Alessandro Scarlatti

Alessandro Scarlatti

[skahr-lah-tee; It. skahr-laht-tee]
Scarlatti, Alessandro, 1660-1725, Italian composer. He may have studied with Carissimi in Rome, where his first opera was produced in 1679. In 1684 he went to Naples as master of the royal chapel and there composed operas for the royal palace and chamber music for the aristocracy. Later he was also active in Florence, Rome, and Venice. He wrote more than 100 operas, of which Mitridate Eupatore (1707) and Il Tigrane (1715) are considered the finest. As a leader of the Neapolitan school, he helped establish the conventions of the opera seria, perfecting the aria da capo and the three-part overture. His church music includes motets and masses; he also wrote serenades and madrigals, and he composed almost 700 chamber cantatas, which represent the highest development of his art.

His son, (Giuseppe) Domenico Scarlatti, 1685-1757, was a harpsichord virtuoso and composer. As a young man he is said to have engaged in friendly keyboard competition with his contemporary Handel, and thereafter the two had lifelong admiration for each other. From 1709 to 1714, Scarlatti was composer to the Polish Queen Maria Casimira in her court at Rome, and then for a time he was chapel master of St. Peter's. About 1719 he went to Lisbon as music master of the royal chapel and teacher of the Princess Maria Barbara. He accompanied her to Madrid in 1729, and spent the rest of his life at the Spanish court. Scarlatti wrote operas, oratorios, and cantatas, but his fame rests chiefly on his keyboard sonatas, of which he wrote well over 500. They exploit the instrument to its fullest capacity, exemplifying his mastery of the homophonic "free style" of composition. His works display the vivacity, grace, and ornamentation of the rococo, and at the same time show boundless invention and originality. Scarlatti is widely considered to be the founder of modern keyboard technique.

See biography of Alessandro by E. J. Dent (1905, new ed. 1960); biography of Domenico by R. Kirkpatrick (1953, rev. ed. 1968); S. Sitwell, A Background for Domenico Scarlatti (1935, repr. 1970).

Alessandro Scarlatti (May 2, 1660 – October 24, 1725) was an Italian Baroque composer especially famous for his operas and chamber cantatas. He is considered the founder of the Neapolitan school of opera. He was the father of two other composers, Domenico Scarlatti and Pietro Filippo Scarlatti.


Scarlatti was born in Palermo, then part of the Kingdom of Sicily. He is generally said to have been a pupil of Giacomo Carissimi in Rome, and there is reason to suppose that he had some connection with northern Italy, since his early works show the influence of Stradella and Legrenzi. The production at Rome of his opera Gli Equivoci nell sembiante (1679) gained him the protection of Queen Christina of Sweden (who at the time was living in Rome), and he became her maestro di cappella. In February 1684 he became maestro di cappella to the viceroy of Naples, through the influence of his sister, an opera singer, who was the mistress of an influential Neapolitan noble. Here he produced a long series of operas, remarkable chiefly for their fluency and expressiveness, as well as other music for state occasions.

In 1702 Scarlatti left Naples and did not return until the Spanish domination had been superseded by that of the Austrians. In the interval he enjoyed the patronage of Ferdinando de' Medici, for whose private theatre near Florence he composed operas, and of Cardinal Ottoboni, who made him his maestro di cappella, and procured him a similar post at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 1703.

After visiting Venice and Urbino in 1707, Scarlatti took up his duties in Naples again in 1708, and remained there until 1717. By this time Naples seems to have become tired of his music; the Romans, however, appreciated it better, and it was at the Teatro Capranica in Rome that he produced some of his finest operas (Telemaco, 1718; Marco Attilio Regolò, 1719; La Griselda, 1721), as well as some noble specimens of church music, including a mass for chorus and orchestra, composed in honor of Saint Cecilia for Cardinal Acquaviva in 1721. His last work on a large scale appears to have been the unfinished serenata for the marriage of the prince of Stigliano in 1723. Scarlatti died in Naples.

Scarlatti's music

Scarlatti's music forms an important link between the early Baroque Italian vocal styles of the 17th century, with their centers in Florence, Venice and Rome, and the classical school of the 18th century, which culminated in Mozart. His early operas (Gli equivoci nel sembiante 1679; L’honestà negli amori 1680, containing the famous aria "Già il sole dal Gange"; Il Pompeo 1683, containing the well-known airs "O cessate di piagarmi" and "Toglietemi la vita ancor," and others down to about 1685) retain the older cadences in their recitatives, and a considerable variety of neatly constructed forms in their charming little arias, accompanied sometimes by the string quartet, treated with careful elaboration, sometimes with the continuo alone. By 1686 he had definitely established the "Italian overture" form (second edition of Dal male il bene), and had abandoned the ground bass and the binary form air in two stanzas in favour of the ternary form or da capo type of air. His best operas of this period are La Rosaura (1690, printed by the Gesellschaft für Musikforschung), and Pirro e Demetrio (1694), in which occur the arias "Rugiadose, odorose", and "Ben ti sta, traditor".

From about 1697 onwards (La caduta del Decemviri), influenced partly perhaps by the style of Giovanni Bononcini and probably more by the taste of the viceregal court, his opera arias become more conventional and commonplace in rhythm, while his scoring is hasty and crude, yet not without brilliance (L'Eraclea, 1700), the oboes and trumpets being frequently used, and the violins often playing in unison. The operas composed for Ferdinando de' Medici are lost; they might have given a more favourable idea of his style as his correspondence with the prince shows that they were composed with a very sincere sense of inspiration.

Mitridate Eupatore, accounted his masterpiece, composed for Venice in 1707, contains music far in advance of anything that Scarlatti had written for Naples, both in technique and in intellectual power. The later Neapolitan operas (L'amor volubile e tiranno 1709; La principessa fedele 1710; Tigrane, 1714, &c.) are showy and effective rather than profoundly emotional; the instrumentation marks a great advance on previous work, since the main duty of accompanying the voice is thrown upon the string quartet, the harpsichord being reserved exclusively for the noisy instrumental ritornelli. In his opera Teodora (1697) he originated the use of the orchestral ritornello.

His last group of operas, composed for Rome, exhibit a deeper poetic feeling, a broad and dignified style of melody, a strong dramatic sense, especially in accompanied recitatives, a device which he himself had been the first to use as early as 1686 (Olimpia vendicata) and a much more modern style of orchestration, the horns appearing for the first time, and being treated with striking effect.

Besides the operas, oratorios (Agar et Ismaele esiliati, 1684; Christmas Oratorio, c. 1705; S. Filippo Neri, 1714; and others) and serenatas, which all exhibit a similar style, Scarlatti composed upwards of five hundred chamber-cantatas for solo voice. These represent the most intellectual type of chamber-music of their period, and it is to be regretted that they have remained almost entirely in manuscript, since a careful study of them is indispensable to anyone who wishes to form an adequate idea of Scarlatti's development.

His few remaining masses (the story of his having composed two hundred is hardly credible) and church music in general are comparatively unimportant, except the great St Cecilia Mass (1721), which is one of the first attempts at the style which reached its height in the great masses of Johann Sebastian Bach and Beethoven. His instrumental music, though not without interest, is curiously antiquated as compared with his vocal works.


(Work, librettist, place and date of first performance)

  • Gli equivoci nel sembiante (Domenico Filippo Contini; Rome 1679)
  • Tutto il mal non vien per nuocere (D. G. de Totis; Rome 1681, revised as Dal male il bene Naples 1687)
  • Il Pompeo (Nicolò Minato; Rome 1683)
  • Olimpia vendicata (Aurelio Aureli; Naples 1685)
  • Clearco in Negroponte (Antonio Arcoleo; Naples 1686)
  • La Statira (Pietro Ottoboni; Rome 1690)
  • La Rosaura (Giovanni Battista Lucini; Rome 1690)
  • La Teodora Augusta (Adriano Morselli; Naples 1692)
  • Pirro e Demetrio (Adriano Morselli; Naples 1694)
  • La caduta de' Decemviri (Silvio Stampiglia; Naples 1697)
  • La donna ancora è fedele (Domenico Filippo Contini; Naples 1698)
  • Il prigioniero fortunato (F. M. Paglia; Naples 1698)
  • L'Eraclea (Silvio Stampiglia; Naples 1700)
  • Arminio (Antonio Salvi; Pratolino 1703)
  • Mitridate Eupatore (Girolamo Roberti Frigimelica; Venice 1707)
  • Il trionfo della libertà (Girolamo Roberti Frigimelica; Venice 1707)
  • L'amor volubile e tiranno (Giovan Domenico Pioli and Giuseppe Papis; Naples 1709)
  • La principessa fedele (Agostino Piovene; Naples 1710)
  • Scipione nelle Spagne (Apostolo Zeno; Naples 1714)
  • Tigrane (Domenico Lalli; Naples 1715)
  • Carlo re d'Allemagna (Francesco Silvani; Naples 1716)
  • Telemaco (Carlo Sigismondo Capeci; Rome 1718)
  • Il trionfo dell'onore (Francesco Antonio Tullio; Naples 1718)
  • Cambise (Domenico Lalli; Naples 1719)
  • Marco Attilio Regolo (Matteo Noris; Rome 1719)
  • Griselda (Apostolo Zeno, revised by F. M. Ruspoli; Rome 1721)


  • Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, Rene Jacobs. (2007). Griselda. Harmonia Mundi HMC 901805.07. Dorothea Röschmann, Lawrence Zazzo, Veronica Cangemi, Bernarda Fink, Silvia Tro Santafe, Kobie van Rensburg.
  • Ensemble Europa Galante. (2004). Oratorio per la Santissima Trinità. Virgin Classics: 5 45666 2
  • Academia Bizantina. (2004). Il Giardino di Rose. Decca: 470 650-2 DSA.
  • Seattle Baroque. (2001). Agar et Ismaele Esiliati. Centaur: CRC 2664
  • I Musici. (1991). Concerto Grosso. Philips Classics Productions: 434 160-2
  • I Musici. William Bennett (Flute), Lenore Smith (Flute), Bernard Soustrot (Trumpet), Hans Elhorst (Oboe). (1961). "12 Sinfonie di Concerto Grosso" Philips Box 6769 066 [9500 959 & 9500 960 - 2 vinyl discs]
  • Emma Kirkby, soprano and Daniel Taylor, countertenor, with the Theatre of Early Music. (2005). Stabat Mater. ATMA Classique: ACD2 2237
  • Francis Colpron, recorder, with Les Boréades. (2007). Concertos for flute. ATMA Classique: ACD2 2521
  • Nederlands Kamerkoor, with Harry van der Kamp, conductor. (2008). Vespro della Beata Vergine for 5 voices and continuo. ATMA Classique: ACD2 2533


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