Baroque Music V: Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)

When we think of the great musical families in history, Strauss and Bach loom large. But one of the earliest family dynasties in music history arose in Naples during the middle Baroque Period: the Scarlattis. While Domenico Scarlatti’s fame would eventually exceed that of his pater familias, I would argue that Alessandro remains one of the most critically underrated composers in history.

Tracing the development of opera goes directly through Scarlatti, who founded the Neapolitan school and whose music built upon the foundations set by Monteverdi. There is a criminal lack of good recordings of Scarlatti’s music, but I enthusiastically recommend a recent recording by Elizabeth Watts and The English Concert under Laurence Cummings. Part of the challenge of performing Scarlatti’s works today is the lack of published scores. Working with librarians and curators, Watts and Cummings located Scarlatti’s manuscripts and set about arranging them for performance.

Peforming Scarlatti’s best arias proved challenging for Watts, as Scarlatti not only composed for castrati, but for the great Farinelli himself. Watts, in a memorable tweet, documented her struggles:

Good news: I can sing 88 notes without a breath! Bad news: Scarlatti wrote 89.

Elizabeth Watts

If you want to learn more about this remarkable artist, the 1994 biopic is a good place to start: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PlkuKlG6-CU. But if you want to learn more about Scarlatti, Watts’ recording is ground zero.

Here is a taste of Scarlatti’s music, starting with the aria that gave Watts so much trouble:

Alessandro Scarlatti, Serenata Erminia, “Torbido, irato, e nero“: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61JTNB2TCaI

Scarlatti’s music, much like Monteverdi’s, at times seems to exist of out time and space, as modern and fresh as anything being composed today. The chromatic aria Cara tobma, from the great opera Mitridate Eupatore, is a great example of why Scarlatti is so critical to the development of opera:

Alessandro Scarlatti, Mitridate Eupatore, “Cara tomba del mio diletto“: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFyPgox1NkY

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