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Nicolas Isouard, called Nicolo, son of Fortuné Isouard and Hélène Lombard Rigord, French from Marseilles, was born in Malta where his parents had a commercial enterprise. His parents sent him to Paris to study maritime artillery when he was 12 years old. The outbreak of the French revolution in 1789 obliged him to return to Malta. His parents understood that his military career in France was seriously compromised because of the political situation and employed him in their enterprise. The young Nicolas was much more interested in his lessons in music than in commercial activities. His Maltese tutors Michelangelo Vella (1715–1792) and Francesco Azopardi (1745–1809) convinced his father to send him to Palermo (Sicily) to follow further training courses. After Palermo, Nicolas Isouard studied in Naples and Florence and became familiar with Italian opera scene.
His first opera "Casaciello Persiguitato da un Mago" was staged in Valletta, Capital City of Malta, in 1793. (The composer was 18 years old!).
Isouard’s second opera "L’Avviso ai Maritati" was premiered in Florence in 1774, the third one, "Altaxercès", in Leghorn (Livorno, Italy) in 1775.
Between 1796 and 1798, the very prolific young composer presented to the Maltese public seven operas: "Rinaldo d’Asti", "Il Barbiere di Siviglia", "L’Improvisata in Campagna", "Il Due Avari", "Il Barone d’Alba Chiara", "Il Bottaio’ and "Ginevra di Scozia", all conceived in Italian style and spirit of Francesco Duarte (1684–1755) and Domenico Cimarosa (1749–1801). Francesco Duarte was teacher of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736), Nicola Piccinni (1728–1800), Giovanni Paisiello (1740–1816), Antonio Sacchini (1735–1786), Niccolò Jommelli (1714–1774).
During the brief French occupation of Maltese islands, Nicolas Isouard was organist and director of music of the St. John’s co-cathedral in Valletta. The Grand Master of the Sovereign Military and Hospitalier Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta from 1775 till 1797, Emmanuel de Rohan de Polduc (1725–1797), appointed him "commissioner" of the majestic Manoel Theatre in Valletta built in 1732. Isouard was also a secretary of the French general Belgrand de Vaubois. Most probably the young composer met Napoleon (1769–1821) in Malta who had stayed one week in Valletta on his way to Egypt (expédition d’Égypte) in 1798 as well as artists and scientists who accompanied him, especially the pianist Rigel who traveled with his concert-grand piano, produced by Sébastien Érard (1752–1831) in 1777. After the defeat of French, the general Belgrand de Vaubois took Isouard to Paris in 1800.
The post-1789 revolution regimes in France: Convention nationale (1792–1795), Directoire (1795–1799), Consulat (1799–1804) induced radical changes of social structures and an extraordinary soaring of arts, especially of the music theatre. Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729–1817), Modeste Grétry (1741–1813), Nicolas-Marie Dalayrac (1753–1809), François Adrien Boïeldieu (1775–1834), Nicolò Zingarelli (1752–1837), François Devienne (1759–1831), Gasparo Spontini (1774–1851), Bernardo Porta (1758–1829), Étienne-Nicolas Méhul (1863–1837) were favorites of the insatiable new public. Mostly every week there were a première of a new work in Paris.
Immediately upon his arrival in Paris with the general Belgrand de Vaubois, Isouard met the French pianist Rigel who introduced him to the famous violinist and very prolific French composer Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766–1831), much appreciated by Beethoven, author of more then forty operas. Thanks to Kreutzer, the opera "Le Petit Page ou La Prison d’État" by Isouard was presented in Paris in 1800. In 1801, his opera "Flaminius à Corinthe" (supervised and co-signed by Kreutzer) was premiered in Paris as well as the opera "Le Tonnelier" and the French version of "L’Improvisata in Campagna" (l’Impromptu de campagne).
Between 1801 and his death in 1818, Nicolas Isouard, called Nicolo (de Malte) in France and abroad, composed more then thirty operas, some with collaboration of Boïeldieu, Catel (1773–1830), Cherubini (1760–1842), Méhul, Berton (1767–1844), Ferdinand Gasse (1780–1839): "La Statue de la Femme Avare", "Michel Ange", "Le Baiser et la Quittance ou Une Aventure de Garnison", "Un Jour à Paris", "La Victime des Arts", "Joconde ou Et L’On Revient Toujours à ses Premières Amours", "Cendrillon", "lE Prince de Catane", "Le Siège de Mézières", etc.
His operas "Jeannot et Colin", "Aladin ou La Lanterne Magique" (finished by his Italian colleague Angelo Maria Benincorsi in 1821) and "Une Nuit de Gustave Wasa" inspired by the work by Alexis Piron (1689–1773) were premiered in Paris after his death, in 1818, 1822 and 1825.
During his live and after his death Isouard’s operas were performed also in Berlin, Copenhagen, Rome, London, Budapest, St. Petersburg, Moscow, New Orleans etc.
Nicolo composed also masses, motets, cantatas, vocal duos, romances, and did some arrangements (of the Concerto by Viotti, for example).
The social and professional ascension of the young composer from Malta in Paris during the Directoire and the Empire (from 1804) was astonishing. Surrounded by his illustrious French and Italian colleagues, he conquered the French public and his works had much success abroad too. He flattered the taste of the public of his time and did not try to improve his technique. His harmonic syllable is primary. However, his phrases and his syntax are mostly correct and his grammar acceptable. Guided by his intuition, Nicolo colours his music thoughts with an irresistible charm and melodic easiness in a light, but vivid style.
Despite his social, professional and pecuniary success, Nicolo felt frustrated and ill-rewarded because the Paris Conservatoire (founded in 1795) did not accept him as a professor of composition and the French Académie (founded in 1635) rejected his membership. He became alcohol addict and died of profligacy in 1818, abandoned by his wife Claudine Berthault and his daughters.
Like Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), Nicolo was inhumed first in the crypt of the church Our Lady of Victories (Notre Dame des Victoires) in Paris in presence of his brother and two other persons named Isouard too. Later, his corpse was transferred to the Parisian cemetery Père Lachaise.
His bust adorns the frontispiece of the Opéra Comique in Paris. Since 1865 a street in the 16th district in Paris is named Rue Nicolo.
La Bibliothèque nationale de France (French National Library) purchased in 1994 Nicolo’s manuscripts and works published before 1850 as well as his correspondence with his colleagues composers, interpreters and librettists Hoffman (1760–1828), Ferretti (1784–1852), Charles-Guillaume Etienne (1777–1818), 368 items.