Spontini, after studying at the Naples Conservatoire and composing a number of comic operas (for Naples, Venice and Florence), moved to Paris in 1803. His opéra comique Milton was disrupted at its premiere by a protest against 'foreign' (i.e. Italian) musicians. However, he quickly gained the patronage of Empress Josephine; she helped him to get his most popular work, La Vestale, premiered in 1807.
Its success rested on its combination of Italianate melody with French dramatic style, combining the influences of Gluck and Piccinni, and inspired use of the orchestra; a wonderful vehicle for an intelligent prima donna, it has been successfully revived in the 20th century. Never prolific, Spontini's fortunes tended to decline. His next opera, Fernand Cortez (1809) was 'hijacked' by Napoleon, who saw it as an allegory of his own conquests and thus a useful piece of propaganda; despite its spectacular tableaux, it was not a success.
Spontini went to Berlin after his tragédie lyrique, Olympie (1819), also proved a failure. However, he encountered more nationalism in Germany; a revival of Olympie was eclipsed by Weber's Der Freischütz. Subsequent works fared equally badly, being both old-fashioned and impractical to stage, and Spontini's post was finally given to Meyerbeer. He greatly influenced Berlioz, who befriended him, and was admired by Wagner.