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Alessandro Scarlatti's Roman Cantatas

Alessandro Scarlatti was born into poverty in famine-stricken Sicily in 1660 and it has been suggested that his humble origins made his a compulsive worker and contributed to his prolific and varied output. While his reputation as the founder of the Neapolitan school of 18th century opera may be somewhat over-stated, his works in the genre are highly skilled and original, and marked by innovations in orchestration, strong dramatic characterization and, above all, an unfailing melodic sense.

It is in the genre of works for voice and instruments, like those featured in Magnificat’s December concerts, that Scarlatti’s most perfectly realized and imaginative music is to be found, as he excelled in the art of the soliloquy, in detailed imagery, and in dialogue between voice and instruments. These works represent the most refined and intellectual type of chamber music at the turn of the 18th century and it is unfortunate that most of Scarlatti hundreds of cantatas have remained in manuscript, though many have recently become available in modern editions through the work of The Scarlatti Project.

As a boy of 12, Scarlatti had the good fortune of moving to Rome where he most likely studied with Iacomo Carissimi. He married in 1678 and later that year was appointed maestro di capella of San Giacomo degli Incurabili. The composer’s career was established in Rome with the acclaimed production of his second opera Gli equivoce nel sembiante at the Collegio Clementino in 1679, after which he was appointed maestro di capella to the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden.

After several successful operas in Rome, Scarlatti was appointed in 1684 as maestro di cappella at the vice-regal court of Naples, at the same time as his brother Francesco was made first violinist. It was alleged that they owed their appointments to the intrigues of one of their sisters, who were both opera singers, with two court officials, who were dismissed. During his nearly two decades in Naples, Scarlatti wrote a steady output of operas, typically two each year and his reputation grew as many of these operas were performed elsewhere in Italy.

While resident in Naples Scarlatti occasionally returned to Rome to supervise carnival performances of new operas, contributions to pasticci and cantatas at the Palazzo Doria Pamphili and the Villa Medicea (at nearby Pratolino), as well as oratorios at Ss. Crocifisso, the Palazzo Apostolico and the Collegio Clementino. Astonishingly, he also produced at least ten serenatas, nine oratorios, and sixty-five cantatas for Naples. He continued to enjoy patronage from Roman nobility as well as Ferdinand di Medici of Florence, to whom he turned when changes in the political situation in Naples and the financial insecurity that resulted caused Scarlatti to look elsewhere for work.

With the death of Charles II in 1700, the political tension that had been brewing was ignited into what would become known as the Wars of the Spanish Succession, and consequent undermining of the privileged status that many his noble patrons in Naples (a contested Spanish territory) had enjoyed, Scarlatti began looking in earnest for employment elsewhere. He was especially eager to find a position for his talented teenage son Domenico, with whom he traveled first to Florence after obtaining his release from his engagement in Naples. After a brief there, he accepted a position as assistant to Antonio Foggia, the music director of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

While the role of church musician suited Scarlatti poorly and the papal ban on operas restricted what had been his primary musical focus, the composer’s second tenure in Rome proved to be very important. He had the chance to work together with great instrumental virtuosi including the violinist Corelli, the violoncellist Franceschino, and harpsichordists like Pasquini and Gasparini.

With the production of operas limited to occasional private performances staged by noblemen, Scarlatti turned his attention to the genres of the cantata and serenata. In 1706 he was elected, along with Pasquini and Corelli, to the Accademia dell’Arcadia, which encouraged a lively and sophisticated audience for chamber music, and, along with the enlightened “conversazioni” of patrons like the Cardinals Ottoboni and Pamphili, gave Scarlatti the opportunity to compose many of his finest cantatas. The cantatas Magnificat will perform in December most likely date from this period.

In Rome Scarlatti also witnessed the many musical triumphs of the young German composer Georg Friedrich Handel, who was to co-opt so many of Scarlatti’s tunes later in his successful career. It may be no coincidence that around this time Scarlatti again began looking elsewhere for employment first in Venice, with a new opera, and later in Urbino followed, where he composed a number of chamber duets on pastoral themes. Towards the end of 1708 he accepted the Austrian Viceroy’s invitation to return to his position in Naples, taking the place of Francesco Mancini, who had served in Scarlatti’s prolonged absence.

Scarlatti remained in Naples for the rest of his life, but maintained close contacts with his Roman patrons and made several visits there, some of them of long duration. In 1716 he received the honor of a knighthood from Pope Clement XI. His final opera, La Griselda, was written for Rome in 1721, and he seems to have spent his last years in Naples in semi-retirement until his death in 1725.

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