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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 4 Class and Classicism
Richard Taruskin

The guiding genius behind the Neapolitan ascendency was a Palermo-born composer named Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725), who dominated the Neapolitan musical scene from 1683 to 1702, and again (after Naples had passed from Spanish to Austrian rule) from 1709 to 1721. His career was international, or at least pan-Italian; he had important stints of service in Rome, in Florence, and elsewhere. But the bulk of his voluminous output of operas (114 by his own count) and cantatas (more than 800 by modern scholarly count) was written for Naples, where in 1696 the theater was expanded and newly outfitted just for him by the viceroy, the Duke of Medinaceli, who was a great melomaniaco (as the Italians called an opera fan). The inheritor and transformer of the Venetian tradition, Scarlatti could be looked upon as the culminating figure of opera’s first century. By reshaping and standardizing the legacy he inherited, he laid the foundation for the next century of operatic development, especially as regards what came to be known as “serious” opera (opera seria).


fig. 4-3 Anonymous portrait of Alessandro Scarlatti at the Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, Bologna.

Scarlatti served his apprenticeship in Rome, where he was a favorite of the aging Queen Christina. When the Spanish ambassador to the papal court was named viceroy of Naples, he brought Scarlatti along with him as maestro di cappella. The twenty-three-year-old maestro’s duties were staggering. He was under contract to compose, as well as rehearse and perform, an average of four operas a year. He had to provide the music for the viceroy’s chapel, including a yearly oratorio for Lent and an annual Te Deum or two for occasions of state. And he furnished on commission untold cantatas and miniature operas known as serenatas for various noble salons. No wonder, then, that he tended to standardize his modus operandi. In the words of Donald Jay Grout, his biographer, the hard-pressed maestro was “forced to make as many minutes as possible of music at the cost of as few minutes as possible for getting the notes written down.”1 His methods of standardization were widely emulated by his contemporaries and immediate successors, who were just as overworked as he was.

Since much of Scarlatti’s work remains unpublished, or available only in scholarly editions, and since a whole opera or even a single act would tax our available space, the best way of observing Scarlatti’s standard operating procedure is within the more modest confines of a cantata, the form to which he was the last (and by far the most) prolific contributor. Andate, oh miei sospiri (“Go, O my sighs”) was written in 1712, during Scarlatti’s second stint as chief composer in Naples. It was, for Scarlatti, an especially labored-over composition, since he wrote it in friendly competition with his younger contemporary Francesco Gasparini, a leading Venetian composer of the day. Each composer had to compose two settings of the same text, as different from one another as possible.

The one we are sampling here was Scarlatti’s second setting, composed, as he put it on the title page, “in idea inumana, ma in regolato cromatico; non è per ogni professore” (“in a devilish style, but within the rules of chromatic writing; not for your average tootler”). The harmonic extravagances to which he refers—and which begin at the very beginning (Ex. 4.1a) with two successive tritones on the repeated opening word, a flattened second degree (the so-called “Neapolitan” harmony) almost immediately following, and many diminished-seventh chords throughout (a particular Scarlatti mannerism)—are not really all that unusual. Rather, they place the work within the old tradition of the “mannered” madrigal that stood parent to the cantata. They are quite comparable to the expressive harmonic effects in Barbara Strozzi’s cantata, composed half a century earlier, which was discussed in chapter 2. The most “mannered” moment comes in a later recitative at the parenthetical line “(ma s’infinge / quel suo barbara cor)”, which means “(while her cruel heart pretends otherwise).” The sudden, radical harmonic excursion (Ex. 4.1b) is indeed a perfect analogue to a parenthetical thought, especially one that is not only parenthetical but also antithetical to the main sense of the words.


ex. 4-1a Alessandro Scarlatti, Cantata: Andate, oh miei sospiri, opening recitative.


ex. 4-1b Alessandro Scarlatti, Cantata: Andate, oh miei sospiri, third recitative, harmonic “aside”.

Such bizarre rhetorical effects were nothing new, as comparison with Strozzi’s work will quickly show. Completely new, however, and completely unlike Strozzi’s cantata, is the thoroughgoing formal regularity of Scarlatti’s setting. It is cast in four discrete sections that form two recitative–aria pairs. The poetry is made for this division. The recitative sections are cast in versi sciolti (“free verses”) in which eleven-syllable lines alternate irregularly with sevens. These lend themselves to the flexible declamation of recitative. The arias are cast in shorter lines with a regular meter and (especially in the case of the second one) a simpler rhyme scheme.

Not only is the setting fixed and formal in its alternation of recitative and aria, but the arias themselves are also uniform in structure. The texts are cast in two sections, each consisting of a single sentence. These sentences are given discrete musical settings. The first, by far the longer thanks to a continuo introduction and many repetitions of words and phrases, cadences on the tonic. The second is not only shorter, it is tonally distinguished from the first as well, beginning and cadencing on a different scale degree (in effect, in a different key).

Obviously the aria cannot end with this tonally subsidiary second section. The words da capo, written at its conclusion, confirm this point. They mean “from the top,” and direct the performers to repeat the first section, in its entirety or up to the word fine (“end”), so that the whole has a tonally stable, recapitulatory form that could be designated ABA. This tripartite form, known informally as the “da capo aria,” remained the absolutely standard aria form for the rest of the eighteenth century. Its advantage for the composer was obvious: he had to write only two parts out of three, amounting to perhaps three-fifths of the total duration. The rest was taken care of by the unwritten repeat. Its advantage for the performer consisted in the opportunities the unwritten repeat offered for spontaneous embellishment. The da capo aria was (or became) the virtuoso display aria par excellence, ensuring the kind of spectacular performance on which public opera has always thrived.

The origins of the form are a bit obscure. Scarlatti, though his name is now firmly associated with it, certainly did not invent it. It appears to be an abridgement of an earlier strophic form, as befits the use of the word “aria,” which originally designated a poem declaimed stanza by stanza to a musical formula. Indeed, in Scarlatti’s earliest operas each aria had two strophic stanzas separated by refrains. Shrink such an aria down to a single stanza framed by the refrain, enlarge and embellish the simple structure thus achieved, and the “da capo aria” is the result.


ex. 4-2a Alessandro Scarlatti, Cantata: Andate, oh miei sospiri, second aria (in siciliana style), setting of opening line.


ex. 4-2b Alessandro Scarlatti, Cantata: Andate, oh miei sospiri, second aria (in siciliana style), section break.


ex. 4-2c Alessandro Scarlatti, Cantata: Andate, oh miei sospiri, second aria (in siciliana style), end of middle section.

The second aria in Andate, oh miei sospiri belongs to a type that was particularly characteristic of Scarlatti and of Neapolitan music in general. Identifiable by compound meter ( or, more commonly, ), leisurely or languid tempo, lilting rhythms (with much use of the figure ) and (usually) by an eighth-note pickup, such an aria was called a siciliana and is often assumed, although without any real evidence, to stem from a jiglike Sicilian folk or popular dance. Very often, too, siciliana arias exhibit at their cadences the “Neapolitan sixth” harmony that emerges when the already-observed flatted second degree in the tune coincides with the fourth degree in the bass. This distinctive harmonic mannerism, which quickly caught on in other repertoires, reinforces the impression that the siciliana may have originated in some local musical dialect. Ex. 4.2 shows the main tune, as sung by the soloist on entering (after a little introduction for the accompanists); the join between the A and B sections; and the end of the B section, marked da capo. (The “Neapolitan sixth” occurs in the penultimate bar, on the word sparga.)

The main difference between cantata arias and their operatic counterparts is in scoring. Cantatas are chamber music; the basic ensemble of voice plus basso continuo—sustaining bass, usually string, and chordal “realizer,” usually key-board—generally suffices for them. In the opera house a small “Venetian style” string band (like the one encountered in Monteverdi’s Poppea) was employed to accompany the voice part or set it off with ritornellos, as in the siciliana aria in Ex. 4.3, from Scarlatti’s opera L’Eraclea (Heraclia) first performed at the Naples opera house in 1700. Note the “Neapolitan” throb in m. 5 that emphasizes—what else?—the words “I love you”!

Like the da capo aria itself, the siciliana was something Alessandro Scarlatti used so abundantly that his name became identified with it, but again he was not (as sometimes stated) its inventor. Yet a third important operatic convention not invented by Scarlatti but standardized and popularized by (and hence often attributed to) him was a new type of sinfonia (that is, overture) consisting of a brilliant opening in fanfare style, a central slow episode (often with “affective” harmonies involving suspensions or chromatics), and a concluding dance.

This last section, as was by then standard for dance movements, was cast in two repeated strains, the first cadencing on the dominant or some remoter degree, and the second on the tonic. Like the da capo aria, then, the “binary” dance movement embodied a “closed” tonal motion—away from the tonic and back. The resulting effect of harmonic contrast and closure, and its standard employment as the chief articulator of musical form, was perhaps the most powerful new idea that can be associated with late seventeenth-century Italian music, and certainly the most influential one. In all sorts of ways, it conditioned the development of European art music for centuries to come. Alessandro Scarlatti’s stature in music history derives from his important role, by virtue of his prolific output and its high visibility, in establishing these new harmonic and formal norms.


ex. 4-3 Alessandro Scarlatti, L’Eraclea, “Ricordati ch’io t’amo,” mm. 1–6.

Scarlatti employed the new overture form as early as 1681, in Tutto il mal non vien per nuocere (“Not Every Misfortune Is Harmful”), his third opera and first big hit, which played in six Italian cities in as many years. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was a comic opera, where a high-spirited curtain-raiser would have seemed especially fitting. But by the turn of the century such overtures were standard in operas of every plot type. Given in Ex. 4.4 is a sort of summary of the “Sinfonia avanti L’Opera” from La caduta de’ decemviri (“The Fall of the Decemvirs”), a serious opera first given at San Bartolomeo in 1697, with a plot (like that of Monteverdi’s Poppea) adapted from Roman history. The final dancelike section, given complete as Ex. 4.4c, is cast in Scarlatti’s ubiquitous meter.


ex. 4-4a Alessandro Scarlatti, La caduta de’ decemviri, Sinfonia, mm. 1–7.


ex. 4-4b Alessandro Scarlatti, La caduta de’ decemviri, Sinfonia, mm. 29–36.


ex. 4-4c Alessandro Scarlatti, La caduta de’ decemviri, Sinfonia, m. 55–end.


(1) Donald Jay Grout, Alessandro Scarlatti: An Introduction to His Operas (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), p. 15.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Class and Classicism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Jun. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Class and Classicism. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Class and Classicism." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-04002.xml