Cantate da Camera of Alessandro Scarlatti

Cantate da Camera of Alessandro Scarlatti
Article featured at the Scarlatti Project
Contributor: Rosalind Halton

783 cantatas are listed by the American scholar Edwin Hanley in his authoritative study of the sources – a great repertoire covering the period ca.1688 (the first dated cantata) to the year of his death, 1725. Most are for soprano and basso continuo – the medium in which Scarlatti worked throughout his life. Alto and continuo make up the next biggest category. A number of the cantatas circulated in transposed copies within Scarlatti’s lifetime. Duets for various voice types and characters attracted Scarlatti at different times of his career. Most appealing to us today are the cantatas for solo voice(s) and obligato instruments. Two violins and soprano is the most common combination (e.g. Silentio, aure volanti) but works with 2 violins, violetta, and bass (e.g. Olimpia) are also found, and there are 2 works for alto, flauto, 2 violins and bass (e.g. Bella Dama di Nome Santa). For more elaborate scoring we look to the Serenatas – extended works to be performed on summer evenings with pastoral or allegorical characters, and special orchestration.

Scarlatti’s manuscripts show exceptionally lucid thought, not just in the clarity of his hand and the detail of punctuation (unique in this period), but also in the planning of the compositions: recitatives thought straight out on to the page; arias that occasionally contain second thoughts about proportions or meter, but with intervallic patterns almost invariably established before pen went to paper. Of the 783 cantatas, less than 10% are preserved in Alessandro’s autograph, and these are precious for the detail of tempo markings, punctuation, dynamics, and articulations they show. A circle of regular copyists worked with Scarlatti in Rome and Naples, producing copies of the remaining repertoire.

The task of identifying the Roman circle of copyists close to the composer has been carried out by the Japanese scholar Keiichiro Watanabe, and Hamburg musicologist Hans Joachim Marx. The proximity of these musicians/copyists to Handel during his Roman visit has provided much information relevant to Scarlatti – with paper types as well as copyists. This work remains to be documented in the case of the Neapolitan sources.

The Music

Musical imagery and declamation of originality and beauty await the listener: interruption, hesitation, doubts, illusions built up only to be dashed – all part of this expressive language. Repetition of individual words or short phrases is a recurrent and original feature of Scarlatti’s recitative style, creating animation and emphasis by breaking into the regularity of the poetic meter. Perhaps no composer of Da Capo arias ever approached the task of organizing text repetition less routinely than Alessandro Scarlatti, or with a surer feeling for illuminating images and dramatic situation.

The immediacy of Scarlatti’s response to poetry is documented in various ways: in the description of his spontaneous setting of a poem improvised at a meeting of the Arcadians; in his own account in a letter to Ferdinando de’ Medici of his absorption and involvement in setting the poetry of the opera Il Gran Tamerlano (“I confess my weakness – I wept“); and most of all in his ‘cantata diary’ of 1704-5, composed for the castrato Andrea Adami, who was later maestro of the papal choir: sometimes as many as three cantatas in a week.

With unexpected and remote key areas – in recitative as well as aria – Scarlatti portrays characters in states of intense agitation, contrasting with the resignation or illusory stability of those who sing in the diatonic keys of the natural hexachord. He never abandoned the possibilities of merging recitative into arioso, or of setting up a dynamic interaction between accompaniment and voice. Scarlatti was the first Italian composer known to use recitativo stromentato, the recitative of heightened intensity accompanied by instruments. His first use of this device occurs in the opera Olimpia Vendicata (1686): in his later cantata Olimpia the heroine’s invocation to the wind and waves, to sabotage her unfaithful lover is also accompanied with a dramatic recitativo stromentato.

This is truly vocal chamber music: the dialogue may be with cello, which Scarlatti developed as an expressive and sometimes virtuoso style in its own right; or as one of the contrapuntal layers of a polyphonic texture with violins; or in a playful exchange with another character, or with a featured instrument such as the recorder. In composing for voice(s) and obligato instruments, Scarlatti treats the voice as a part of the dialogue of instruments, which in turn are infused with the declamation and imagery of the poetry.

Rosalind Halton, September 2000