Alessandro Scarlatti: Notes and Commentary

“The center of operatic activity eventually shifted from Venice to Naples—from Menteverdi and his followers to Alessandro Scarlatti and his school. The techniques and methods developed in Naples were adopted by Italians for many years after that—until Gluck chartered a new course for opera. Even a non-Italian like Handel was influenced by, and imitated, the Neapolitans.”—David Ewen, The Complete Book of Classical Music

Alessandro Scarlatti was an Italian composer especially famous for his operas and chamber cantatas. He is considered the founder of the Neapolitan school of opera, and was the father of two other composers, Domenico Scarlatti and Pietro Filippo Scarlatti.

Scarlatti’s music forms an important link between the early Baroque Italian vocal styles of the 17th century, with their centers in Florence, Venice, and Rome, and the classical school of the 18th century. Scarlatti’s style, however, is more than a transitional element in Western music; like most of his Naples colleagues he shows an almost modern understanding of the psychology of modulation and also frequently makes use of the ever-changing phrase lengths so typical of the Napoli school. His early operas (Gli equivoci nel sembiante 1679; L’honestà negli amori 1680, containing the famous aria “Già il sole dal Gange”; Il 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 with the continuo alone. By 1686 he had definitely established the “Italian overture” form (second edition of Dal male il bene), and had abandoned the ground bass and the binary form air in two stanzas in favour of the ternary form or da capo type of air. His best operas of this period are La Rosaura (1690, printed by the Gesellschaft für Musikforschung), and Pirro e Demetrio (1694), in which occur the arias “Le Violette”, and “Ben ti sta, traditor”.

From about 1697 onwards (La caduta del Decemviri), influenced partly perhaps by the style of Giovanni Bononcini and probably more by the taste of the viceregal court, his opera arias become more conventional and commonplace in rhythm, while his scoring is hasty and crude, yet not without brilliance (L’Eraclea, 1700), the oboes and trumpets being frequently used, and the violins often playing in unison.

Mitridate Eupatore, accounted his masterpiece, 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 1710; Tigrane, 1714, &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. In his opera Teodora (1697) he originated the use of the orchestral ritornello.

He lived from May 2, 1660, to October 24, 1725.—Excerpted from Wikipedia

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