Fresco notes

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)Sinfonia from La caduta de’ Decemviri


Like the Bach family, the Scarlattis consistently produced a number of talented, and prominent, musicians over a series of generations. Alessandro Scarlatti, along with four of his eight siblings, pursued the profession, like their father (a tenor in Palermo) before them, and Alessandro’s son, Domenico, would go on to become a notable contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, and George Frideric Handel. 

When Alessandro was just twelve years old, family circumstances forced the Scarlattis to uproot from Palermo to Rome, a move that provided the budding young musician an opportunity to engage with the lively and virtuosic performances in the city. It also allowed him the proximity to make important connections. At eighteen years old, and newly married, he made the fortunate acquaintance of sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Bernini’s son Filippo, would become godfather to Scarlatti’s first child). As his list of illustrious patrons grew, so did his status in the musical world of Rome, eventually catching the attention of Queen Christina of Sweden, who famously relinquished her throne in order to live a life of artistic patronage, religious piety, and fierce independence.
An appointment in Naples followed in 1684, and it was in this city that their son Domenico was born the following year. Scarlatti was engaged primarily in writing operas, a genre still morphing and taking shape since the premiere of Monteverdi’s L’orfeo in 1607. It would be in this genre, as well as cantatas, that Scarlatti would be most prolific, and contribute the most musically. During Scarlatti’s tenure in Naples, the level of opera in the city rose to eventually “rival Venice as the pre-eminent operatic city” by 1700. His reputation gained a commission from Ferdinando de’ Medici. Scarlatti had reached a pinnacle of fame and prestige within his profession. The family would move from Naples back to Rome, then Venice, and eventually back to Naples over the remainder of Scarlatti’s life. 

La caduta de’ Decemviri, the dramatic content of which is drawn from histories of Ancient Rome, was written in 1697. It was his first collaboration with librettist Silvio Stampiglia, and is often referred to as representing the transition between Scarlatti’s middle and late compositional styles. 

Luciano Berio (1925-2003)Selections from Duetti per due Violini
Many people have an awareness of the history of music, but Berio was keenly aware of his place within it. In 1968 he wrote Sinfonia for the New York Philharmonic’s 125th anniversary, which quotes numerous compositions from Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Mahler, to name a few. Rendering, which he wrote between 1989-1990 inserts newly composed music between the fragments of an unfinished Schubert symphony. The questions he seems to be asking here are both about influence, and the eternal apprenticeship to the past that each artist undergoes. 

The Duetti per due Violini were written between 1979-1983. There are thirty-four of them, each named for a different person, and linked to a personal memory, interaction, or lesson learned. Furthermore, they are structured for use as pedagogical tools with one part often a bit easier than the other. Berio wrote his own program note for the Duetti. A portion of it follows:

“It can happen that a violinist friend tells a composer, one night, that other than those of Bartók, there are not enough violin duets today. And it can happen that the composer immediately sets himself to writing duets that night until dawn...and then more duets in the moments of leisure, in different cities and hotels, between rehearsals, traveling, thinking of somebody, when looking for a present...this is what happened to me and I am grateful to that nocturnal violinist whose name is given to one of these Duetti. Thus behind every duet there are personal reasons and situations.” He continues, “These Duetti are for me what the vers de circonstance were for Mallarmé: that is, they are not necessarily based on deep musical motivations, but rather connected by the fragile thread of daily occasions.”
Aidan Ng (B. 2003)Solstice Festival (World Premiere)

The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year; its daylight lasts around only eight hours. During these cold winter days, I find myself stuck at home, while the snowstorms outside pound on my window. However, I realize that no matter where I am, music allows me to escape reality and bypass my limitations. Through music, a freezing winter solstice at home can turn into a vibrant solstice festival.-Aidan Ng

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)String Sonata No. 3 in C Major
When we think of Rossini, we think of him in his adulthood, the composer of thirty-nine operas, and some of the most beloved tunes in the classical repertoire. But the music of his childhood also deserves notice since he was just as precocious as Mozart or Mendelssohn. Six string sonatas were written over a summer spent with a wealthy patron, Agostino Triossi, in 1804. Rossini was twelve years old. In the sonatas, the rising popularity of the double bass, due to the popularity of its virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti, is evidenced with the omission of the viola in favor of the bass (Triosso was also an amateur double bass player, cementing the motivation for the instrumentation). 

Rossini said (with a touch of pride at his own young talent) when reminiscing about writing the sonatas: “First violin, second violin, violoncello, and contrabass parts for six horrendous sonatas composed by me at the country house (near Ravenna) of my friend and patron, Agostino Triossi, at the most youthful age, having not even had a lesson in thorough-bass. They were all composed and copied by me in three days and performed in a doggish way by Triossi, the Morini brothers, and the second violin by myself who was, to tell the truth, the least doggish.” 

Nicola Porpora (1686-1768)Calcante ed Achille
Born in Naples to a bookseller named Carlo and his wife Caterina, Nicola Porpora would become not only an important musician of the Italian Baroque, but also the teacher of some of the greatest composers and performers of all time, including the castrato vocalist Ferinelli, and Franz Joseph Haydn. 

In 1708, while in his early twenties, Porpora received his first opera commission and produced “L’Agrippina.” However, other opportunities to write music were limited until Alessandro Scarlatti, the preeminent figure in Naples at the time, moved away. Porpora then began to establish himself as a teacher, and opera composer, gaining a name for himself even in Rome (a sweet victory was the pronouncement that his opera Eumene was “superior’ to Scarlatti’s La Griselda). For a brief period of time he tried to create a career in Germany and Austria, but the effort was unsuccessful. After returning to Italy he collaborated with the famed librettist Metastasio on several operas. In 1733 opportunity took Porpora to London where he assisted with the development of an opera company that was meant to be in direct competition with Handel. When that dissolved, he returned to Italy. His oeuvre was enormous, including sonatas, sinfonias, and concertos, along with dozens of operas, serenatas, oratorios, motets, and various sacred works. Calcante ed Achille, a chamber duet for soprano and bass with strings, was one of the many secular cantatas he produced.   

Sadly the last years of Porpora’s life were spent in poverty, due to unfortunate circumstances. The musicians of Naples performed at his funeral for free, a testament to their respect for the native son. 

-Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music and cultural critic, and freelance writer. A graduate of New England Conservatory, she writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.