Scarlatti, Alessandro


Generally referred to as the father of classical music; called the creator of modern opera, and was one of the greatest lights of the Italian School of the Seventeenth Century, which had so decided an influence upon operatic music. Scarlatti was remarkable as a composer of oratorio and opera. He revolutionized orchestration, originated the recitative, and is generally credited with having invented the aria, although some authorities assort that he merely made the aria the most conspicuous feature of his operas, and that he did not invent it. He was a great and famous teacher, as well as a prolific and gifted composer. At least thirteen of his pupils attained great renown in Europe as operatic composers, and with Scarlatti compose the far-famed Neapolitan School, which established the rules that controlled all Italian Opera in the Eighteenth Century. He was known to his contemporaries not only as the greatest musical genius but as the most learned student of the age. The Italians speak of him as the glory of the art and the chief of composers. Hasse, one of his most famous pupils, said of him, that in point of harmony, Scarlatti was the greatest master of Italy. He was the forerunner of Gluck and Mozart, and has been compared by Hauptmann to Palestrina as Virgil has been compared to Homer. Few details of the life of the great master are known, although a fairly accurate record of his musical activity has been kept. It is generally believed that Scarlatti was a pupil of Carissimi at Rome. Whether this is true or not, he was certainly a follower of the older master, and continued Carissimi's work of combining the principles of the great Roman contrapuntal school of Palestrina.

His early years are believed to have been spent mostly in northern Italy, where he early gave promise of the great musical ability which was afterwards to distinguish him. He became a skilled pianist, organist and harpsichord-player, and it is said by some auhtorities that it was his ability as a performer on the harpsichord that led to his meeting Carissimi. In Florence he was under the protection of Ferdinand III., son of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, being employed by him to write operas. Pompeo was produced at the Royal Palace of Naples in 1684, at which time Scarlatti directed the performance. This was his first attempt at a serious opera, and according to E. J. Dent, author of the most complete biography of the composer, the three operas, Gli Equivoci, L'Honesta, and Pompeo, are all that remain to represent Scarlatti's first period of dramatic composition. La Rosaura and La Statire were performed at Rome and Naples in 1690 and appear to have been successful. The libretto of the latter was written by the composer's friend and patron, Cardinal Ottoboni, whose service Scarlatti later entered. In 1694 he was appointed chapelmaster to the Viceroy of Naples, but in 1703 he went to Rome, where he was appointed assistant musical director of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Four years later, upon the death of Antonio Foggia, he was made director, and about the same time was also appointed private chapelmaster to Cardinal Ottoboni. He remained in Rome until 1721, and in that year composed a pastorale, at the request of the Portuguese ambassador, to celebrate the elevation of Innocent XIII. to the papal chair.

In Rome, Scarlatti produced the operas, II Caduta in 1706 and II Trionfo in 1707. The latter is the composer's one comic opera, and is similar in plot to Don Giovanni. He also wrote many oratorios and sacred cantatas, while in Rome, mostly for performance at the yatican. From Rome he went to Venice and Ferrara and to Urbino, where he seems to have met with financial difficulties. He returned to Naples in the last years of his life, as master of the Royal Chapel, a post he held until his death in 1725.

While at Naples he produced Pirro e Demetro; II Prigionero Fortunato; Laodicia e Berenice and other works. Pirro was first given in 1694 and it was a great success, being performed in various cities of Italy, and in London in  1708, when, with some additional airs and an overture composed by Haydn, it was translated into English and given at the Haymarket Theatre, being the only one of Scarlatti's operas to be performed in its entirety in an English-speaking country. It is said to be his finest work.

In 1715 Tigrane was produced, and in 1721 Griselda, his last opera, was given. He was the most voluminous composer of cantatas that ever lived. He was the last great writer of chamber-cantatas, and with him died the cantata as a form of chambermusic. Burney, in the Eighteenth Century, examined the manuscripts of thirty-five of these works and afterwards wrote: "I find part of Scarlatti's property among the stolen goods of all the best composers of the first forty or fifty years of the present century." Scarlatti composed in all about one hundred and fifteen operas; two hundred or more masses; numerous oratorios; about four hundred serenatas and cantatas for festivals; numerous chamber- cantatas; toccatas for harpsichord or organ; madrigals for various voices; and much sacred music, including a Stabat Mater for four voices, a Stabat Mater for soprano and alto with orchestra; motets and psalms. Of his operas, only about forty-one are extant. They are now no longer performed, but interest in them will always continue to be keen, because of the part the composer played in the subsequent development of opera, and because of his improvements and innovations. Up to Scarlatti's time the overture of an operatic work consisted of a meager obligate symphony. He reformed this department of opera, making it a species of musical prologue or program of the action. He also completely established the position of the aria, and defined its form, and was the first to make a systematic use of the recitative. Scarlatti also excelled in church compositions, and his church-music is both impressive and highly original. His invention as a composer was so fertile and his application so intense that his copyist could not write out his works as fast as he composed them.

Of Scarlatti's private life little is known, and no idea of his character can be formed, because no record of his life as a man was kept. He was married to Antonia Anzalone, by whom he had three children, one of whom, Domenico, became famous. Scarlatti's importance lies not in his direct influence upon his immediate followers, although that influence was marked, but in his relation to the whole development of classical music. He selected the best of music which had been produced before him, as well as the best ideas of the older composers, to form out of them a musical structure, which was the foundation of all the music of the classical period. He succeeded in making music that enabled the vocalist to reveal the beauty of the voice, and in this way decided the direction in which Italian Opera was to develop.