Alessandro Scarlatti

1660 1725

Alessandro Scarlatti

Composer

Biography

Alessandro Scarlatti was an Italian Baroque composer most famous for his Italian style operas with grand sinfonias and his chamber cantatas.

Scarlatti was born into a musical family in Sicily but after a devastating famine struck in 1672, the family moved to Rome, where young Alessandro received musical training. Rome also provided Scarlatti many opportunities to hear and perform music from a young age.

In 1678, Scarlatti married the Roman Antonia Maria Vittoria Anzaloni and shortly after received his first musical appointment, asMaestro di cappella at San Giacomo degli Incurabili. In 1682 he becamemaestro di capella at S Girolamo della Carità. Between 1679 and 1683 six of his operas were performed in Rome. One of his early, yet most popular operas is the short comic operaGli equivoci nel sembiante (1679), which marked the beginning of a successful career.

While in Rome Scarlatti was able to secure many of the country’s greatest patrons, such as the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden, Cardinal Pamphili, Cardini Ottoboni and Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici.

In 1684, at the age of 24, Scarlatti moved to Naples where he was appointed Maestro di cappella at the royal chapel, sparking much jealousy and resentment from local musicians. For the next twenty years, the majority of the new operas performed there were written by him. More than 40 of his works were first performed at the Viceregal Palazzo Real and then later at the public theatre of S. Bartolomeo, where he was employed as the director. Operas during this period which were particularly successful includeIl Pirro e Demetrio (1694) and La caduta de’Decemviri(1697).

Scarlatti’s operas did not follow in the trends of the contemporary five-act Venetian operas but instead relied on mythological characters and stage machinery. After 1695, his operas included two-movement sinfonias (instrumental sections without singers), which were soon adopted as the standard for Italian operas. His colourful overtures included most of the elements of the pre-classical and classical symphonies, leading to the conclusion that the symphonies (or sinfonias), composed for concert performance, were influenced by the Italian opera overture, as developed by Scarlatti. With the overtures, Scarlatti began experimenting with various orchestral colours and instrumentation in a more modern manner.

While living in Naples, Scarlatti produced 10 serenatas, 9 oratorios and 65 cantatas. During his period, Scarlatti also returned to Rome on occasion to oversee the performances of his operas there.

By 1700, the regal status of the Neapolitan nobility was diminished due to the War of the Spanish Succession and Scarlatti’s position was, as a consequence, in jeopardy. In 1702, Scarlatti moved with his family to Florence in hopes of finding work for himself and his son, Domenico, with Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici. For the next six years he sent many oratorios, much church music and four operas to the prince, who had the operas performed at Siena, Livorno and Florence.

Unsatisfied with the opportunities available, he moved to Rome in 1703 where he became assistant Maestro di Cappella at S Maria Maggiore.Scarlatti also reconnected with the cardinal and formed a relationship with Marquis Ruspoli. With their support he was able to concentrate on oratorios, celebratory serenatas and cantatas. He also composed two five-act tragedies for the Venetian Carnival in 1707.

Due to a meager salary at the S Maria Maggiore, Scarlatti returned to Naples in 1709 where he composed many works over the next decade, including 11 operas. During these years, he made use of more and more instruments, and a larger orchestration overall. Some of the operas from this period includeIl Tigrane (1715), which is considered his Neapolitan masterpiece, andIl trionfo dell’onore (1718), which was also very successful. Despite his return to Naples, Scarlatti was able to maintain his contacts in Rome, and returned to seeTelemaco (1717-18),Marco Attilio Regolo (1719) and his last opera La Griselda (1721) at the Teatro Capranica. He also composed his lavishMessa di S Cecilia for soloists, chorus and strings (1920) while living in Naples.

Scarlatti began venturing into orchestral writing around this time, expanding upon the concept of the sinfonia, most notably with his twelveSinfonie di concerto grosso.

In 1740, after Scarlatti’s death, a set of concertos was published by Benjamin Cooke, originally titled,Six Concertos in seven parts for two Violins and Violoncello Obligate with two Violins more, a Tenor and Thorough Bass. Of these concertos, Nrs. 1, 2, 4 and 5, which Scarlatti calledSonate a Quattro, can also be performed as string quartets. These works represent some of the earliest works in this genre. The works were most likely published at this time in response to the popularity of Scarlatti’s name, due to the success of Domenico, leading to an easy opportunity to earn money.

Scarlatti’s final years were spent in Naples teaching and composing. During this last period he mostly composed cantatas for soprano and continuo. He also composed a Serenata and a set of sonatas for flute and strings for the flautist and composer Johann Joachim Quantz. Quantz recalled from his visit in 1724 or 1725,‘I heard Scarlatti play on the harpsichord, which he knew how to play in a learned style although he did not possess as much finesse as his son.’ Quantz also ‘had the good fortune to win his favour, in fact so much so that he composed a few flute solos for me.’

Scarlatti has been called the founder of the Neapolitan school of opera, though only one of his operas is truly of Neapolitan character, and his fame rests on his operas and chamber cantatas. During his lifetime he was one of the best-known musicians, though after his death he probably would have been forgotten if it weren’t for his son Domenico, who became one of the most famous keyboard composers of the 18th century.

Header image courtesy of Musica Antigua Other images courtesy of Musicologie and public domain

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