May 2, 2009

Sacred Concerts: The Life of Alessandro Scarlatti, The “Grandfather” of Classical Music

Alessandro Scarlatti
By Niccolò Graffio
“Let every man praise the bridge that crosses him over.” –English proverb
Alessandro Scarlatti was born on May 2, 1660 in either Palermo or Trapani, Sicily, at that time part of the Kingdom of Sicily. Nothing is known of his early musical education. In 1672 he was sent to live with a relative in Rome.  It is generally believed by modern scholars that while there he was schooled by the composer Giacomo Cassini. It is also believed by many that he must have had contact with teachers from Northern Italy, since his early works show influence by Alessandro Stradella and Giovanni Legrenzi.

In April, 1678 Scarlatti married Antonia Anzalone, who bore him ten children (including his son and musical successor Domenico).  Sadly, only half would reach adulthood.  At the age of 19 he produced his first opera, Gli Equivoci nel Sembiante.  The success of this gained him the patronage of Queen Christina of Sweden, who was living at the time in Rome following her abdication and conversion to Catholicism.

In February of 1684 he became the maestro di cappella to the Viceroy of Naples.  It is believed this largely came about due to the influence of one of his sisters, an opera singer who was the mistress of an influential nobleman.  Ironically, it was gossip about both his sisters’ scandalous behavior that forced him to leave Rome for Naples in the first place!  He remained in that official capacity for 18 years.  An avid workaholic (no doubt due to his impoverished childhood), during his tenure in Naples he produced a long series of operas as well as other music for state occasions.

By 1702 foreign intrigues forced him to leave Naples, not to return until the end of the Spanish domination of that city in 1708.   During the interim he enjoyed first the patronage of Fernando de’ Medici in Florence and subsequently Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome.  It was during this period he composed his “magnum opus”: Mitridate Eupatore (1707) in Venice.

As a result of his diminishing popularity in Naples, in 1717 he relocated to Rome, where he wrote some of his finest operas including: Telemaco (1718), Marco Attilio Regolo (1719) and La Griselda (1721).

In addition to being a composer, Scarlatti was active as a teacher.  His fame was such that the German composers Johann Joachim Quantz and Johann Adolphe Hasse (among others) actively sought him out.  Sadly, the great composer was not to have the buona morte he so richly deserved.  After 1725 his output declined while his financial hardships increased.  He died in Naples on October 24, 1725, saddled with debt.

Scarlatti’s significance in the history of music cannot be underestimated.  In addition to composing 115 operas, 20 oratorios, over 40 motets and 10 masses, he is known to have written almost 700 cantatas.  It is in these pieces for solo voices that we see the composer’s true genius!  They represent the most intellectual style of their period.

Musicologists consider Scarlatti to be an important link between the Baroque period of music and what was to come.  He is considered the founder of the Neapolitan school of opera.  On his tombstone he is called musices instaurator maximus, a fitting epitaph for the man who was instrumental in ushering in the greatest age of music that mankind has ever known or ever will know: the Classical Period in Western Music!