Alessandro Scarlatti in the 21st century

Alessandro Scarlatti in the 21st century
Assumptions and some Facts
Contributor: Rosalind Halton

It was in 1979, during the final months of my D. Phil thesis on the classical symphonic repertoire, that I went into Christ Church College Library in search of cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti. After a long involvement with orchestral works of the 1760s-70s – beyond my resources to perform – I was keen to find previously unperformed music that I could immediately put into concerts by myself and soprano Kate Eckersley. Kate’s wide vocal range and ability to evoke solitude and melancholy came easily to mind when I opened a volume and saw one piece after another with the kind of chromatic recitative we revelled in; arias with sinuous lines, more concise and less symmetrical in phrasing than the Handel cantatas we knew; arioso passages that invited the singer to engage in counterpoint not too far removed from singing the lines of Palestrina.

Several years and many transcriptions later, the BBC invited me to provide some editions for a program entitled “Lost and Found”, which included a magical performance by Nigel Rogers with the Taverner Players of a substantial work with violins, viola and basso continuo, the cantata Nel silentio commune della notte. Though this delighted me, I was mystified by the approach of the program, which appeared to consider that it was putting the music on trial: was this a repertoire unknown today because it was intrinsically academic and boring, or for some other reason (that the program would reveal)?

Twenty years later Alessandro Scarlatti’s cantatas are still a virtually untouched repertoire, in light of his fame, influence, and the size of his output. Is Scarlatti simply too intellectual a composer to attract widespread interest? Was Edward J. Dent exaggerating in claiming him as a significant forerunner of Mozart’s operatic style? Why are his operas so little represented in the CD catalogue? (as a 1997 correspondence on the Internet Early Music List revealed). In the interviews following the release of our Olimpia and other cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti (ABC Classics, 2001), I find the same questions recurring, always based on the assumption that surely the music of great composers is easily recognised and self-evident, so why not Scarlatti’s?

It is not just Scarlatti’s cantatas that are neglected (comparatively) in modern editions and performances, but rather the whole genre of the Italian cantata. Few of the cantatas of Stradella, Carissimi, Luigi Rossi – to mention only the big names – form a regular part of concert programs. Whereas interest and forces can be raised to put on an opera or oratorio by the above composers, the solo cantata excites few concert promoters. Whose political or managerial ends does it serve to produce an evening of cantatas?

I think a big part of the reason for this lies in the centrality of text to the solo cantata. It requires time and effort on the part of the listener to absorb the skill and imagination which these composers brought to illuminating the ideas of their poetic texts. It’s as if an English-speaking audience is prepared to make this effort in the Italian language for some key works of Monteverdi and then for Mozart’s operas, but the sheer size of the 17th century cantata output makes it easier to imagine that somehow it can be lived without. Incidentally, can you imagine where our understanding of Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, (and indeed 19th century musical style as a whole) would be if we discounted their output in solo song accompanied by keyboard?

As a performer working in research libraries throughout Europe, I have no doubt why Scarlatti’s cantatas have not become readily accepted by performers. Few singers have time or inclination to spend the time acquiring the skills to choose cantatas from primary sources. They are singers’ music. A glance through the online register of doctoral dissertations (Indiana) reveals that the bulk of research students are at work on opera, keyboard music, and church music. There still aren’t many Italian cantata editions available, whereas most of Handel’s cantatas, for example, have been available in the old Chrysander/Brahms editions for over one hundred years. The survival of so much unfamiliar, unsorted music, is daunting: where to start?

Editorially, producing Scarlatti’s cantatas to satisfy scholarly criteria is a big job not only in terms of the number of works and establishing their authorship. This latter job was done comprehensively by the American scholar Edwin Hanley, whose Bibliographical Study (Yale Ph.D, 1963) remains the essential tool for anyone working in the subject. It’s also a matter of working through the manuscript sources, gradually building a “profile” of copyists whose text and occasional mention of a date can be trusted.

The main work in identifying Roman copyists and paper has been done in the field of Handel research, by scholars such as Keiichiro Watanabe and Rudolf Ewerhart. Ursula Kirkendale’s major article “The Ruspoli Documents on Handel” (JAMS 1967) contains a wealth of material that has yet to be worked through with regard to the resident Italian musicians who figure as copyists, orchestral and continuo musicians and rival composers in the Handel story. And then there are the Neapolitan sources – few copyists here are identified as yet – and what about the transmission of Scarlatti’s cantatas in Paris, some of them made by French copyists, others clearly Neapolitan sources?

Essential material for the Scarlatti scholar is located in the Santini Collection Münster, said to contain the bulk of the collection of manuscripts belonging to the Roman artistic patron Prince Ruspoli, including some Scarlatti and Handel autograph manuscripts. Yale Library holds the other important autograph source of Scarlatti’s solo cantatas, the so-called ‘cantata diary’ of 1704/5 which has been described in detail by Reinhard Strohm (in Haendel e gli Scarlatti, Firenze 1987). The presence in British libraries of many Roman manuscript copies of impeccable credentials from the composer’s “workshop” is evidence of the particular fascination of English collectors and ‘Grand Tourists’ of the 17th-18th centuries, including Charles Burney (presumed owner of the ‘cantata diary’), and the Old Pretender, who regularly frequented the Roman opera and academies ca.1715-30. (1)

The comparatively small number of dated copies and autographs means that most of Scarlatti’s cantatas cannot be assigned an exact year – is this a stumbling block to the genre of the scholarly edition, I have often wondered? And yet plenty of chronological data is available to construct a history of Scarlatti’s cantata styles. Right from the early pieces of the 1690’s, he moved within an wide tonal orbit (F sharp minor and B flat minor within consecutive recitatives, for example); the chromaticism that pervades his later music is already a notable feature, as well as his predilection for repeating words and phrases in recitative – in sharp distinction to most of his contemporaries.

Yes, the Da Capo form does settle down in his music about the late 1690’s (this is one of the few facts most musicians know about Alessandro Scarlatti, and one that seems to put him in the “historical figure” category, alas). The arias of this period show a style of great melodic clarity and beauty, which is not always to the fore in the expanded Da Capo arias of his later work. But he does not always use Da Capo form: the Serenata Horche di Febo ascosi, for example has two through-composed arias in succession, concluding with one of the unaccompanied vocal endings that are an occasional feature of Scarlatti’s writing.

Recurrent subjects are lontananza (distance or separation, symbolically death perhaps), night and solitude, the traditional pastoral subject of the shepherdess in flight from her lover, and female characters named and unnamed, abandoned or made frantic by jealousy. A singer important to Scarlatti was the dedicatee of most of the “cantata diary”, the castrato Andrea Adami (member and later maestro of the papal choir), who is documented as a performer of Stradella’s cantatas as late as the 1690’s – an important link between the 2 generations, we may suppose.

The modern listener will probably always be most attracted to the cantatas with obligato instruments, which are the subject of some published editions by me, as well as chacona’s recent recording. (2) Further research is needed to establish whether Scarlatti regularly expected those with strings to be accompanied one to a part or with a bigger group (again, most of the evidence so far stems from Handel research and records of the Ottoboni and Ruspoli archives). Those prepared to make the extra effort with the poetry will be rewarded by entering the realm of the solo cantata with basso continuo, to which Scarlatti entrusted arguably his most profound and entertaining music. A remarkably eloquent performance of the piece Per un momento solo by soprano Cristina Miatello and harpsichordist Guido Morini (Venice, August 1994; recorded on Tactus 661905, 1999) convinced me that this repertoire is capable of moving us as profoundly as the songs of Schubert, even when we may not follow every single word.

It is, in many ways, ideal repertoire for the medium of recording, in the hands of expert and sympathetic performers.

Rosalind Halton, April 1997 (3)

1. Reinhard Strohm, ‘Scarlattiana at Yale’, in Haendel e gli Scarlatti a Roma, ed. Nino Pirrotta and Agostino Ziino, Firenze, L.S. Olschki, 1987: 113-152.

2. Publications by Halton are:
1997 – Olimpia (soprano, 2 violins, viola, b.c.), published by King’s Music.
1998 – Clori mia, Clori bella (soprano, recorder, b.c.) published by Saraband, Australia, SM 28.
And cantatas by A. Scarlatti available exclusively through
E come, oh Dio (soprano, b.c., c.1698)
Libertà del mio cor (soprano, b.c., ca.1709)
Notte cara (soprano, b.c., 1705)
Peno; e del mio penar (soprano, b.c., 1705)
Sotto l’ombra d’un faggio (bass, violins, b.c.)

3. An early version of this article first appeared in Early Music Review, 1997.