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8.570950 - SCARLATTI, A.: Euridice dall'Inferno / La Concettione della Beata Vergine (Ars Lyrica Houston)
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725):
Alessandro Scarlatti, the great master of Baroque opera seria, was even more highly regarded by his aristocratic patrons for his exquisitely crafted chamber cantatas. Over the course of an exceptionally long and productive career, he wrote more than six hundred such works for performances at the homes of wealthy Roman patrons, including the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden, Prince Francesco Maria Ruspoli, and cardinals Benedetto Pamphili and Pietro Ottoboni, whose insatiable appetite for cantatas brought the genre to its apex. Virtually all these cantatas are about love, its joys, perils, risks, and rewards, and in their librettos one finds familiar figures from history, myth, and the pastoral world of nymphs and shepherds.
Both sources of Euridice dall’Inferno carry the date 17 June 1699, situating it in the middle of Scarlatti’s output, just after his decisive turn toward da capo procedure in aria design. (The tripartite da capo form, which includes a return to the first section of music and text, gives the singer an opportunity to embellish freely the melodic line while reinforcing the aria’s fundamental Affekt.) One of Scarlatti’s finest cantatas, Euridice consists of three beautifully calibrated recitative-aria pairs which explore the eponymous nymph’s uncertain fate in the underworld. Scored simply, for soprano and continuo (melody instruments are the exception in this repertoire), the work nevertheless conveys a wide range of emotion, from despair to hopefulness. In contrast to better-known operatic treatments of this tale, Scarlatti’s heroine is no blushing bride. Though still vulnerable and dependent on Orpheus’ musical powers to win her release, this Euridice projects courage, steadfastness, even fearlessness as she awaits her lover’s rescue.
Though comparatively few in number, Scarlatti’s surviving instrumental works are filled with idiomatic melodies and figuration. The Sonata in C minor for cello and continuo, one of a set of three such works, is by turns darkly brooding and intensely sweet. Its four-movement form, well established by this time in the violin sonata repertoire, is expanded on this recording with a reprise of the second movement Allegro after the very brief closing Presto.
As was common in Scarlatti’s day, the sources for his cello sonatas leave the exact instrumentation of these works to the performer’s discretion. Baroque cellos came in various sizes, from the normal four-string instrument familiar today to the smaller five-string violoncello piccolo, which was popular among the Italians and Germans (Bach specified it for several works, including one of his cello suites). This recording features a four-string eighteenth-century Italian cello with a continuo that includes an Italian-style harpsichord, archlute, and violone.
Scarlatti turned toward keyboard composition fairly late in life, having tired of the intrigues of Rome and Venice and semi-retired to Naples, where he remained active composing oratorios and operas on commission. His works for keyboard include a few dozen toccatas plus some variation sets, sonatas, and fugues. The Toccata in A major is cast in two parts: an initial Allegro section with a variety of figures and repeated hand crossings (a technique Alessandro’s son Domenico would later exploit), with a sprightly Giga.
The Oratorio on the Conception of the Virgin Mary is one of only two surviving Latin oratorios by Scarlatti. First performed in Rome in 1703, the work recycles music from one of the composer’s earlier Italian-language oratorios: I Dolori di Maria Sempre Vergine (Naples, 1693), which is no longer extant. Its old-fashioned scoring, for SATB soloists with two violins and continuo, contrasts with the standard four-part string complement of most oratorios from this time. Its libretto, in contrast, was utterly pertinent in 1703: La Concettione promotes the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception, which at the dawn of the eighteenth century was not yet a settled issue.
This doctrine, whose theological roots go back to the Middle Ages, became a kind of theological lightning-rod in Counter-Reformation Rome, which sought to distinguish itself in the strongest possible terms from the heresies of the Protestants. At its core was the idea that Mary, though conceived “in the way of all flesh”, was born without original sin. During the seventeenth century especially, this doctrine was challenged both from within and from without, leading to several papal pronouncements on the matter and a number of sympathetic artistic treatments of the issue, including musical compositions.
Lingering doubts about the state of Mary’s fetal soul were effectively silenced by Pope Clement XI (Giovanni Francesco Albani), who in 1708 made the Feast of the Immaculate Conception a holiday of obligation, thus insuring compliance (i.e. attendance at Mass on this day) among the faithful. As luck would have it, Albani shared a common history with Scarlatti: they were both active at the artistic Accademia founded by Queen Christina, whom Scarlatti served as maestro di cappella from 1679 to 1684. For most of the next two decades Scarlatti’s theatrical ambitions kept him elsewhere, but in 1703 he returned to the Eternal City, where he found the theatres shuttered by papal decree. Like most of his contemporaries, he turned to oratorios and cantatas on commission for wealthy ecclesiastical patrons such as Ottoboni and Pamphili. La concettione della Beata Vergine was probably first heard at one of their palaces, or perhaps at the Oratorio del Crocifisso in the Church of San Marcello, the epicentre of Roman oratorio performances since the early seventeenth century, and most likely on 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Oratorios from this time tend to comprise two more or less equal parts. This work is no exception, though its two parts are quite brief, with barely five arias apiece and just a few short ensembles. In comparison to Scarlatti’s other works in this genre, La concettione della Beata Vergine seems like only half an oratorio; and indeed, the sources suggest that its lost predecessor was longer. The final chorus of La concettione (the only movement that involves all four singers) was clearly meant to conclude this work; its emphatic quatrain, with deliberately inverted syntax at the end, precludes any more text: “Quae est hodie concepta/a crimine immunis/laetitia communis/triumphat Maria.” But most of the surviving parts arrive at the final word of text and then fall silent on the dominant chord (necessitating the invention of a few bars of music for this recording), while the continuo part cadences, then continues in a new metre and key. Whoever adapted the old music to the new libretto seems to have realised, only after copying out several bars of the next section from the lost earlier work, that he had gone too far. Why he failed to correct the mistake and supply a final cadence in the other parts remains a mystery.
In musical style as well, this oratorio is a departure from the Scarlattian norm. Its cheerful, straightforward melodies and mostly diatonic harmonies suggest an original written perhaps for a school or a confraternity with modest musical forces. One other inevitable issue with a contrafactum (a work whose music originated with another text) is the sometimes awkward fit of old music and new words. Most problematic in this regard in La concettione is the aria Conceptam Virginem, whose languid melody and dark key of B minor are at odds with the song of praise announced in its text. And yet, the remarkably brief and punchy Cede fuge superstitio seems tailor-made for its text. The other arias fall somewhere between these two extremes.
The anonymous libretto is allegorical, not dramatic, and hews closely to the central points of a doctrine dear to the Catholic faith. At the outset, Grace (alto) asserts that Mary, from the moment of her conception onwards, was untainted by original sin. The Serpent (bass), finding this notion preposterous, taunts Grace and throws down the gauntlet: Heresy (tenor) will do his bidding on earth, sowing doubt and discord among the faithful. The Archangel Michael (soprano) intervenes, reinforcing Grace’s doctrinal line, which is developed mostly by the latter in a series of arias. In the end, both Heresy and the Serpent reluctantly capitulate, much as those who doubted the doctrine—including sizeable numbers of clergy—were forced to acquiesce as the Church pressed its case for Mary’s immaculate conception.
© Matthew Dirst
The sung texts and English translations can be found at www.naxos.com/libretti/570950.htm
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