Alessandro_Scarlatti

Program Notes by Bruce Lamott

 A lot was riding on the shoulders of baby Archduke Leopold at his birth on April 13, 1716. He was the male heir so fervently wished for by his father, Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, to continue the Hapsburg dynasty in Austria and prevent another brutal war of succession such as that just concluded over the throne of Spain. In 1700 his unfortunate relative Charles II of Spain died heirless, and when Charles attempted to claim his kingdom, he precipitated a costly war with France, known as the War of the Spanish Succession. Although he lost Spain to Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV, Charles VI received a consolation prize in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) consisting of a package of the regions of Milan, Sardinia, the Austrian Netherlands, and the Kingdom of Naples.

It was expedient therefore, for the Neapolitan Prince Gaetano d’Aragona and his culture-loving wife, Aurora Sanseverino, to host an opulent celebration in Naples honoring the newborn heir of their newly acquired sovereign. They commissioned their court composer, Alessandro Scarlatti, already Europe’s foremost composer of Italian serious opera (opera seria), to compose a grand serenata on a text by Aurora’s private secretary, the Abbate Nicolo Giovo. Scarcely a month passed between the noble birth and the premiere of this work, La Gloria di Primavera on May 19, 1716, a remarkable feat of musical production comparable to Handel’s 28-day composition of Messiah. The cast of superstars, the complex orchestration, and the scope of this composition all confirm that the Neapolitans spared no expense in producing this sumptuous work.

While the genre of serenata (an extended multi-movement work written for one-off occasions such as marriages and birthdays) may be less familiar than opera seria, the forms are nearly identical. Secco recitatives, accompanied only by harpsichord, lutes (theorbos), and cello, introduce most of the arias. Jove, however, appropriate to his station, sings recitative accompanied by the orchestra, providing a “halo” of harmony that underscores the profundity and significance of his character (just as Bach does for Jesus in the St. Matthew Passion).

The arias themselves are cast in the form known as the da capo aria. Two sentences (A and B) are sung with considerable repetition of text, with introductions and interludes (known asritornellos) played by the orchestra. The notation da capo (literally, “from the top”) appears at the end of sentence B, instructing the performers to repeat the A section once more, creating a symmetrical A-B-A form; this repetition also allows the performers the opportunity to improvise ornamental riffs on the original melody. La Gloria has but one duet (No. 48), but a number of cori (not choruses per se, but an ensemble of the principal characters sometimes supplemented by additional voices) articulate sections of the libretto.

While the performance of some serenatas may have been stand-and-sing affairs much like oratorios, we know that the performance of La Gloria featured sumptuous sets and costumes by Christoforo Schor and probably one special effect with stage action. Jove would likely have descended from the stage rigging in a cloud machine, literally a deus ex machina.

One could ask why the noble patrons—knowing that infant mortality among the inbred Hapsburgs was unusually high—might not have waited until the newborn emperor-elect was more than a month old to celebrate his birth in such an extravagant fashion. However, this work is as much a celebration of Austrian hegemony as it is a birthday tribute. We may never know which of the Hapsburg nobility, if any, were in attendance at its only performances in Naples, or what dispatch the royal family may have received about it, but it seems likely that Prince Gaetano and Aurora stood to gain favor with their new rulers in Vienna.

Unfortunately, the life of this extraordinary work runs parallel to that of its dedicatee. Just months after the premiere, on November 4, the celebrated infant died. Eventually, upon the death of his father, this would cause his younger sister, Maria Theresa, to have to defend her right to the imperial throne against the whole of continental Europe in another bloody war, the War of the Austrian Succession.

The first audience of La Gloria was so taken by it that after its premiere on May 19, 1716, it had to be performed twice again, a rare occurrence for such occasional works. But thereafter, the work has been neither edited nor performed until now.

The individual movements may be organized thematically into a series of scenes.

Part I

Introduction and Nos. 1-11. Celebration of the Noble Birth

Nos. 12-19. Reflections on the Past (War) and Present (Peace)

No. 20-21.  Proposal of the Contest and the Invocation of Jove

Part II

Introduction and Nos. 22-24.  Further Invocation and Arrival of Jove

Nos. 25-30. In Praise of Jove

Nos. 31-40. The Contest of the Seasons

Nos. 41-44. Resolution of the Contest

Nos. 45-56. Benedictions for the Future Empire

Synopsis. Part One. Receiving the joyful news of the newborn heir, each of the four seasons reflects on the significance of this noble birth to the Austrian (aka Holy Roman) Empire. Spring (Primavera), Summer (Estate), Autumn (Autunno), and Winter (Inverno) in turn sing a recitative and aria describing imperial symbols such as the eagle and the Danube, emblematic of what Spring describes as “we, the storied elect.” A second cycle of arias is introduced with recitatives on a poetic juxtaposition of  “then and now” (in Italian, or and già)contrasting the horrors of the recently ended War of the Spanish Succession, personified by the Roman goddess of war Bellona,  with the pleasures and serenity of the ensuing peace, historically known as the Peace of Utrecht.  However, when Spring audaciously claims higher honors than the rest owing to the date of the royal birth, the other seasons take exception, and all agree to invoke Jove to be their judge.

Part Two. A solemn invocation greets the arrival of Jove, and Spring sums up for him the arguments of her rivals: of Summer for the child’s conception, Autumn for the fecundity of “the Imperial breast,” Winter for the growing strength in the womb, and Spring herself takes credit (again) for the child’s birth. Each season, in that order, then makes their claim by amplifying these themes with a recitative and aria, leaving Spring last up to win over the already biased Jove with a double play: an aria both evoking the song of a nightingale and sung in the seductive rhythm of a siciliana. The predictable outcome is accepted by the other seasons without protest. The remainder of the work consists of benedictions from each season on the newborn and his role in the Empire, a return to the textual themes of the opening scene: a continuation of the Hapsburg line, immortality, and protection from threats against the Empire (specifically Ottomans, Thracians, Asians, and Anatolian Turks). Jove gets the final word, claiming the infant as his spiritual son, and all proclaim the return of a beautiful Age of Gold ( Ò bell’età d’oro).

The musical richness of the piece reflects the virtuoso cast at Scarlatti’s disposal. The role of Primavera (Spring) was sung by the soprano castrato Matteo Sassano, nicknamed “the nightingale of Naples” (il rosignuolo di Napoli); whether his nightingale aria in Part Two was a response to this reputation or vice-versa remains uncertain. Estate (Summer) was sung by Margherita Durastanti, later to be known for her numerous roles as a leading lady (and leading man) in Handel’s operas at the London’s Royal Academy in the 1720’s. Whoever was cast in the bass role of Giove (Jove) must have been singer of exceptional technique and extraordinary range, exploited by Scarlatti with downward and upward leaps by as much as an octave and a half.

As in opera seria, the roles are ranked in a hierarchy. The arias for the title role, Primavera (Spring), are the most numerous and multi-faceted, ranging from jaunty (No. 3) to virtuosic (No. 30) to poignant and affective (No. 52). Because this traditionally feminine role was being sung by a leading man (primo uomo), the role of Estate (Summer) is technically speaking the prima donna. Though appearing in the score as “Soprano II” in the ensembles, her lines are consistently higher than Primavera and exploit Durasanti’s expressive coloratura (No. 5) and affective range from pathos (No. 15) to delight (No. 34). Autunno (Autumn) is a more dramatic role clearly written for a alto with an agile technique (No. 36), power (No. 50), and plangent expression (No. 17). While we might expect a blustery bass to be singing Inverno (Winter), Scarlatti cast the tenor Gaetano Borghi in the role, filling his arias with dramatically powerful coloraturas  (No. 9, 19) sometimes extended to exhaustive lengths (No. 46).  Though he appears only in Part II, Giove (Jove) is god of considerable personality, first singing in the pompous dotted rhythms of the French overture (No. 26) and making pronouncements in accompanied recitatives. His second aria (No. 32), however, is an intimate aria di cantabile in which his voice breaks with expressive sighs (suspirans). He becomes even less god-like in his scherzo-like final aria (No. 42), conveying a mood that is, well, downright jovial.

The orchestral writing is colorful and varied. The imperial significance of the noble birth is announced in the Introduzione to Part I by a pair of trumpets followed by a flurry of string fanfares and passagework, juxtaposed with a trio of two oboes and bassoon in the style of a concerto grosso. This scoring recurs in the final movement (No. 54) with the addition of tutti and solo vocal lines. The single duet (No. 48) is given a singular scoring of five-part strings set in lines for unison violins, violas, two independent cello parts—each with its own lute and figured bass, and a third continuo group of harpsichord and bass.  In contrast to the complexity of these movements, a simple two-line texture of both violin and oboe parts in unison against the bass engage in a witty dialogue with Jove’s syncopated vocal line (a style known as alla zoppa) (No. 42).

A particular characteristic of Scarlatti’s vocal writing often occurs in the arias. While the orchestral ritornellos are played by all of the instruments of the basso continuo section (cello, bassoon, bass, harpsichord, lute), when the voice enters the harpsichord and bass drop out, leaving the lowest sounding string part in either the cello or viola; such a passage, called abassetto, creates a sense of string sonority floating under and around the vocal line, absent the depth of the bass and percussive harmony of the harpsichord.

Allusions to nature abound in this musical landscape of imperial Austria. The Danube winds around the feet of the newborn archduke in Autumn’s first aria (no. 7). Leaping octaves depict rays of sunlight in Summer (No. 15), and flashes of descending scales (tiratas) and spiky arpeggios conjure Winter’s storm (No. 19). Gently cascading violins and divided violas accompany Autumn’s description of rivers set free from icy obstruction (No. 17), and Spring’s vocal acrobatics conjures the fury of a shipwreck tossed in a tempest (No. 30). Pastoral images are created by two oboes in Spring’s nightingale aria (No. 40) and the solo flute which twitters among whispering trees and grasses described by Summer (No. 54).

A particularly appealing image is Scarlatti’s frequent use of a musical “topic” known as zefiro(zephyr), used to represent breezes, fountains, and streams through the undulation of parallel thirds or sixths in wavelike repetitions over a slowly moving bass (nos. 7, 11, 17, 54).  This underscores the repeated theme of peace that has now come to the Empire. The opposite effect is created by bombilans, rapidly repeated  notes in the trumpets and strings used for agitation, especially of military themes (No. 50).

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra audiences are among the first to hear the wonders of La Gloria di Primavera in nearly 300 years. Philharmonia’s subsequent recording of this work will make another significant contribution to the known Scarlatti repertoire, just as we have done with his Vespers of St. Cecilia. This is not a peripheral work by some second-tier composer, but a major masterwork by a giant of the Baroque period at the top of his game.

That Scarlatti could have created such an elaborate and substantive work without visiting it again in the nine years remaining before his death in 1725 attests to the fecundity of his talent. Had he been given the opportunity to repurpose his serenata for the nativity of the archduke into an oratorio on the nativity of Christ–as Handel would surely have done–the extraordinary music of La Gloria di Primavera might not have had to wait for Philharmonia to bring it once again to the attention of the public.

Bruce Lamott

[I am indebted to the research of Prof. Benedikt Poensgen, both for his edition of the work and for his informative introduction on the details of its creation.]

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