Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V24, Page 303 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Spread the word: it!
ALESSANDRO SCARLATTI (1659-1725), Italian musical composer, was born in Sicily, either at Trapani or Palermo, in 1659. He is generally said to have been a pupil of Carissimi in Rome, and there is reason to suppose that he had some connexion with northern Italy, since his early works show the influence of Stradella and Legrenzi. The production at Rome of his opera Gli Equivoci nell' amore (1679) gained him the protection of Queen Christina of Sweden, and he became her Maestro di Cappella. In February 1684 he became Maestro di Cappella to the viceroy of Naples, through the intrigues of his sister, an opera singer, who was the mistress of an influential noble in that city. Here he produced a long series of operas, remarkable chiefly for their fluency, as well as other music for state occasions. In 1702 he left Naples and did not return until the Spanish domination had been superseded by that of the Austrians. In the interval he enjoyed the patronage of Ferdinand III. of Tuscany, for whose private theatre near Florence he composed operas, and of Cardinal Ottoboni, who made him his Maestro di Cappella, and procured him a similar post at the church of S Maria Maggiore in Rome (1703). After visiting Venice and Urbino in 1707, he took up his duties at Naples again in 1708, and remained there until 1717. By this time Naples seems to have become tired of his music; the Romans, however, appreciated it better, and it was at the Teatro Capranica in Rome that he produced some of his finest operas (Telemaco, 1718; Marco Attilio Regolo, 1719; Griselda, 1721), as well as some noble specimens of church music,' including a mass for chorus and orchestra, composed in honour of St Cecilia for Cardinal Acquaviva in 1721. His last work on a large scale appears to have been the unfinished serenata for the marriage of the prince of Stigliano (1723); he died at Naples on the 24th of October 1725. Scarlatti's music forms the most important link between the tentative " new music " of the 17th century and the classical school of the 18th, which culminated in Mozart. His early operas (Gli Equivoci nel sembiante (1679) ; L' Honesld negli amori (168o) ; Pompeo (1683), containing the well-known airs " O cessate di piagarmi " and " Toglietemi la vita ancor," and others down to about 1685) retain the older cadences in their recitatives, and a considerable variety of neatly constructed forms in their charming little arias, accompanied sometimes by the string quartet, treated with careful elaboration, sometimes by the harpsichord alone. By 1686 he had definitely established the " Italian overture " form (second edition of Dal male it bene), and had abandoned the ground bass and the binary air in two stanzas in favour of the ternary or da capo type of air. His best operas of this period are La Rosaura (169o, printed by the Gesellschaft fur Musikforschung), and Piero e Demetrso (1694), in which occur the songs " Rugiadose, odorose," " Ben ti sta, traditor." From about 1697 onwards (La Caduta dei decemviri), influenced partly perhaps by the style of Bononcini and probably more by the taste of the viceregal court, his opera songs become more conventional and commonplace in rhythm, while his scoring is hasty and crude, yet not without brilliancy (Eraclea, 1700), the oboes and trumpets being frequently used, and the violins often playing in unison. The operas composed for Ferdinand de Medici are lost; they would probably have given us a more favourable idea of his style, his correspondence with the prince showing that they were composed with a very sincere sense of inspiration. Mitridate Eupatore, composed for Venice in 1707, contains music far in advance of anything that Scarlatti had written for Naples, both in technique and in intellectual power. The later Neapolitan operas (L'Amor volubile e tiranno (1709); La Principessa fedele (1712); Tigrane, 1715, &c.) are showy and effective rather than profoundly emotional; the instrumentation marks a great advance on previous work, since the main duty of accompanying the voice is thrown upon the string quartet, the harpsichord being reserved exclusively for the noisy instrumental ritornelli. His last group of operas, composed for Rome, exhibit a deeper poetic feeling, a broad and dignified style of melody, a strong dramatic sense, especially in accompanied recitatives, a device which he himself had been the first to use as early as 1686 (Olimpia vendicata) and a much more modern style of orchestration, the horns appearing for the first time, and being treated with striking effect. Besides the operas, oratorios (Agar et Ismaele esiliats, 1684; Christmas Oratorio, c. 1705; S. Filippo Neri, 1714; and others) and serenatas, which all exhibit a similar style, Scarlatti composed upwards of five hundred chamber-cantatas for a solo voice. These represent the most intellectual type of chamber-music of their period, and it is to be regretted that they have remained almost entirely in MS., since a careful study of them is indispensable to any one who wishes to form an adequate idea of Scarlatti's development. His few remaining masses (the story of his having composed two hundred is hardly credible) and church music in general are comparatively unimportant, except the great St Cecilia Mass (1721), which is one of the first attempts at the style which reached its height in the great masses of Bach and Beethoven. His instrumental music, though not without interest, is curiously antiquated as compared with his vocal works. Scarlatti's greatest claim to remembrance lies in the fact that he practically created the language of classical music. He extended the old forms, and filled them with melody unrivalled for purity and serenity, based on a far-reaching foundation of modern harmony and tonality, combined with a remarkable power of thematic development. That his great qualities have been little recognized is due partly to the wonderful mastery with which he avoided all appearance of difficulty, and partly to the fact that he carried out in his operas and cantatas the structural methods which the present age considers to be suitable to instruments alone, but which were indeed admirably suited to vocal music in an age when the singer was technically and intellectually far in advance of all other musicians. His eldest son, DOMENICO SCARLATTI (1685-1757), also a composer, was born at Naples on the 26th of October 1685. Presumably he studied first under his father, but he was in all probability also a pupil of Gaetano Greco. In 1704 he remodelled Pollaroli's Irene for performance at Naples. Soon after this his father sent him to Venice, where he studied under Gasparini, and became intimate with Thomas Roseingrave. Domenico was already a harpsichord-player of eminence, and at a trial of skill with Handel at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome he was adjudged his equal on that instrument, although inferior on the organ. In 1709 Domenico entered the service of Marie Casimire, queen of Poland, then living in Rome, and composed several operas for her private theatre. He was Maestro di Cappella at St Peter's from 1715 to 1719, and in the latter year came to London to direct his opera Narciso at the King's Theatre. In 1720 or 1721 he went to Lisbon, where he taught music to the princess Magdalena Theresia. He was at Naples again in 1725, but in 1729 went to Madrid as music master to the princess, who had married into the Spanish royal house. He remained in Spain for some twenty-five years, holding various honourable appointments, and devoting himself entirely to the harpsichord, for which he composed over four hundred pieces. He is supposed to have 'died in 1757, either at Naples or in Spain. Like his father, Domenico Scarlatti was a composer of great fertility, intellectual rather than emotional, presenting us with an example of steady development of style up to the end of a long life. His operas and cantatas are of no importance, but his harpsichord pieces are the most original productions of their time. Little known until the beginning of the 19th century, their technical difficulties have caused them to be regarded as mere studies in virtuosity, and modern pianoforte technique owes much to their influence; but considered from a purely musical point of view they display an audacity of harmony and modulation, a freshness and variety of invention, a perfection of workmanship and a vigorous intellectuality in thematic development that places them almost on a level with the sonatas of Beethoven. Modern Printed Editions.—Clementi's Practical Harmony; Czerny's edition; Farrenc, Le Tresor des piRnistes. Of recent editions the most accurate and complete is by Alessandro Longo (Ricordi, Milan; 6 vols., published 1906). (E. J. D.)
End of Article: ALESSANDRO SCARLATTI (1659-1725)

Additional information and Comments

There are no comments yet for this article.
» Add information or comments to this article.
Please link directly to this article:
Highlight the code below, right click and select "copy." Paste it into a website, email, or other HTML document.