Alessandro Scarlatti

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Alessandro Scarlatti

Alessandro Scarlatti (May 2, 1660 – October 24, 1725) was a Baroque music composer especially famous for his operas and chamber cantatas. He is considered the founder of the Neapolitan school of opera. Operas were a way of putting life's situations into music and drama, and Scarlatti excelled in his understanding of the development of character and personal maturity to further explicate life's purpose and meaning. He was the father of two other composers, Domenico Scarlatti and Pietro Filippo Scarlatti.


Scarlatti was born in Sicily, either in Trapani or Palermo. He is generally said to have been a pupil of Giacomo Carissimi in Rome, and there is reason to suppose that he had some connection with northern Italy, since his early works show the influence of Stradella and Legrenzi. The production at Rome of his opera Gli Equivoci nell’amore (1679) gained him the protection of Queen Christina of Sweden (who at the time was living in Rome), and he became her maestro di cappella. In February 1684, he became maestro di cappella to the viceroy of Naples, through the influence of his sister, an opera singer, who was the mistress of an influential Neapolitan noble. Here he produced a long series of operas, remarkable chiefly for their fluency and expressiveness, as well as other music for state occasions.

In 1702 Scarlatti left Naples and did not return until the Spanish domination had been superseded by that of the Austrians. In the interval he enjoyed the patronage of Ferdinando (III) de' Medici, for whose private theatre near Florence he composed operas, and of Cardinal Ottoboni, who made him his maestro di cappella, and procured him a similar post at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 1703.

After visiting Venice and Urbino in 1707, Scarlatti took up his duties at Naples again in 1708, and remained there until 1717. By this time Naples seems to have become tired of his music. The Romans, however, appreciated it better, and it was at the Teatro Capranica in Rome that he produced some of his finest operas (Telemaco, 1718; Marco Attilio Regolò, 1719; La Griselda, 1721), as well as some noble specimens of church music, including a mass for chorus and orchestra, composed in honor of Saint Cecilia for Cardinal Acquaviva in 1721. His last work on a large scale appears to have been the unfinished serenata for the marriage of the prince of Stigliano in 1723. Scarlatti died in Naples.

Scarlatti's music

Scarlatti's music forms an important link between the early Baroque music Italian vocal styles of the seventeenth century, with their centers in Florence, Venice and Rome, and the classical school of the eighteenth century, which culminated in the works of Mozart. His early operas (Gli Equivoci nel sembiante 1679; L’Honestà negli amori 1680, containing the famous aria "Già il sole dal Gange"; 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. There is a considerable variety of neatly constructed forms in their arias, accompanied sometimes by the string quartet, treated with careful elaboration, sometimes by the harpsichord alone. By 1686 he had definitely established the "Italian overture" form (second edition of Dal male il bene), and had abandoned the ostinato or ground bass and the binary form air in two stanzas in favor 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), where the arias "Rugiadose, odorose," and "Ben ti sta, traditor" occur.

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 vice-regal court, demonstrated that his opera arias had become more conventional and commonplace in rhythm, while his scoring is hasty and crude, yet not without brilliance. For exmaple, in (Eracles, 1700), the oboes and trumpets were frequently used, and the violins were often playing in unison. The operas composed for Ferdinando de' Medici are lost. They might have given a more favorable idea of his style as his correspondence with the prince shows that they were composed with a very sincere sense of inspiration.

Mitridate Eupatore, accounted as his masterpiece and 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 1700; La Principessa fedele 1712; Tigrane, 1715, &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.

His last group of operas, composed for Rome, exhibit a deeper poetic feeling and a broad and dignified style of melody. Using a strong dramatic sense, especially in accompanied recitatives, Scarlatti used a device which he himself had been the first to use as early as 1686 (Olimpia vendicata) with a much more modern style of orchestration. The horns appeared for the first time, and were treated with striking effect.

Besides the operas, oratorios (Agar et Ismaele esiliati, 1684; Christmas Oratorio, c. 1705; S. Filippo Neri, 1714; and others) and serenatas, which all exhibit a similar style, Scarlatti composed upwards of five hundred chamber-cantatas for solo voice. These represent the most intellectual type of chamber-music of their period, and it is to be regretted that they have remained almost entirely in manuscript, since a careful study of them is indispensable to anyone who wishes to form an adequate idea of Scarlatti's development.

His few remaining masses and church music in general are comparatively not inspiring, except the great St Cecilia Mass (1721), which is one of the first attempts at the style which reached its height in the great masses of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. His instrumental music, though not without interest, is curiously antiquated as compared with his vocal works.


  • Ensemble Europa Galante. (2004). Oratorio per la Santissima Trinità. Virgin Classics: 5 45666 2
  • Academia Bizantina. (2004). Il Giardino di Rose. Decca: 470 650-2 DSA.
  • Seattle Baroque. (2001). Agar et Ismaele Esiliati. Centaur: CRC 2664
  • I Musici. (1991). Concerto Grosso. Philips Classics Productions: 434 160-2

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • D'Accone, Frank A. The history of a baroque opera: Alessandro Scarlatti's Gli equivoci nel sembiante." New York: Pendragon Press, 1985. ISBN 0918728215
  • Dent, Edward Joseph and Frank Walker. Alessandro Scarlatti: His Life and Works. London: E. Arnold, 1960. OCLC 401478
  • Grout, Donald Jay. Alessandro Scarlatti: An Introduction to his Operas. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979. ISBN 0520036824


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