Il Seminario Musicale
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Alessandro Scarlatti: Motets
By virtue of the outstanding quality and the sheer number of his works, Alessandro Scarlatti, the father of Domenico, was one of the most impressive composers of the Baroque era. He was born in Palermo in 1660, and sent to Rome when still a child to receive training in music. Despite frequent attempts to gain a position at Ferdinando de' Medici's court in Florence/and his loyal devotion to aristocratic circles in Rome (Christine of Sweden, Cardinals Ottoboni and Pamphili, Prince Ruspoli), he spent most of his life in Naples, as the Viceroy's maestro di cappella, during the politically unsettled period when the city passed from Spanish to Austrian rule.
Most of Alessandro Scarlatti's compositions were secular vocal works: in addition to a great many operas (65), he wrote serenatas, pasticcios and a considerable number of occasional pieces commissioned by patrons in Rome and Naples. Charles Burney, referring to Scarlatti's approximately 700 cantatas, called him 'the most voluminous and the most original composer of cantatas that ever existed'. From 1710 on, he gave fuller attention to instrumental composition, writing twelve Coneerti grossi, seven sonatas for flute and continuo and a number of fine harpsichord (or organ) sonatas. His sacred works, which include several masses and thirty-four oratorios, were mostly composed for churches in Rome - in 1678 he was vice maestro di cappella at S. Giacomo degli Incurabili, and in 1703 assistant to the musical director at S. Maria Maggiore. As early as 1680 he composed a St John Passion which attracted considerable attention, and led to commissions for two masses for Pope Clement XI.
Apart from these works, Scarlatti wrote about a hundred motets, some of which are, as he put it himself, in a 'severe style akin to Palestrina's' (very solemn works for a cappella double choir); others are in a 'modern' style in which the emotions of the individual play a greater part than a sense of collective piety. In Scarlatti's time, the development of the motet was held in check by the Counter-Reformation, which restricted performances of them to the principal sections of the mass. As a result, the motet lost its prominent place in the creative activity of composers, and no longer evolved as a distinct form, adopting instead the style of the cantata. The texts were either taken from the Propers of the mass or were original pieces written in Latin or Italian by authors who have largely remained anonymous.
Four examples of Scarlatti's motets can be heard here. De tenebroso lacu, the manuscript of which is kept in the British Museum, presents a Dante-like vision of souls in hell; in sombre F and C minor, the damned call out to the living to pray and work for the appeasement of their sufferings. The motet Totus amore languens is taken from a collection of Concetti sacri engraved by the Amsterdam publisher Roger in 1707-1708, and is the fifth in a cycle of motets written by Scarlatti for the feast of the Blessed Sacrament. The poetry in the text is ardently dramatic in the metaphorical style evolved by the erudite and renowned Arcadian Academy in Rome, of which Scarlatti became a member in 1706. The motet's five sections are introduced by a short Largo upon an ostinato bass, alternately in D and A minor. The work is free in form, exhibiting the principle of juxtaposed contrasts characteristic of the late Baroque. The manuscript of the motet Salve Regina, a prayer to the Virgin, is dated 1703. The sections for vocal duet as well as the solo episodes are cast as operatic arias framed by orchestral ritornellos. Compared to the other motets on the disc, the instrumental writing here is more virtuosic and 'modern'. The strings contribute greatly to the work's expressive power with their appoggiaturas and chromatic figures, as well as to its dynamic energy, with striking use of pulsating repeated quavers, arpeggios, great intervallic leaps and double and triple stopping. The manuscript of the last motet on the disc, Infirmata, vulnerata, is housed in Naples, and is dated 16 October 1702. Scarlatti resists the temptations offered by the sensual, worldly character of the text; his setting alternates between counterpoint and chordal writing with long, sustained note-values, both fitting vehicles for religious feeling. The vocal writing is imbued with profound yet restrained expressiveness. The words 'Vidsti, amor, et cor meum cessit amori' are set to a melismatic, arioso-like recitative which adds a felicitous touch of lyricism to the work.
In these four motets, all to Latin texts, Scarlatti respects the contrapuntal and chordal idioms characteristic of sacred music, but also the Corellian concertato style which enjoyed particular favour in early eighteenth-century Italy. Contrasting fast and slow movements - sometimes only a few bars in length - are juxtaposed, creating a sense of acceleration or of slowing down, while dynamics grow alternately louder and softer in a spirit distinctly reminiscent of the opera stage. Again, the influence of the concerto is evident in the serious opening largos: these can be short and simple statements, as in the introduction to Totus amore languens, or else, as in De tenebroso lacu, 'tiered' entries that spread gradually down through all the parts, a device well suited to the solemn atmosphere of the church. There are also serious, stately episodes written with sustained note-values - the 'Vulnera percute' section of the motet Infirmata, vulnerata is a good example. Scarlatti brings relative keys and both melodic and harmonic sequences into play with great effect. The vocal line, accompanied by con-tinuo, is treated as a solo instrument and is set off against the strings. Thus, in the Salve Regina, both voices are treated as if they were the soloists in a small-scale concertino. The bass, on the other hand, adds a lively contribution to the lines developed in the other instrumental parts. The voice and the instruments frequently exchange similar 'echoing' melodic cells. In the interplay of light and shade which Baroque Rome was so fond of, the vocal writing is always sober, never fully breaking free from the contrapuntal texture that accompanies it. Scarlatti makes no concessions to his singers, even when the feelings in the poetry might lend themselves to showy passage-work or sweeping lyrical outpourings -although, just as in the operas and cantatas of the time, the central stanzas in De tenebroso lacu are set as a series of arias and recitatives with continuo accompaniment.
Alessandro Scarlatti died in Naples in 1725. His numerous manuscripts, now scattered to all corners of the world, bear witness to the lasting international recognition he enjoyed. Indeed, he played a major part in the history of music at a time when tonal plans were being clarified and the da capo aria was becoming a standard feature of opera form, and he had a definite influence on many composers outside Italy, including Hasse, Handel, Bach and Mozart. According to Burney, it was he who 'established the fame of the Neapolitan School of counterpoint', which produced such eminent composers as Durante, Vinci, Leo, Porpora and Pergolesi. Burney admired the expressive power of Scarlatti's recitatives, and the 'pathetic' quality of the arias in an oratorio he heard by chance in a church in Rome. Writing in 1789, he informs us that Scarlatti's 'elegant, profound and original' music was without doubt an inexhaustible source of inspiration to 'all the best composers of the first forty or fifty years' of the eighteenth century.
- Sylvie Mamy, 1994