Alessandro Scarlatti: Biography, Music & Cantatas

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Alessandro Scarlatti was a prodigious composer of the Italian Baroque. In this lesson we will look at his music and the influence it had on future composers.

The Workaholic

Can you imagine writing over 100 books? How about 100 essays for school or 100 lengthy posts on your blog? The amount of time and effort that would require is intimidating. Yet there is a composer who wrote over 100 operas. Each opera could be three to four hours long. That's an awful lot of music. Meet the man with the prolific pen, Alessandro Scarlatti.

Alessandro Scarlatti
Portrait of Alessandro Scarlatti

The Life of Scarlatti

Alessandro Scarlatti was born on May 2, 1660 in Sicily. Absolutely nothing is known about his parentage or family. He went to Rome at about age twelve, where he presumably studied music. It is a popular notion that he studied under composer Giacomo Carissimi while in Rome. Scarlatti's music does reveal some Carissimi influences, but we are not actually sure who Scarlatti's teachers were.

It is certain, however, that by 1679 Scarlatti was an accomplished composer. In that year his first opera, Gli Equivoci nell'Amore, was performed in Rome. The exiled Queen Christina of Sweden was so pleased with the performance that she took Scarlatti under her patronage. He remained in her service until 1684, composing for her another opera, L'honestà negli amori . From this opera comes the popular aria 'Già il sole dal Gange', which is still sung by voice students today.

Scarlatti in Naples

The success of these two operas led to Scarlatti's appointment in Naples of Maestro di Cappella in 1684. He composed over 40 operas while he was there. These operas are an important link between the early Italian Baroque style and the Classical style that would emerge under Mozart a hundred years later.

One of Scarlatti's most important developments was the opera overture. An overture is an instrumental piece that precedes the opera. It uses musical themes from the opera as a way to introduce the audience to the music they are about to hear and to help set the proper mood. Scarlatti's overtures established the Italian overture style of fast-slow-fast, which influenced the structure of the three movement Classical period symphony.

Scarlatti In Florence and Rome

In 1702, Scarlatti left Naples for greener pastures. Although Naples had been good to him, political unrest prompted him to move on. He first tried Florence, where he composed for the Medici family. He composed four operas for the Medicis, the scores of which are now lost. In 1703, he secured the position of assistant chapel master at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Interior of Santa Maria Maggiore
Interior of Santa Maria Maggiore

During this period, Scarlatti composed what is considered his operatic masterpiece, Il Mitridate Eupatore. By this time his operas were showing advanced melodic development and use of chromatic harmony, or harmony with altered pitches not found in the key of the piece. Chromatic harmony gave Scarlatti's music greater tension, drama, and expressiveness.

Scarlatti's Final Years

Scarlatti returned to Naples in 1709 and remained there the rest of his life. He continued to compose prolifically. Although his music became somewhat old fashioned in Naples, he had two talented composing sons, Domenico and Pietro Filippo, who were rising stars in their own right. Alesssandro died on October 24, 1725 in Naples.

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