Individual Composer

Domenico Natale Sarri

1679 - 1744

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(b Trani, Apulia, 24 Dec 1679; d Naples, 25 Jan 1744). Italian composer. His marriage contract, dated 6 February 1705, states that he came to Naples between the ages of six and seven, that he had studied at the Neapolitan conservatory of S Onofrio, and that he had not been outside the city since. His first known composition is a sacred opera, L’opera d’amore, performed in 1702 at the Arciconfraternità della Ss Trinità de’ Pellegrini. In 1703 he took part in a public competition (the other competitors being Gaetano Veneziano, Cristoforo Caresana and Francesco Mancini) for the vacant post of court maestro di cappella. Veneziano obtained the post, but on 26 December 1704 Sarro was appointed vice-maestro di cappella.

During 1706 and 1707 Sarro composed several operas for the Neapolitan public theatres. Between 1708 and 1718, however, he wrote few works of this kind: this may partly have been because of changed circumstances at court. In mid-1707 the Austrians captured Naples and drove out the Spanish regime to which Sarro had pledged allegiance. Both he and Veneziano lost their court appointments on 31 August 1707. There is no evidence from Neapolitan sources that the new Austrian government put Sarro back on its payroll before 1720, so the statement in the Venetian libretto of his intermezzo Barillotto, performed in Venice in 1712, that he was ‘Maestro nella Real Cappella di Napoli’ is almost certainly false.

Sarro’s promise as a dramatic composer began fully to materialize in 1718. Between this date and 1741 he composed many operas, of which the earlier ones (i.e. those produced between 1718 and 1725) constitute perhaps his most significant contribution to music. Didone abbandonata (1724, Naples) is particularly important because it is the first setting of Metastasio’s first major libretto. In 1720 Sarro was promised two important musical posts when they became vacant. The first was that of maestro di cappella to the city of Naples, which he obtained in 1728 on the death of the holder, Gaetano Greco. The second was that of vice- maestro di cappella to the court; to help the composer until he actually occupied this post, the viceroy awarded him a salary of 22½ ducats a month. He became vice- maestro, with a stipend of 30 ducats a month, in late October 1725, and he remained in the service of the court for the rest of his life. In 1735 he took over the duties, though not the title, of maestro di cappella at court when the holder of the post, Mancini, fell ill. when Mancini died in September 1737, Sarro was appointed his successor with a monthly salary of 35 ducats. One of his first tasks was to compose the opera for the official opening of the Teatro S Carlo, newly erected by order of Charles III. The opera was Achille in Sciro, given on 4 November 1737, Charles’s name-day.

Sarro was one of the first prominent composers to emerge from the Neapolitan conservatories during the 18th century. By choosing to confine his activities largely to Naples, he acquired only moderate fame abroad during his lifetime. Commentators have since tended to regard him as a transitional composer in between more important generations of Neapolitans represented on the one hand by the much older Alessandro Scarlatti and on the other by Porpora, Vinci, Leo, and other composers slightly younger than himself. His personal contribution to the important changes in musical style and technique that became apparent in Italian vocal music about 1720 has usually been underrated. Describing these changes in his General History of Music, Burney gave credit for them to Vinci, mentioning Sarro only briefly in this context. J. J. Quantz, after hearing Sarro’s opera Tito Sempronio Gracco in Naples in 1725, declared that the composer was copying Vinci’s style. Because of statements like these, Sarro has usually been considered an imitator rather than innovator.

Sarro’s earliest music is in the quasi-contrapuntal style associated with Alessandro Scarlatti, though it lacks the nervous energy characteristic of Scarlatti’s best work. By 1718, however, Sarro’s musical textures had become less contrapuntal and his melodies more shapely as regards phrase structure and pitch. By about the time of his Valdemaro (1726) he had developed a style in which all the musical interest is in the top melodic part and the lower parts of the texture are reduced to mere accompaniment. These are the changes in compositional method with which Burney credited Vinci. Sarro’s relationship to Vinci has yet to be fully examined, but there is no present evidence that Vinci was more progressive than Sarro during the period 1718–23 when Sarro was the fashionable composer in Naples. By about 1726, however, Vinci had become prominent, and Sarro’s period of greatest success was over. Very few of his works written after 1730 survive. Those that do lack signs of major technical advance; they lack too the freshness that had made some of his earlier music attractive. Charles de Brosses, who heard the 1739 Neapolitan revival of his opera Partenope (1722), called him ‘knowledgeable but cold and sad’. The minister Ulloa, responsible for recommending the revival of Partenope to the king, who did not like the work, afterwards had to excuse himself: ‘The composer Sarro has always been a most celebrated man. It is true however that he flourished in a bygone age’. He promised the king to see to it that the composer’s next work, a festa teatrale called Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo (1739), had music better suited ‘to the grandeur of the joyous day and to good modern taste’.

Michael F. Robinson and Dale E. Monson. "Sarro, Domenico Natale." In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online,