Domenico Scarlatti: Cantate da Camera

‘Before his time, the eye was made the sovereign judge of music, but Scarlatti swore allegiance only to the ear.’
Contributor: Kate Eckersley

With this statement, the 18th century music historian Charles Burney expressed one of the principal differences between the traditionalists and the progressives of the musical world, and claimed for Scarlatti a position of great importance in the emergence of new modes of musical expression. The quarrel of the ancients and modems, that perennial conflict between old and new musical styles, was finding full expression in mid-18th century England, whereScarlatti enjoyed his widest popularity. Here, they exchanged arguments and insults with vigour and abandon.

The ancients held to the safety of music which had pleased their ancestors, and convinced of the timeless excellence of their taste, they elevated their chosen music into ‘a True Sublime which cannot vary as the humour of the world does, but is founded in Nature and Reason and has the sanction of experience’ [Jones of Nayland]. Sobriety, balanced judgment and an emphasis on learning were the virtues upheld by the ancients, against what they saw as the destruction of the dignity and craft of music by the modern hoards. And at the root of the conflict was the argument of ‘eye’ versus ‘ear’ music. If, as the modems claimed, ‘the Knowledge of the Nature of all Sounds depend upon the Sense of Hearing’ [Lampel and ‘the Ear, not the Eye, must distinguish its [music’s] Beauties’ [Burney), then the whole practice and appreciation of music was thrown wide open, and anyone with ears was qualified to pass judgment.

To the ancients this was chaos, leading to the production of a ‘Deluge of unbounded Extravaganzi, which the unskillful call Invention, and which are merely calculated to shew an Execution, without either Propriety or Grace’ [Avison].

Again, speaking for the ancients, Avison lamented that ‘the Masters have often sacrificed their Art to the gross Judgment of an indelicate Audience’. Not only did ancients fear that the enjoyment of music as a purely aural experience would lead the listener to ‘abandon sense, and become an idolator of sound, which does not seem to be much for the honour of reason’ [Hanway], but they were profoundly suspicious of an approach which encouraged an essentially sensuous delight in their art. This mistrust of the senses is expressed in Charles Avison’s attempt at defining the indefinable – and therefore, for the ancients, dangerous – appeal of music: ‘The Capacity of receiving Pleasure from these musical Sounds, is, in Fact, a peculiar and internal Sense: but of a much more refined Nature than the external Senses’. William Jones of Nayland took this further, and distancing himself completely from the modems’ perception of music, claimed that ‘it is possible to be entertained by Music without hearing it’.

Moved by something more profound than a spirit of rebellious contradiction, the moderns expressed their deep dissatisfaction with an art which was ‘lettered by Custom’ [Lampel] and by those intent upon ‘cramping the beauties of their imagination, by strictly adhering to the fixt rules of composition’ [Potter]. The modems required a true composer to create ‘new, interesting and shining passages … which will at once please and surprise the hearer’ [Burney]. 

Portrait of Domenico Scarlatti

The idea that surprise should form any part of musical language seemed perilous to Avison, who cautioned: ‘it is safer to aim at pleasing than surprising’. It is therefore of some wonder that such a man should have ranked Domenico Scarlatti ‘among the great Masters of this Age’. He did this with some misgivings, however. His allegiance to ancient ideals of Propriety or Grace required him to make at least slight criticism of a composer whose works were not only ‘wild, fanciful, difficult and eccentric’, but also ‘the wonder and delight of every hearer who had a spark of enthusiasm about him and could feel new and bold effects intrepidly produced by the breach of almost all the old and established rules of composition’ [Burney].

Scarlatti’s music was a gift to the moderns. He broke rules and flouted conventions, but he did so with skill and mastery, and – most important to the moderns – with striking originality. Thus Burney could describe him as ‘truly inimitable: and this was the only original Genius, who had no Issue: and who formed no School, and whose property was out of reach of freebooters, Pilferers or Counterfeits’. In the face of this excellence, the critics were all but silenced. Such criticism as there was appeared to be directed solely at the extremes of technical difficulty in the sonatas, with the resulting – for Avison – ‘Capricious Divisions’.

But Scarlatti’s virtuosity is never empty. It is part of his musical language, which is essentially based on drama, on vivid and arresting effects, on contrasts in harmonic, melodic and textural invention. It is natural that such a language should be most appropriate to the genre of the dramatic chamber cantata, and so it is. The style of the sonatas, however, is that of the mature Scarlatti, and until recently it was thought that all Domenico’s cantatas were products of his youth. But an examination of the manuscript in the British Library from which I transcribed these cantatas left me in no doubt as to their complete stylistic affinity.

Engraving of Domenico Scarlatti

Scarlatti’s concern with the dramatic expression of the texts left no room for superfluous writing, and for this reason the conventional 18th century virtuoso passage-work is almost entirely absent. These cantatas are not vocal display pieces, although the transfer of Scarlatti’s very individual melodic idiom to the voice results in a highly unusual type of vocal writing which requires a unique virtuosity. The wide leaps so characteristic of Scarlatti’s figurations are present in the cantatas as in the sonatas, as a general feature giving definition to the line, rather than for special effect. They are used with a great variety of expression, and can he jagged or sinuous as the text requires – but perhaps the most bizarre lines are found in the passionate final aria of Fille, già più non parlo. This varied approach applies equally well to other hallmarks of Scarlatti’s style: the sudden modulations, the pungent rhythms, sometimes dancing, sometimes fiercely stabbing, sometimes hypnotically insistent, and in particular the repeated phrases and motifs and the play between major and minor modes which can tease or unnerve.

Kate Eckersley © 1992