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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Duetto da camera à voce di soprano e contralto
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano con violini
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano con flauti
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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Cantata à voce sola di contralto
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Cantata à voce sola con stromenti d’arco
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Cantata à due, soprano e contralto
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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Cantata à voce sola con stromenti d'arco
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano con violini
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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Cantata à soprano, violin solo, flauto, violoncello solo, e cembalo
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Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Marc Antonio e Cleopatra
Forces: soprano, alto & continuo

Source: MS.3901, Santini Collection of the Diözesan Library, Münster. It is the only source of this work, which consists of chamber duets with basso continuo. One of the works, the famous 'Questo silenzio ombroso' carries the comment '1707 in Urbino'.

This is a substantial chamber duet with recits & arias for both characters as well as two extensive duets.

Editor: James Sanderson

Duetto da camera à voce di soprano e contralto
£6.95
A Scarlatti: Mentre Clori la bella presso un ruscel sedea
Forces: soprano, violins & continuo

Another fine example of how many things can happen by a stream! Here we have the happy meeting of Clori & Tirsi (for a nice change). 3 arias (2 with violins) and three recits, the first pair for a narrator character, the second for Tirsi and the third for Clori herself.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung Hs 3904(18)

Range: c# - a''

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano con violini
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A Scarlatti: Mentre Clori la bella sotto l'ombra d'un mirto
Forces: soprano, 2 flutes & continuo

Clori is being very insensitive, sitting beneath her Myrtle tree and enjoying the breeze whilst Fileno is suffering all the torments of love! In RARARA format with two of the arias with 2 flutes accompaniment and 2 with ritornelli. A lovely piece with some very interesting use of harmony...

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung Hs 3975(2)

Range: d - a''

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano con flauti
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A Scarlatti: Mesto lasso, e ramingo
Forces: soprano & continuo

Dated on the first page as June of 1704. Submerged in sadness and sorrow, our protagonist pleads with Fate for release. In regular RARA format with a quirky 3/4 first aria and a lovely, pleading Siciliano to finish.

Source: Source: Münster Santini Sammlung Hs 3907(2)

Range: d - g'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Mi tormenta il pensiero (i)
Forces: soprano & continuo

The first version of this cantata, dated 10 March 1701 in Scarlatti's 'Cantata Diary'. 'Tormented by my thoughts, consumed with desire, lost is hope, and without hope what point is there in life?' The torments of Jealousy in love. RARA format.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung HS 864(7)

Range: d - g'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Mi tormenta il pensiero (ii)
Forces: alto & continuo

The second version on this text, using more of the text than version I. The cruel force of Jealousy plagues the young lover in this concisely written pastoral cantata. Tormented by thoughts, consumed with desire, lost is hope, and without hope what point is there in life?.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung 3909

Range: b - c#'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di contralto
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A Scarlatti: Nel silentio commune di notte si tranquilla
Forces: soprano, 2 violins, viola & basso continuo

A great work based on the Petrarchan theme of the lover who sighs alone while nature sleeps. Beginning with a hushed recitative accompagnato, the cantata has a total of 4 recitatives and arias, portraying the lover's brightly-coloured dream of love returned. A handwritten version of this edition was premiered memorably in the 1980s by tenor Nigel Rogers for the BBC, with the Taverner Players

Range: d'-a''

Source: British Library, London

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola con stromenti d’arco
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A Scarlatti: Nò non ti voglio Cupido
Forces: soprano, alto & continuo

The changeable attitude to love certainly makes for a bright piece of music! The opening and closing duets (to the same music) projects two different moods - 'No I don't want it' and 'Yes, I do' Separated by two recits and arias, one for each voice.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung HS 865(1)

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à due, soprano e contralto
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A Scarlatti: Non lasciar canora e bella
Forces: soprano & continuo

Charting the progress of the Swallow (Rondinella) from the Arno to the Tebro at the end of the Summer's heat, with some beautiful word painting (including fluting bird-song) and some quite stunning recitative - AS at his best in another of the 1704 cantatas. In ARARA format, starting with a gentle Siciliano, an Allegro in cut common time is the middle aria and the final aria is a lively 3/8.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung 3907

Range: d - g'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Notte cara a un cor che langue
Forces: soprano & continuo

(1705) Hanley 478. Three arias, two recits. Sources in British Library and Santini Collection, Münster.

Theme of night and the solitary lover; rewarding cello part, especially the virtuoso Aria 2.

Vocal range: d'-g''.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Notte cara, ombre beate
Forces: soprano & continuo

'Dear night, blessed shadows...I only enjoy my dreams and cry in the day...' Very much a nocturnal lover in one of Scarlatti's stunning night cantatas. Beautiful harmonies, sinuous dreaming vocal lines capturing that special air of quiet and suspense. In ARARA format and compiled from two copies in the Naples Conservatorio Library.

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: O che mostro, o che furia è Lontananza (1709)
Forces: soprano & continuo

Text is by Cardinal Ottoboni: being apart is a monster, a fury, and always gives rise to jealousy. Arias are in B flat (very ornate) and C major (very cheerful and melodic), and the cantata finishes with a brief recitative, giving thanks for faithful love which can survive separation. Both arias have rewarding dialogue for voice and cello. RARAR format

Range: e flat'- g''

Source: British Library, Add. Ms. 34056

The whole manuscript contains settings of Ottoboni's texts.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
£4.95
A Scarlatti: O pace del mio cor
Forces: soprano & continuo

O peace of my heart, where do you wander? So begins this delightful cantata, one of Alessandro Scarlatti’s most frequently copied. The principal source of this edition is held in the Royal College of London, Ms. 583, a copy in a Neapolitan hand. ARAR format.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
£4.95
A Scarlatti: Ombre tacite, e sole
Forces: mezzo-soprano, strings & continuo

Source: British Library Zweig 76

This is an autograph work dated October 31. 1716.

In four sections, recit-aria-recit-aria with both recits accompanied. It has two exquisite arias, the last a particularly fine Siciliano. The text deals with unrequited, requited and then spurned love and has it's high point in the last aria: 'Why cruel one do you leave me? Why spurn me? Why betray me? Why search out a new love? Why leave me?'

Range: c' - e'' flat

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola con stromenti d'arco
£5.95
A Scarlatti: Peno, e del mio penar
Forces: soprano & continuo

28 August, 1705, autograph source in New Haven, Yale (Scarlatti's 'cantata diary'). Penetrating melismatic recitatives, with final aria in Siciliano style. Scarlatti's complex chromatic style.

Range: e flat'- g''. C minor/F minor.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Poiche cessano alfin
Forces: soprano & continuo

range: e'-g'' The storms of love come to an end. The final aria 'andante amoroso' Siciliano is a great, touching example of the genre, and recitatives show the virtuoso declamatory style of Scarlatti at the height of his creativity. 2 recits, 2 arias.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
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A Scarlatti: Qual'ora io veggio
Forces: mezzo-soprano, violins & continuo

"Irene is so beautiful when she wears white - it reminds me of the colour of my devotion to her." A delicious work for low soprano (or high counter tenor) and violins, in Scarlatti's later Neapolitan galant style. Transparent textures and buoyant melodic lines are the colour of this sparkling work.

Vocal range: c' - f#''.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à voce sola di soprano con violini
£5.95
A Scarlatti: Quando Amor vuol ferirmi
Forces: soprano & continuo

"When Love wants to hurt me, the traitor hides beneath your lashes..." The bitter-sweet torments of love in this delightful work from Münster Santini Sammlung HS 3915(2) - Hanley 588. In RARA format

Range: d - g'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
£4.95
A Scarlatti: Quella pace gradita
Forces: soprano, violin, flute, cello, cembalo

This autograph cantata consists of 3 recitatives and 3 arias, with instrumental introduction for 2 paired groups - solo violin and cello, with answering recorder and harpsichord. Performance markings from the surviving partbooks have been incorporated. The unusual scoring gives each instrument in turn a starring role, ending with the recorder cooing of the turtle-dove in Aria 3.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung

Range: d'-g''

Editor: Rosalind Halton

Cantata à soprano, violin solo, flauto, violoncello solo, e cembalo
£5.95
A Scarlatti: Questa, questa è la selva
Forces: soprano & continuo

A wonderful pastoral setting 'This is the forest...' but once again Nice is not being nice and is abandoning her lover. His cries and plaints, his promises of eternal love are all for naught as he is deserted... This is a really complex work with huge recitatives, RARA format.

From 5 sources in the Biblioteca del Conservatorio di musica S. Pietro a Majella - Napoli: Cantate 255 (26), 256 (7), 267 (6), 266 (62). There is also a copy in 264 (20) which pitches the recitatives a tone higher and the second aria in a minor rather than d minor.

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à voce sola di soprano
£4.95
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