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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Aug. 2003
I was reading the biographical entry on "Alessandro Scarlatti" in an encyclopedia the other day. It was much shorter than it should have been, finishing up with, "He is remembered as the founder of classical music and of the harmonic system later perfected by Mozart". Such a laconic throwaway line right at the end starts you reading the next entry (on "Scarlet Fever," as I recall) before the full impact of that statement really sinks in. Then—wait …the "founder of classical music"! Shouldn't that at least be followed by something like, "…and He saw that it was good and He rested"?
It is relatively easy to find something familiar and enjoyable in literature and painting from the year 1600 —Shakespeare and Rubens, to name but two from an incredibly long list. Yet, music from that year presents some problems. All those things which are familiar and likeable to the average concert-goer today—the symphony, the concerto, the opera, the orchestra, itself— did not yet exist in 1600, and only a music historian, a specialist, would be able to discern in the music that Shakespeare and Rubens surely must have listened to, the ancestor of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner.
It is only in the 1600s, with the development of the Italian opera by Claudio Monteverdi and his contemporaries, that we find music opening to the commercial world beyond the confines of the church and gaining the impetus for the development of new forms, new instruments and new concepts of melody and harmony. Alessandro Scarlatti stands at the end of this period. He is, briefly, the summing up of the entire tradition of Italian music to that time. He inherited a music that did not yet know the forms we accept today as "classical"—the symphony, the concerto, etc.— a music that had still not even settled on our modern harmonic and melodic concepts of major and minor, and a music with meager instrumental resources, to say the least. He left as his heritage advances in the modern opera, the beginnings of the symphony and a decidedly modern direction for harmony and melody; also, by including horns and woodwinds in the orchestra, he laid the foundation of the modern symphony orchestra.
He was born in Palermo,
but spent much of his active life as a composer in
Naples and Rome. He was one of the most prolific
composers in history, writing 20 oratorios, 600
chamber cantatas, 200 masses, suites for various
instrumental combinations and 150 operas! His
division of operatic overtures into "movements" was
the forerunner of the modern symphony, and his
single comic opera, The Triumph of Honour,
performed in Naples in 1718,
paved the way for the later comic operas of Pergolesi, Cimarosa, Paisiello, Rossini and Mozart.
a short audio
excerpt from The Triumph of Honour.
Goethe's remark that
"architecture is frozen music," certainly applies to
the great German composers of the Baroque. One can
easily see in the mind's eye cathedrals lofting and
arching on high to the music of Bach and Haendel.
Yet, much of Scarlatti's music is just as
"cathedralesque," if you will. He was, however, an
extremely versatile composer, and therein lies his
fascination to the student of music history, even
today. For while the Baroque side of him spired
heavenward right alongside his German colleagues,
the Enlightenment, after all, had dawned, and its
attendant musical expression required fewer
cathedrals and more architecture of human dimension.
Scarlatti's attention to the grace of newer and less
ornamental forms set the stage for classicism, and
his sense of melody, and even his sense of humor,
imbued his art with the kind of musical humanism
that would one day be the hallmark of Romanticism,