Alessandro Scarlatti

Biography of the Italian composer Alessandro Scarlatti by Rosalind Halton

No Italian baroque composer produced more varied or more vividly singable music in his time than Alessandro Scarlatti. A compulsive worker, driven perhaps by the poverty of his childhood in famine-stricken Sicily, he made an early success as an opera composer in Rome, gaining the favour and protection of Queen Cristina of Sweden. With both his sisters giving rise to scandal and gossip, Alessandro and other members of his family left Rome in 1684 for Naples, where he took up the position of maestro di cappella at the vice-regal Court. A year later, in 1685, his most famous son, Domenico, was born. More successful operas followed, but Scarlatti was equally involved in the more intimate genre of the cantata.

By 1700 political instability at the court in Naples led him to look elsewhere, first to Prince Ferdinando de' Medici in 1702. He received a few opera contracts - resulting in the composition of the operas he regarded as his best (Lucio Manlio, and Il Gran Tamerlano). These lost works are the subject of a fascinating correspondence between composer and his patron. But Florence did not offer him long-term work and Rome became his base again, with employment at San Maria Maggiore. In 1706 he was at the peak of his activity in Rome, and was elected to the Arcadian Academy, one of few musicians to be so honoured, along with Corelli and Pasquini. 

Above all, Rome offered Scarlatti the opportunity to develop the cantata and the serenata. Opera was banned altogether by Papal ordinance during much of his time in Rome. But the existence of the Accademia Arcadiana and the regular conversazioni of the Roman artistic patrons, Cardinals Ottoboni and Pamphili, and Prince Ruspoli, regularly brought together poets and musicians, with a sophisticated audience in an environment that encouraged subtlety and experimentation.

Rome in 1707 and 1708 was also the scene for Handel's many triumphs in oratorio and cantata. Nothing is documented on the subject, but maybe it is no coincidence that he left Rome soon after Handel's extended visit. 1707 saw Scarlatti in Venice, with a new opera, and a visit to Urbino followed, where he composed a number of chamber duets on pastoral themes. Towards the end of 1708 he accepted the Austrian Vice-Roy's invitation to return to his position in Naples, taking the place of Francesco Mancini, who had served in Scarlatti's prolonged absence. In 1716 he received the honour of a knighthood from Pope Clement XI.

From works like his Regole per Principianti, a treatise on figured bass, it seems that Scarlatti was active as a teacher; the German composers Quantz and Hasse were among those who sought him out. His last opera, Griselda composed for Rome in 1721, shows great spirit and energy, as does the cantata, Là dove a Mergellina dated 1725, the year of his death. 

Studies of composers usually stress the large-scale works - the operas and oratorios - but with Alessandro Scarlatti it is in the cantatas that we see his most perfectly realised and imaginative music. He excelled in the art of the soliloquy and the duet, in detailed imagery, in dialogue between voice and instruments - all features that find unrivalled outlet in his cantatas. 

Rosalind Halton 2000.
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Cantata per Camera a due Soprani Clori e Lidia Compagne
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A Scarlatti: Fileno, quel Fileno
Forces: soprano, violins & continuo

The work consists of the two recitative-two aria structure, with each aria accompanied by unison violins, and in the keys of B minor and G major respectively. The attribution is added in what is apparently the same hand providing the attribution and date to a number of cantata and serenata manuscripts in the Santini Collection, including Filli che fra gl'orrori, dated 1706.

In the beautiful kingdom of love there is hope only when faith reigns in a heart.

Vocal range: e’-g’’

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano con violini
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A Scarlatti: Fille, Fille, dolente Fille
Forces: soprano & continuo

As the title suggests, Fille is sad...but, disturbingly, she likes the treatment she is getting from Tirsi: 'I will enjoy my pains, because I adore the chains...' Disturbing! A wonderful cantata in RARA format, Scarlatti at his most harmonically adventurous.

Source: Naples, Cantate 266

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Fille, mia cara Fille
Forces: soprano & continuo

A wonderfully chromatic work from 1704 (November 4th), the chromaticism expressing the tortures of loving such an unfaithful woman as Fille (the usual). Long, complex recitatives and two very contrasting arias.

Range: d - f#'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Filli adorata, e cara
Forces: soprano & continuo

Why do these men suffer so? Despite being separated from his beloved, our protagonist sings of his love for her being the reason for his life. His soul yearns and his death will swiftly follow, should she not return. Yeah, right! RARA format, one aria slow and sinuous, the other fast and virtuosic.

Range c - g'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Filli e Clori, 'Amica, hora che Aprile'
Forces: 2 sopranos, violins & continuo

Sources: edition based on 4 17th-early 18th century manuscripts in the Santini Collection (Münster), the British Library, and the Bodleian Library, Oxford. [the details are in the editorial notes]

Description: Filli persuades the reluctant Clori to abandon city life for the delights of the country, where she is sure to make new conquests in the hunt of love. Both Filli and Clori have 2 arias of 2 strophes each, interspersed with ritornelli. In the magical final duet, the girls agree to prepare their feet for dancing, and their arms for the hunt. Cardinal Ottoboni's documents mention a performance of 'Amica, hora che Aprile' dated 13 July, 1694. The survival of this work in several sources suggests it was a well-known work in its day.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à due soprani e violini
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A Scarlatti: Già sorge l'Alba (Dorisbe cacciatrice)
Forces: soprano & continuo

A large cantata telling the story of the huntress Dorisbe. Her face is compared to the snares of Cupid, her bow to Cupid's darts and the listener is exhorted to hunt animals, not Love. In a complicated RAARARAA format, the last aria gradually becoming arioso then recitative. Some excellent hunting motifs in the music, particularly evoking the sound of the hunting horn.

Sources: Münster Santini Sammlung HS 3977 and HS 864

Range: c - g'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Giù di Vulcan
Forces: alto & continuo

Join the god Vulcan in his depths to discuss the changeable nature of love. RARA format with some wonderfully sinuous writing in recitative and aria.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung HS 3909

Range: b flat - d'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di contralto
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A Scarlatti: Hor che di Febo
Forces: soprano, violins & continuo

One of Scarlatti's masterpieces for soprano with violins. This solo Serenata, introduced by its Corellian Sinfonia, traces the journey of a lover who aims to steal a glimpse of the sleeping beloved. The image of love as a flower pushing through the icy ground, with shivering violin figures, leads to the final sublime aria and unaccompanied farewell of the lover.

Range: d'- a'''

Aria 3, violins marked 'soli' in one source.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano con violini
£7.95
A Scarlatti: Il ciel seren, le fresche aurette (La Primavera)
Forces: 2 sopranos & continuo

Source: Santini Collection, 3901 Diözesan Bibliothek, Münster

La Primavera depicts a scene in which two girls await the return of their lovers, Tirsi and Fileno. Spring, the melting of ice, and the return of flowers, happiness and love are the subject of the girls’ conversation.

Vocal Ranges
Clori: d’- g’’
Lidia: d’- g’’

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata per Camera a due Soprani Clori e Lidia Compagne
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A Scarlatti: Il genio di Mitilde
Forces: soprano & continuo

Source: Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, MS D.11840

The capricious Mitilde has more moods than the sea has storms, and Scarlatti depicts her in a fiery cantata with exciting demands for singer, cellist and keyboard player.

Range - e' g''.

2 Recits and arias: 1. Spiritoso, D minor; 2. Alla breve, A major

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Imagini d'orrore
Forces: bass, violins & continuo

Cantata for bass and strings, 2 arias and 1 recit

Source: autograph dated 16 July, 1710, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Fileno is tormented by doubt and constant visions of Clori's unfaithfulness. Aria 1 features a fully integrated texture of voice and 2 violin parts, with Aria 2 a vigorous piece for unison violins. Fine dramatic scoring.

Range: G - e flat'

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata da Camera, Basso con Violini
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A Scarlatti: In vano Amor tiranno
Forces: soprano & continuo

The first line says it all: Cupid is trying to destroy another young man's life with his darts and this guy is fighting back! An extensive work in RARARA format, the first two arias slow and sinuous, the last more matter-of-fact and resigned to fate.

Range: d - g'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Io son Neron (Il Nerone)
Forces: soprano & continuo

This cantata was written in 1698 and is from a manuscript with a number of other mythological or historical themes rather than pastoral. The self-styled 'Emperor of the World', Nero, is certainly enjoying his ego! Florid and virtuosic. RARARAR format with a fiery recitative finish.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung HS 3909

Range: d - b'' flat

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: La dove a Mergellina
Forces: Soprano & continuo

There at Mergellina where the sea kisses the shore, the lovelorn Elpino went alone one day, addressing the waves: "Love him that loves you..." A stunning example of the genre in a long-awaited edition from Rosalind Halton and a must have for the lovers of cantate de camera. In RARA format and taken from two sources, Naples and London.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: La morte di Mitilde
Forces: soprano & continuo

Mitilde dies and with her dies the flame of Love. A challenging and fascinating example in RARA format, the recitatives travelling through widely disparate tonalities and the contrasting arias, one a stunning Adagio and one a classic cut-common rage against the tyrant, have very clearly defined characters and great musical values.

The source is a manuscript in the Naples collections. Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Leandro anima mia (Ero e Leandro)
Forces: alto & continuo

Hero calls for Leander who is attempting to swim the Hellespont to meet her. Upon his death she reacts to his loss and her reaction is interpreted by a narrator character in a final aria. In RARARA format.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung HS 3909

Range: c - d'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di contralto
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A Scarlatti: Libertà del mio cor
Forces: soprano & continuo

[ca.1709] - one source only extant.
Theme of the bird seeking freedom/ the lover freedom from love. Virtuoso aria 1, final siciliano very beautiful.

Range: d'-g''. A major/D major.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Lieti boschi, ombre amiche
Forces: alto & continuo

Taking refuge in the forests, amongst the friendly shades, our heart-broken protagonist sighs at his plight. The trees, breezes, beasts and birds know how he feels, but Clori is insensitive to his love. RARA format with a spiky adagio and a rather sprightly andante to finish.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung HS 3907(15)

Range: b - c'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di contralto
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A Scarlatti: Lisa, del fuoco mio (Clori e Lisa)
Forces: 2 sopranos & continuo

Dated the 28th of February, 1706, these two ladies are bemoaning the sacrifices necessary for the inevitability of love: loss of liberty and constant heart-ache... 2 duets, an aria each and gossiping recitative link this musical conversation, quite a little drama!

Editor: James Sanderson

Duetto da camera à due soprano
£5.95
A Scarlatti: Lontan dall' Idol mio
Forces: soprano & continuo

Sources: 7 MS sources, as described in the notes, dated 1699 in one source (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Subject: the illusion of love being present, though far away. This is one of the most profound and passionate settings by Scarlatti on the theme of distance and separation, from its opening interval - a minor 9th - to the wild despairing modulations within the final Siciliano aria.

Featured on chacona's recording 'Olimpia: cantatas of Alessandro Scarlatti'.

Vocal range: d'-g''

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
£4.95
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