Pietro Alessandro Gaspare Scarlatti

Pietro Alessandro Gaspare Scarlatti (1660-1725) was an Italian composer. Over 600 of his chamber cantatas survive; they represent the peak of the genre. The most outstanding and influential operatic writer of his day, he founded the so-called Neapolitan opera school.

The operas by Alessandro Scarlatti that primarily influenced his younger contemporaries were written during his first sojourn in Naples, when he felt obliged to cater to Neapolitan taste—one that preferred simple, immediately attractive melodies, embellished with coloratura, and that elevated the importance of the solo singer, especially the castrato, to unprecedented heights, and, as a result, severely limited the number of ensembles and the role of the orchestra. Three other important features of this period are the increasing use of the da capo form of aria, which by the turn of the century virtually ousted all other forms; the establishing of the so-called Italian overture, or sinfonia, as a tripartite form—quick, slow, quick—first introduced in the 1696 revival of Scarlatti's Tutto il mal … (1681); and the inclusion in most of the operas of two comic characters who are an integral part of the plot.

Scarlatti's greatest operas are those he wrote after he left Naples in 1702. In them the orchestra is more important and colorful, the melodies are more subtly expressive and phrased, the harmony is clearer and more varied, and the texture ranges from simple homophony to rich polyphony. It was these operas that influenced, in varying degrees and in different ways, such composers as George Frederick Handel, Johann Adolf Hasse, and Scarlatti's son Domenico, the last two being among the most significant figures in the transition period between the baroque and the Viennese school of the late 18th century.

Scarlatti was born in Palermo on May 2, 1660, the eldest son of Pietro and Eleonora d'Amato Scarlata. Details of his early life are sketchy; he probably went to relatives in Rome in 1672 in company with his two sisters, Anna Maria and Melchiorra, and, tradition has it, became a pupil of Giacomo Carissimi. This tradition is supported by the earliest record of Scarlatti as a musician, namely, a commission, dated Jan. 27, 1679, to compose an oratorio for the Arciconfraternita‧ del SS. Crocifisso, for which Carissimi had written several similar works.

In April of the previous year Scarlatti married Antonia Anzalone; they had 10 children, of whom by far the most distinguished was Domenico. The first of Scarlatti's operas to bring him fame, Gli equivoci nel sembiante (1679), also brought him an appointment, for the libretto of his next opera, L'honesta‧ negli amori (1680), describes him as chapelmaster (maestro di cappella) to Queen Christina of Sweden, who spent most of her life in Rome after her abdication.

In 1683 Scarlatti was put in charge of the entire opera season at Naples, producing in December his first original work for the city, Psiche. The following year he became chapelmaster to the royal chapel in Naples, an appointment that was largely, if not wholly, due to an influential official whose mistress was Scarlatti's sister Melchiorra. In the ensuing scandal the highly esteemed second chapelmaster, Provenzale, who had expected to be promoted, resigned, the official was fired, and Melchiorra was ordered to leave the city or enter a convent!

During the next 18 years Scarlatti composed at least 38 operas, in addition to serenatas, cantatas, and church music; all but six of the operas were performed initially in Naples, and many of them received performances elsewhere. But although his fame was spreading, Scarlatti was becoming increasingly frustrated by the kind of music he was expected to produce. In 1702 he was granted 4 months' leave of absence, but once out of Naples it is clear he had no intention of returning, and for the next 7 years he looked in vain for a position that would satisfy his needs and wishes.

At first Scarlatti enjoyed the patronage of Prince Ferdinand de' Medici in Florence, for whose private theater he wrote several operas; no permanent position transpired, however, and in 1703 he accepted a very inferior post as assistant chapelmaster at the church of S. Maria Maggiore, Rome. In 1707 he became principal chapelmaster, but this did nothing to lessen his frustration, for in Rome at this time opera was virtually nonexistent, owing to strong papal disapproval. But he continued to write operas for Prince Ferdinand, most of which have not survived, and composed his first opera for Venice (1707), where he spent some months.

Although Scarlatti's operatic production had waned during this period, his reputation had not, and in 1709 he returned to his old post at Naples, with an increase in salary and free to compose as he wished. Here he remained until 1717, producing some of his best operas, notably Tigrane (1715), and receiving a knighthood from the Pope the following year. But Rome still held a great fascination for him, and in 1717, encouraged by a change in the papal attitude toward opera, he settled there. In the ensuing 5 years or so he composed his last works for the stage, including his one comic essay in the genre, I trionfo dell'onore (1718), and, according to the libretto, his 114th opera—Griselda (1721). (This is the last of 35 complete extant operas from a known total of 115.)

In 1722 or 1723 Scarlatti returned to Naples, where he lived in complete retirement, composing very little, and virtually ignored. In 1724 Hasse, then aged 25, became his pupil and close friend. Scarlatti died on Oct. 24, 1725.


Further Reading on Pietro Alessandro Gaspare Scarlatti

An old but still useful biography of Scarlatti is Edward J. Dent, Alessandro Scarlatti (1905; rev. ed. 1960). He is discussed in Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era (1947), and Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (1947; 2d ed. 1965).