Researching the Cantatas of Alessandro Scarlatti

Article featured at the Scarlatti Project
Contributor: Rosalind Halton

Over 50 research libraries in Europe and the U.S.A. have volumes of cantata manuscripts that contain works by Alessandro Scarlatti. The massive task of cataloguing and evaluating this music was begun by English musicologist Edward Dent, publishing in 1905 his study, Alessandro Scarlatti: his life and works

The indispensable map through the mass of material is the work of Edwin Hanley in his Yale Ph.D of 1963, Alessandro Scarlatti’s “Cantate da Camera”: a bibliographical study

Another starting point … Christ Church College Library, Oxford, a volume copied by two Roman copyists and collected by Richard Goodson, Professor of Music at Oxford 1682-1718: the English fascination with Scarlatti goes back to the 17th century. 

Who copied the cantatas and how widely did they circulate?

Most of the answers so far come from Handel studies. Articles by Ursula Kirkendale (U.S.A.) and Keiichiro Watanabe (Tokyo) have done much to document the Roman professional copyists who worked with Scarlatti. As Scarlatti’s music became sought after, copies were made by English collectors, others by French – some pieces retained their interest decades after Scarlatti’s death. Recognising the hallmarks of each type of manuscript is an important part of researching and editing his music. 

Copyists that worked in direct personal contact with Scarlatti give the most useful clues after the autographs – so we need to recognise their work. How did the composer/copyist relationships work in Naples, where Scarlatti spent so much of his working life? This work is still to be done, though the Naples/Rome distinction is easy enough to recognise in the MSS. 


Many Italian manuscripts were brought directly to England in the 17th and 18th centuries and are now housed mainly in the British Library, Oxford and Cambridge collections. English collectors of the period include the Stuart Pretenders to the English Throne, Dr. Charles Burney, academics and/or aristocratic visitors to Italy. In France, the composer Sebastien de Brossard (1655-1730) was among those interested in Scarlatti’s music. In the 19th century, the Italian collector Fortunato Santini (1778-1862) acquired the manuscript archive of Roman patron Prince Ruspoli, making it among the most important today. This includes one major autograph source from the year before Scarlatti left Naples. 

The Scarlatti Project includes

  • Transcribing and performing
  • preparing editions
  • recording.

Along the way

  • evaluating the context and accuracy of manuscript sources
  • exploring the relationship of music and poetry. 

    Performance Practice Issues such as
  • what instruments play, and when? (especially in basso continuo)
  • how are the tempi related?
  • what types of ornamentation suit the music?
  • how is the singing related to the ritornello?
  • who ends the work? – singer or instruments?