and much sought-after teacher; his students included the young Mozart and J.C. Bach.
Martini enjoyed substantial early musical training, but at age 15 he decided he wanted to become a monk and was sent to a monastery. This residency lasted about a year; in late 1722 he returned to his native Bologna to become an organist at the church of St. Francesco. In 1725 he became that church's maestro di cappella, a position he would hold until near the end of his long life. He was ordained a priest in 1729.
Padre Martini's first published works appeared in 1734, a collection called Litaniae atque antiphonae finales Beatae Virginis Mariae; after this liturgical beginning, Martini would eventually publish three collections of secular music.
Among his honors were election to the Academy of the Bologna Institute of Science in 1758, the Bologna Philharmonic Academy (in the same year), and the Arcadian Academy in Rome in 1776. He was offered jobs at the Vatican and perhaps in Padua, but Martini preferred his employment in Bologna; indeed, his trips out of town were few and far between.
He was a hard worker and easily likable, inspiring great affection in personalities as different as Mozart and Charles Burney. Yet he was also in many respects an adamant musical reactionary, resisting French innovations in music theory and the progressive tendencies of even his fellow-countryman Tartini (with whom he nonetheless remained on cordial terms). His fees from teaching counterpoint and singing enabled him to amass a huge personal music library (perhaps 17,000 volumes by 1770), as well as a collection of 300 portraits of musicians; eventually, getting one's portrait into Martini's hands was equivalent to a modern Hollywood celebrity having "arrived" by getting a set of footprints onto the Walk of Fame.
Martini wrote extensively on ancient Greek music and plainchant (which he considered to be a particularly expressive form of music), and published a volume of excerpts for the teaching of advanced counterpoint. His own music, however, was largely homophonic, skewed to high voices. A major exception to this tendency was his 1742 Sonate d'intavolatura, which employed a rich counterpoint suggesting a familiarity with Bach.