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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A Scarlatti: S'io t'amo s'io t'adoro
Forces: soprano & continuo

Dated on the first page as June of 1704. Amore is playing his tricks again and has had his usual effect! RARA format with a complicated first aria largo.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung Hs 3907(2)

Range: d - a''

Editor: James Sanderson

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A Scarlatti: Scompagnata tortorella
Forces: soprano & continuo

Our litte turtle-dove is caged and kept away from his beloved again in this charming cantata and once again death is preferable to this continued condition of estrangement from the beloved! In ARA format.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung HS 861

Range: e flat - g'

Editor: James Sanderson

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A Scarlatti: Silentio, aure volanti
Forces: soprano, strings & continuo

'Silentio, aure volanti - the pain of unrequited love in a sinuous cantata of the night. Arioso interwoven into a contrapuntal 4 part texture is a feature of this early work, whose central aria 'Piangerò' is a profound lament in C minor. 'Silentio, aure volanti' can be heard on 'Olimpia and other Cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti', chacona (ABC Classics 461 687-2).

Range d'-a''.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

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A Scarlatti: Solitudini care
Forces: soprano & continuo

Sources: BL Add MSS 14213 & 31509

Tirsi seems to be unhappy sotto l'ombra again, calling for his beloved Climene in this extraordinarily chromatic cantata Dall'occulto A.S.. In double recit-aria format with frequent tempo changes in the last aria.

Range: c - f#'

Editor: Kate Eckersley & James Sanderson

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A Scarlatti: Son contenta di soffrire
Forces: soprano & continuo

'I am content to suffer the cruelty of my beloved, because he means more to me than life itself' Yeah right! Another example of Alessandro Scarlatti's sinuous style, with some tremendous chromaticisms. ARA format.

Range: d - g

Editor: James Sanderson

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A Scarlatti: Son io, barbara Donna
Forces: alto & continuo

Source: BL Add MS 14213 ff 84r - 87v

Clori's willful heart has wandered again and her lover reminds her that she will never find another as faithful as he. In double recit-aria format.

Range: c- d'

Editor: James Sanderson

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A Scarlatti: Son le nere pupilette
Forces: alto & continuo

A cantata all about beautiful dark eyes, asking Cupid to make sure the intended remains faithful and loving.

The source for this edition is a copy in Münster Santini Sammlung Hs 3977(14) which contains mainly cantatas by Scarlatti together with examples by Francesco Mancini, Carlo Cesarini, Giovanni Bononcini, Pietro Bencini and Filippo Colenelli.

Editor: James Sanderson

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A Scarlatti: Sotto l'ombra d'un faggio
Forces: bass, violins & continuo

Conservatorio di Musica, Napoli: 34.5.10

Happy meeting of Tirsi and Clori; virtuoso writing for bass in the first recitative.

Range: G-e'. B minor/A minor.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

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A Scarlatti: Su le sponde del Tebro
Forces: soprano, trumpet, strings & continuo

A virtuosic and taxing cantata in 10 sections. "...on the banks of the Tiber...faithful Aminta, from his infinite sadness cried to Heaven and Earth of the scornful Clori “I am betrayed”...'

Source: Florence, Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini D 2364

Range: d# - a''

Editor: James Sanderson

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A Scarlatti: Su l’ora appunto (La Fenice)
Forces: soprano, violins & continuo

The phoenix which rises immortal from its ashes is the symbol of freedom from the bonds of love in this cantata - a mascot for the nymphs and shepherds of Arcadia. Aria 1 shows an unusual example of a theme from the Introduction being reworked into an aria. Arias in C major, G minor, A minor and B minor range from brilliant to pensive, robust to elusive, leading to the serene conclusion of the phoenix's ascent to heaven - in recitativo accompagnato.

Source: Münster, Santini Collection, HS.3928

Range: eb'-g''.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

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A Scarlatti: Su'l margine d'un rio
Forces: soprano, violins & continuo

Su’l margine d’un rio is an immensely attractive work, less intense in both musical style and subject than many of Scarlatti’s cantatas. The shepherdess at the banks of a river does not feel inclined to waste herself on a lukewarm lover: “...learn to love, then come back to me if you like...”

Sources: Münster Santini Sammlung HS 3908, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, X-639

Range: d - b'' flat

Editor: Rosalind Halton

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A Scarlatti: Su'l margine fiorito d'un limpido ruscello
Forces: soprano & continuo

In this large and complex cantata, the protagonist is sitting on the flowery banks of a limpid stream bemoaning the absence of his beloved. He calls to the waves and the wind in the first aria (adagio) to take his love to her, he sings how her image is carved on his heart in the second aria (à tempo guisto) and the final aria is a chromatically complex andante in cut common time. Dated 13th December, 1704 on the first page.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung 3907(5)

Range: d - f'

Editor: James Sanderson

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A Scarlatti: Tiranna ingrata
Forces: bass, violins & continuo

Our lover's anger is directed towards his beloved this time: "Ungrateful tyrant! I will never be free of this suffering before I die". In ARA format, each aria with its own distinct style and very singable melodies. Some very interesting accompanying writing as well!

Range: A - d

Editor: James Sanderson

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A Scarlatti: Tirsi e Clori (O come bello)
Forces: 2 sopranos & continuo

An early work with strophic arias sung in turn by the protagonists separated by recitative and concluding with a homophonic duet and the unaccompanied line 'com'è limpido quel rio'

Editor: James Sanderson

Cantata à due soprani
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A Scarlatti: Tu che una dea rassembri
Forces: soprano, violins & continuo

An paean to the beloved who '..resembles a goddess...' with eyes like archers and his heart the target. A considerable piece with string introduction, three arias and two recit/arioso movements.

Source: Münster Santini Sammlung HS 860

Range: d - g'

Editor: James Sanderson

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A Scarlatti: Tu resti o mio bel nume
Forces: bass, violins & continuo

The subject is of lovers parting. The debate is about who suffers most - the one who has to leave, or the one left behind. A fine accompagnato recitative introduces the cantata, which is more lyrical than virtuoso. Aria 1 is an elegant siciliano on the theme of two souls as ship and harbour. Aria 2 returns to the musical idea of the opening accompagnato: departure is equated with death, but made sweetened by constancy. Here the violin figurations are ornate, the harmonies intense, and the singer is invited to display a range of an octave and a 5th in the space of 2 quavers. RARA (2 arias are for unison violins)

Vocal range: G#-d'

Source: Biblioteca del Conservatorio, Naples.

Editor: Rosalind Halton

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