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Alessandro Scarlatti’s Serenata Venere, Amore e Ragione

By the 17th century the term serenata had lost its original association with the custom of offering a musical tribute to a beloved woman. Already in the 16th century, compositions entitled serenata were composed to amuse a sophisticated, aristocratic audience to satirize the custom, especially as practiced by the lower classes. In mid 17th century Rome, the serenade became associated with magnificent events produced for civic or diplomatic occasions. At the same time, serenades were also written for more intimate environments.

Manuscript scores and libretti survive for 22 cantatas for two or more voices by Scarlatti bear the term serenata. Like most of Scarlatti’s vocal chamber works, these serenatas were heard in highly exclusive, aristocratic circles. The precise circumstances of the first performance of Venere, Amore, e Ragione are unknown. Musicologist Thomas E. Griffin has suggested that the serenata is associated with Scarlatti’s induction in the Accademia dell’Arcadia in 1706.

The libretto for Venere, Amore, e Ragione is attributed to the Roman poet Silvio Stampiglia, a fellow member of the Accademia dell’Arcadia who collaborated with Scarlatti on many occasions. The libretto recounts a dispute between Venus and Reason over the conduct of Venus’ son Cupid. Distressed at finding her son among the nymphs and shepherds of Rome and a changed under the influence of Reason, Venus fears that he will lose his power. After much discussion Cupid, with the support of Reason, persuades his mother that the quality and quantity of his followers has only improved since he adopted Reason as his guide.

The elegant and highly mannered style, both Scarlatti’s music and Stampiglia’s language are well suited to the aesthetic espoused by the Arcadians, who explicitly rejected what they perceived as the artificiality of the seventeenth century literary style associated with the poet Giambattista Marini. The “Marinists” sought novel and striking contrasts and the poetic inventiveness that created bold and unexpected conceits. The Arcadians sought simplicity and “naturalness” and Scarlatti’s music expresses this sensibility in its sparing use of coloratura and preference for lyrical melodies in conjunct motion.

Scarlatti was born 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 chamber works for voice and instruments 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.

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.

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 vocal works.

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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