About this Recording
9.70246-47 - SCALFI MARCELLO, R.: Solo Cantatas (Complete) (D. Taylor, A.M. Morgan, D. Fox, Vinikour)

Rosanna Scalfi Marcello (c.1704–c.1742)
Complete Solo Cantatas


Rosanna Scalfi Marcello left her only surviving works in a single, unbound manuscript that was long miscatalogued as music composed by her husband, Benedetto Marcello. Studying in the library of the Saint Cecilia Academy in Rome in 1975, I mentioned the error to the head librarian (a woman), who replied, “Of course, her husband wrote the music.” In the intervening years, all of Benedetto’s music has been catalogued, and further scholarship has validated Rosanna as a composer in her own right.

Much of what we know about Rosanna comes from a charming anecdote, preserved orally and written down long after her time. Supposedly, Benedetto, a Venetian nobleman, occasionally heard young women singing in the evening in the boats that passed by his family’s palace on the Grand Canal. A particular voice impressed him by its strength and beauty. By sending a servant to inquire about her, he learned that the singer was a young woman of humble origins who had no formal musical training. He perceived an unusual talent and took her on as his private student.

In 1724 a Dutch guest heard ‘la signora Rosanna’ sing in Benedetto’s house on several occasions and noted her extraordinary range, from D3 (in the bass clef) to A5 (above the treble clef). In 1728 Benedetto married Rosanna in a religious ceremony that was kept secret from his brothers. Rosanna had a separate residence, and husband and wife lived together only when they travelled or when Benedetto occupied diplomatic posts away from Venice. Rosanna sang privately for connoisseurs, but not in public theatres.

Benedetto willed his property to Rosanna before he died in 1739, but his brothers were able to prevent her from inheriting because her marriage was not recorded in civil documents. In the spring of 1742, no doubt in need of money, she sang a leading role in a Venetian opera house. That is the last public record of her earthly life.

The first page of Rosanna’s manuscript is titled, ‘Cantatas of Signora Rosanna, wife of His Excellency, the noble Benedetto Marcello.’ This tells us that she must have copied her cantatas into the collection between 1728 and 1739. Each of the twelve separate cantatas is also labelled ‘di Rosanna’, and some are headed ‘Poesia e Musica di Rosanna.’ The handwritten musical notation does not match any of Benedetto’s manuscripts, so we can assume it is her own; it is clear but not the work of a professional scribe.

Solo cantatas were enjoyed by intimate audiences in the Baroque era in the way that string quartets came to be in the Classical era. Most cantatas required only three performers: a singer, a keyboard player or lutenist, and a cellist. Cantatas used opera’s musical conventions of recitatives and arias, but without scenery or costumes. The poetic texts of cantatas deal exclusively with love, whether happy or sad, angry or depressed, confident or in doubt. The names used are not real persons, but the fanciful names of shepherds known in the literary tradition of pastoral poetry.

Aria texts are always in two stanzas because the poet expected the music to be composed in da capo form. This means that after a first section and a contrasting section, the words da capo, the equivalent of ‘from the top’, tell the performers to repeat the first section. The repetition was not written out. Psychologically expressed, a strong emotion is sustained for one or two minutes, a contrasting thought inevitably takes its place, after which the original feeling can return with renewed vigour. Technically expressed, the prima parte establishes a key, the seconda parte modulates through other keys, and the prima parte returns in its original key. In all of Rosanna’s cantatas, the two parts share the same tempo and thematic material.

Rosanna’s cantatas follow musical models established by Alessandro Scarlatti and others, including her husband. Each cantata contains two arias with contrasting tempi. There may be a scene-setting recitative before the first aria, and there is always a recitative between the arias to explain the singer’s change of mood. All of Rosanna’s arias are da capo. Despite her close adherence to conventions, Rosanna’s individuality comes through in a number of ways, firstly in her generous use of low tones and her wide range. She relished wide leaps, especially downward, for dramatic effects. In recitatives, she is often more tonally daring than her contemporaries.

Two musical conventions deserve special notice: following standard practice, Rosanna wrote only a single-line bass part to accompany the voice (basso continuo). The two instrumentalists both played the same notes, and the keyboard player or lutenist improvised harmonies as taste required and imagination allowed. Modern editors supply harmonies for a keyboardist to play with the right hand. In the present recording, the brilliant harpsichordist and lutenist have completed the harmonies in their own personal styles. Finally, it was expected that the singer would enhance the composed vocal line by adding ornamental notes, rather as accomplished jazz singers do today. It is a modern custom to sing the prima parte without ornamentation, but it is likely that Rosanna ornamented more or less all the time, especially in slow tempos. Referring to the present recording again, Dr. Taylor has often departed from the written notes to heighten the musical expression and, appropriately, to display his own virtuosity.

Io ti voglio adorar appropriately comes first in Rosanna’s collection; it could be an encoded declaration of her love for Benedetto. The recitative admits to the pains of love, but ends with assurance that the lover will happily go on loving. The opening and closing arias are jaunty in their confidence that love will last a lifetime.

In questo giorno portrays abandonment. The slow aria is brightened by quick triplets in the voice, representing the rippling of a stream. The second recitative breaks into a bit of extended melody on the word more, referring to death. The quick aria uses one of Rosanna’s favourite techniques, imitation between the bass part and the voice.

Quand’io miro begins with a slow aria in dotted rhythms extolling the beloved’s beauty. The recitative says that just as a fevered man’s thirst can only be relieved by water, so the lover’s longing can only be relieved by the sight of Clori. The final aria declares his faithfulness, and his pride leads to vocal leaps as great as an octave and a half, as well as flashes of rapid ornamentation.

Solcare il mar tranquillo explores two contrasting metaphors for persistent love. The first recitative pictures a courageous steersman facing a storm; the following aria deploys a stern, academic style in 4/2 meter. In the second recitative, the lover is a foolish moth that burns itself in a candle flame; the final aria is light and agile in 6/8.

Dunque fia vero asks what the lover has done to offend his beloved Fille. Rosanna’s delight in large downward leaps shows up in both the first aria and the second recitative, where unusual juxtapositions of poetic ideas call forth startling tonality changes. Foreseeing his lonely death, the singer calls on breezes and brooks to carry his love to Fille, and these images inspire running scales in the final aria.

Mirar quei chiari lumi claims that the beloved’s eyes have lighted flames in his heart, and the adagio aria accuses Cupid of inflicting burns on his bosom. Unheard, the lover offers a lament to the wind, and this leads to a hope in the second aria that cool breezes may at least ease his pain.

Arde quest’alma opens with an uncommonly solemn aria. Seven times the word ‘languishing’ is observed with a fermata. The recitative contains sharply contrasting harmonies, and the final aria reaches the highest pitch that Rosanna wrote for herself, an octave and a fourth above middle C.

Ferma, Fileno ingrato begs Fileno to pause before going away to a distant place and to return the heart that he has stolen away. The first aria boasts that Fileno will never have a more faithful lover than the one whom he is leaving. But he does not stop, and the lover is left again, complaining into the air. The final aria calls him arrogant (superbo) and highlights that word with energetic scales and by stretching one syllable to a pompous length of seven measures. This aria has another unique feature: After the first section closes in G major, the key signature changes and the singer introduces the new key of B flat without instrumental support.

Mio cor, alfin sei vinto is an admission of defeat; the lover, resisting love, had struggled against his feelings, but Cupid has overwhelmed him. Understandably, Rosanna’s style is subdued here, with no startling modulations and no leaps of more than an octave.

Arder di due pupille tells of a love that begins with adoring the beloved’s beauty and leads to total selfless devotion. Both arias declare a readiness to suffer if that brings pleasure to the beloved and even if the beloved is unfaithful. The second aria is Rosanna’s only use of triple meter, 3/4 time.

Ecco il momento takes a feminine viewpoint (four cantatas are feminine, three are neutral, and five are masculine). Rosanna’s intuitive reaction to a dramatic situation is evident in the second recitative, which begins and ends in F sharp minor (three sharps) and passes through at least six other keys, reaching the remote F minor (four flats) at an emotional low point. The final aria brings resignation: the lover is almost joyfully proud of her unrewarded faithfulness.

Se mai non sieno directly addresses the beloved, whose flashing eyes cause pain like arrows and darts. Although the beloved’s heart is still ‘scornful’, the lover harbours some hope of romantic fulfilment and urges the beloved to learn pity and cease being cruel. The final aria is in a minuet rhythm and is the only aria that contains repeated sections, other than the customary da capo.

John Glenn Paton

For further reading: Rosanna Scalfi Marcello, 12 Cantatas for Alto Voice and Basso Continuo, edited by Deborah Hayes and John Glenn Paton, ClarNan Editions, 2013.

Close the window