Alessandro Scarlatti And The Neapolitan School

What in the Venetian school had been a reaction in favor of form and melody became the established practice of the Neapolitan school. Political disturbances had hindered the spread of the Opera in southern Italy, particularly in Naples, but at the end of the 17th century it assumed the position formerly occupied by Florence and Venice. Before this, however, a strong influence had been exerted by certain composers in Rome, of whom Carissimi was first in importance. Had- it not been for the disapproval of the Church, a definite Roman school might have arisen. Such a school would doubtless have been advantageous to the artistic growth of the Opera, since the public taste at Rome in matters of art was more serious in nature than at Naples. In 1697, public performances of opera were forbidden by the ecclesiastical authorities, and thus the seat of further development was transferred to Naples through the removal thither from Rome of Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725), the founder of the Neapolitan school. As a lad, he had been a pupil of Carissimi and also probably of Legrenzi, whose influence is clearly seen in his early works. –

Alessandro Scarlatti.—Scarlatti invested his operas with a melodic charm and a symmetrical form which thus far had appeared only sporadically. Fascinated by the freedom of the new style, the early composers had neglected the severe study which had been indispensable to mastery in the Contrapuntal School, and had in the main relied on natural gifts. Following the ideal of Peri and his associates, their operas were largely a succession of recitatives which in the end grew monotonous and wearisome; of form, of structure, of purely musical effect they bore but slight traces. Scarlatti saw that the time had come for a change in style —one that should combine the musical interest of the old with the dramatic spirit of the new. The foremost musician of his time, he perceived the weakness of the exclusively declamatory opera—its lack of variety and want of appeal to the public in general.

His Characteristics.—He was not a reformer. He lacked the strong and rugged dramatic fibre of his predecessor, Monteverde. Scholarship ; an inexhaustible fund of melody, pure, polished, refined; a gift of characterization general, not particular, and always subordinate to a keen sense of beauty—are his, distinguishing characteristics. He fell in with the taste of the day and devoted his gifts to the production of works which should satisfy the musician and please the public. The solidity of his early schooling had made him a master of counterpoint, and this he applied in the construction of logically worked-out accompaniments, fuller, richer and more expressive than had been attempted by his less learned contemporaries. In nobility of conception and skill in solving contrapuntal problems he often shows that he is not unworthy the name of the “Italian Bach,” as he is sometimes called. Like Bach, also, he was one of the most prolific composers of all times. He left one hundred and fifteen operas, sixty-six of which are still extant, more than two hundred masses, besides many miscellaneous works for church and concert, both vocal and ‘ instrumental.

His Services to the Opera.—To the simple recitative (recitativo secco), invented by Peri, he added the important form known as the recitativo stromentato (accompanied recitative). This was not strictly original with Scarlatti, since it had been introduced by Purcell in his Dido and Eneas ten years before the Italian had first used it in his opera Rosaura (169o). There is no probability, however, that Scarlatti was acquainted with the Englishman’s works ; it is a not uncommon matter for two minds to arrive independently at the same result. In the accompanied recitative, the voice, instead of being supported by detached (secco) chords on the harpsichord, sometimes with the addition of a single stringed instrument, as in the simple recitative, was accompanied by the entire orchestra, which had grown to proportions undreamed-of in Peri’s day. Vastly developed by the growth of orchestral resources, it is the distinguishing feature of the modern music drama. As a rule, however, it was but little used in Scarlatti’s operas or in those of his contemporaries. Interest in the drama, as such, was fast sinking to a negligible quantity; audiences assembled to hear their favorite singers, not to follow the course of a more or less involved dramatic action. The simple recitative was, therefore, more frequently employed in order to hurry through the necessary details of the play and reach the moment when the singer could delight by his art in the aria.

The Aria.—Scarlatti was not the inventor of the aria or air for the single voice in the meaning of the term as applied to a certain fixed form. Other composers had used it before him in its essential principles, but he was the first to formulate it into a persistent type, which it retained for nearly a century, despite its undramatic character. The Scarlatti aria consisted of three parts : two contrasting sections, concluding with a Da Capo or repetition of the first, expressed by the formula A B A. The principle of Repetition as an element of form is now a commonplace, but at the time it was a novelty, and the emphasis given to it by the aria fascinated the public and made it the principal feature of the opera. More than anything else, it led to its degeneration. Singers found in the aria a means of displaying their technical skill; it became the canvas on which they embroidered the most astonishing tours de force. The art of acting almost disappeared from the operatic stage; the poise of body and voice required for such vocal efforts banished all but a few conventional gestures.

The Overture.—Scarlatti’s powers were by no means con-fined to writing for the voice; the instrumental portions of his works give evidence of equal mastery, though the popular taste for singing allowed him but little scope for ex-tension in this direction. His overtures in particular show a great advance over the simple preludes of the early Italian operas. He perfected what is known as the Italian Overture in contradistinction to the earlier form invented by Lully, and called the French Overture. It consisted of three movements, the first and last quick, the middle movement slow. In its arrangement, this was the direct precursor of the modern symphony. At first the two terms were inter-changeable; an overture when played before an opera was called a Sinfonia, and curiously enough, when played in-dependently as a concert number it was frequently called an overture. Some of the early symphonies were even printed with one title outside and the other inside.

The Typical Italian Opera.—Thus at the beginning of the 18th century we find the Opera on an overwhelmingly musical basis instead of the oratorical foundation which ;t had in its inception. Scarlatti fixed its form for a centu

He left it consisting principally of recitatives and arias, each opera containing from fifty to sixty of the latter. Aside from these there was but little formal music—only an occasional march or dance besides the overture. The simple recitative was used for ordinary dialogue; hence it was peculiarly applicable to the Opera Buffa (comic opera). The accompanied recitative was reserved for situations of dramatic importance, and the aria served to express individual emotion. The chorus was employed but sparingly, generally appearing only at the end of the act to give greater eclat to the finale. The dance, which in the early Opera had played a part of some importance, was finally banished entirely from the scene, though not from the stage.

It was given between the acts as an intermezzo (interlude), and thus developed into the formal ballet. Spectacular features, too, assumed great prominence.

The Intermezzo.—The Intermezzo has a close connection with the opera. It arose from the custom of introducing something between the acts of a play or opera to entertain the audience during the necessary period of waiting. At first songs or madrigals were sung, then by degrees the entertainment took on a dramatic form, until at last a drama was given totally independent of the principal play. Singularly enough, the acts of the two plays were per-formed alternately, neither having any connection with the other. The. Intermezzo was always of a gayer, lighter character; thus when the incongruity of the practice became apparent, it naturally evolved into the Opera Buffa. This was brought about by the success of the most celebrated comic opera ever written, La Serva Padrona (The Maid as Mistress), by Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736). This was originally produced (1734) as an Intermezzo between the acts of another play, and afterward made a triumphant progress through all the opera houses in Europe as an in-dependent work.

The Opera Buffa.—Though for the sake of contrast, comic characters had been introduced into the opera during the early Venetian period, the Opera Buffa did not reach its full development until the following century. Owing to the absence of certain conventions which had grown around the Opera Seria (serious opera) it became a more characteristic mode of expression than the latter. Its melodies were fresher, its dramatic action was less restrained and truer to life, while it performed a valuable service by doing away with the strange mingling of comic and serious styles which had previously disfigured many otherwise impressive works. To it we owe the concerted Finale which is such a feature of modern grand opera. It is attributed to Niccolo Logroscino (1700-1763), who instead of the customary conclusion of an act by a simple duet, trio, or quartet, brought all the Dramatis Personce on the stage to take part in a characteristic ensemble. Greatly developed by later composers, such finales were for a long time confined to Opera Buffa, until Paisiello finally introduced them into serious opera.

Prominent Composers of the Neapolitan School. — It is hardly possible to mention more than a few of the numerous composers belonging to the Neapolitan school. Besides Pergolesi, the most important works of this school were composed by Niccolo Porpora (1685-1767), Niccolo Jommelli (1714-1774), Niccolo Piccini (1728-1800), Giovanni Paisiello (1741-1816) and Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801). Most of these were equally at home in the Opera Seria and the Opera Buffa, but their works in the latter style have proved the more enduring.

Porpora is more noteworthy for the singers he formed than for his forty-six operas, all of which have sunk into oblivion. He was the greatest of the many masters of singing who through their pupils made the Opera of the 18th century the field of display for the most remarkable singers the world has ever heard. Jommelli was one of the most gifted composers of his day. He spent fifteen years in Germany as capellmeister to the Duke of Wurtemburg, but the influence of this long residence in a country where musical ideals were of a more austere type than in Italy, though it added dignity and solidity to his art, was fatal to his popularity when he returned to his native land; his countrymen found his operas heavy in style and deficient in melody. Piccini was the composer of the most popular Opera Buffa of the century, Cecchina, but is now remembered principally by the bitter feud which arose in Paris in 1787 between his admirers and those of Gluck. Paisiello’s most celebrated work was Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), which held the stage for thirty years until the success of Rossini’s masterpiece on the same subject forced it into retirement. Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage) was an equal favorite; one of its numbers, the trio for women’s voices, Ti Faccio ur. Inchino (I make thee a reverence), sometimes appears or modern programs.

Influence of the Neapolitan School.—Notwithstanding the formalism of the Neapolitan school, which led to a regret-table neglect of the dramatic signification of the Opera by an over-emphasis of its musical element, it was of no small importance in the development of music in general. By fixing the principles of form and melody at a time when both were vague and undetermined, Scarlatti laid the foundation of the great classical period, beginning with Haydn and Mozart and ending with Beethoven. This was his contribution to absolute music, which cannot exist without form, though its influence was disastrous to purity of form in the branch of the art which he particularly cultivated.


Dent.—Alessandro Scarlatti : His -Life and Works.