In that gay society of seventeenth-century Italy music was the note and air of life. A passionate people, kept in unwilling peace by Spain and the papacy, waged wars in operas, and fought love combats in madrigals.
Musical instruments took a hundred forms. The organ was now an embellished bellows with two keyboards for the hands and one for the feet, plus diverse stops; and of course there were “portative” organs for the street. As early as 1598 we hear of another keyboard instrument, called piano e forte, which was listed as owned and played by Duke Alfonso II at Modena; but how far this differed from the clavicembalo (harpsichord) and the spinetta is still a mystery. A century passes before we hear of the pianoforte again. In 1709 Bartolommeo Cristofori, instrument maker to the music-loving Prince Ferdinand de’ Medici at Florence, displayed what he called a “gravicembalo col piano e forte.” This differed slightly and yet vitally from the harpsichord: the note was sounded by a little hammer rising to strike a string, and the sound could be made low or loud by varying the touch of the fingers on the key—whereas in previous keyboard instruments the note had been produced by a plectrum (of quill or hard leather) rising to pluck the string, and no variation was possible in the force of the sound.* The pianoforte slowly replaced the harpsichord in the eighteenth century, not only because it could play “soft and loud,” but because the hammers wore out less rapidly than the plectra.
The violin had evolved out of the lyre in the sixteenth century, chiefly at Brescia.* Andrea Amati had brought the art of violinmaking to Cremona, and there his grandson Nicolò surpassed all rivals in the craft until he himself was excelled by his pupils Andrea Guarneri and Antonio Stradivari. The Guarneri too were a dynasty: Andrea and his sons Pietro “de Mantua” and Giuseppe I, his grandson Pietro II “de Venezia,” and his grandnephew Giuseppe II “del Gesù”—who made the violin preferred by Paganini to all others. The oldest violin signed by Stradivari is dated 1666, when he was twenty-two years old; it was labeled ANTONIUS STRADIVARIUS CREMONENSIS ALUMNUS NICOLI AMATI FACIEBAT ANNO 1666, followed by his personal symbol—a Maltese cross and his initials, A.S., enclosed in a double circle. Later he signed himself with proud simplicity “Stradivarius.” He worked incessantly, ate frugally, lived ninety-three years, and amassed such a fortune by the superior beauty, construction, tone, and finish of his instruments thatricco come Stradivari became Cremonese for opulence. He is known to have made 1,116 violins, violas, and violoncellos; 540 of his violins exist today; some have sold for ten thousand dollars. 41 The secret of his varnish has been lost.
The improvement in instruments encouraged the development of the orchestra, and the composition and performance of instrumental music. Composers and virtuosos discovered in the violin a flexibility of movement and range of tone impossible for the human voice; they could run up and down the chromatic scale with literally ineffable ease; they could build and frolic with variations; they could escape from the grooves of melody and launch upon new rhythms, evolutions, and experiments. When many instruments were combined the composition could be freed from the dance as well as from song, and could mount on its own wings in new sequences, combinations, and forms. Tommaso Vitali led the way with violin sonatas of unprecedented richness of invention, and helped to establish the progression of quick, slow, and lively movements. Arcangelo Corelli, as composer and virtuoso, prepared for eighteenth-century chamber music with his sonatas for the violin; he and Vitali in Italy, Kuhnau and Heinrich von Biber in Germany, gave structure and form to the sonata as a piece to be sounded by instruments only, in contrast to cantatas as compositions to be sung by the voice. It was Corelli who set the form of the concerto grosso—two violins and one violoncello leading an orchestra of strings—with such simple and melodious productions as his Christmas Concerto (1712); so he opened a path for the concertos of Vivaldi and Handel and the suites of Bach. Corelli’s compositions retained their popularity so far into the eighteenth century that Burney, writing about 1780, thought their fame would endure “as long as the present system of music shall continue to delight the ears of mankind.” 42
As Corelli was now the favorite composer for the violin, so Alessandro Stradella, with solos, duets, trios, and oratorios, dominated the vocal music of this age. His life itself was a music drama, and has been made into a play and an opera. As a teacher of singing at Venice he achieved a tragic success. One of his aristocratic pupils, Ortensia, though affianced to the Venetian senator Alvise Contarini, eloped with Alessandro to Rome. The senator sent assassins to slay them. These sensitive cutthroats, hearing him sing the leading part in his “Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista” in the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano, were so touched by the music that (so the story avers) they abandoned their assignment and warned Stradella and his mistress to seek some safe obscurity. The lovers fled to Turin, but soon Alessandro became dangerously famous there by his compositions and his voice. Contarini sent two unmusical ruffians to kill him; they attacked him, and left him for dead. He recovered, married Ortensia, and moved with her to Genoa. There the senatorial hirelings found them, and stabbed them both to death (1682). 43 The oratorio that allegedly saved his life remained popular for a century, and prepared the way for Handel.
Opera had by this time become a craze in Italy. Venice alone had sixteen opera houses in 1699, and heard nearly a hundred different operas between 1662 and 1680. 44 The melodious spectacle was only slightly less fashionable in Naples. In Rome it symbolized the advancing secularization of music; Clement IX himself, before his elevation to the papacy, composed some musical comedies. 45 There was a temporary decline in the quality of Italian opera after Monteverdi; the plots lost in dignity and significance, but gained in absurdity and violence. Francesco Cavalli, a pupil of Monteverdi, developed the solo aria as the most delectable feature of the performance; soon the audiences demanded a succession of dramatic airs, and bore the intervals impatiently. Castrated boys or men took many soprano or contralto parts, but prima donnas now began to rival queens. Milton addressed Latin lyrics to Leonora Baroni, and Naples turned out en masse to welcome Leonora’s mother, Adriana Basile, the most thrilling soprano of her time. Stage machinery probably reached its ne plus ultra in this age: in seventeenth-century Venice, according to Molmenti, the Theater of San Cassiano could show on demand a royal palace, a forest, an ocean, Olympus, and heaven; and in one case a ballroom, fully illuminated, with all its furniture and dancers, was suspended over the permanent stage, and was lowered to it, or raised out of view, as the story required. 46 Marcantonio Cesti sought to rescue opera from the aria; he gave more scope and prominence to the overture, more logic and sobriety to the story, and varied the singing with recitative. Both Cesti and Corelli were musical missionaries, bringing Italian opera the one to Paris under Louis XIV, the other to Vienna under Leopold I. Operatically Europe north of the Alps was an Italian colony.47
The dominant figure in the composition of operas was now Alessandro Scarlatti. His son Domenico has crowded out the father in current repute, but until recently “Scarlatti” meant Alessandro, and Domenico was an arpeggio to a famous name. Born in Sicily (1659), Alessandro came to Rome when he was thirteen, studied for a while under Carissimi, composed cantatas, was stirred by the work and career of Stradella, and, at the age of twenty, produced his first known opera, L’errore innocente. Christina of Sweden liked it, took Alessandro under her wing, and produced his next operas in her private theater. In 1684 he accepted appointment as maestro di cappella to the Spanish Viceroy at Naples. He remained there for eighteen years, producing operas in such rapid succession that by the time of his death they numbered at least 114, of which only half survive. It was probably in this period that Solimena painted the remarkable portrait that hangs in the Naples Conservatorio di Musica—a slender face, all sensitivity, concentration, and resolution.
The War of the Spanish Succession disturbed Naples, and threw Scarlatti’s salary so far in arrears that he removed to Florence with his wife and family, and composed and produced operas under the patronage of Prince Ferdinand. A year later he passed to Rome as maestro di cappella to Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, a gay and accomplished ecclesiastic who had succeeded Christina as center and patron of the arts in Rome, and who divided his profane energies among art, literature, music, and mistresses. 48 In 1707 Alessandro went to Venice, where he produced his masterpiece, Mitridate Eupatore, an opera distinguished by complete absence of love interest. In that year Naples came under Austrian rule; the new Viceroy invited Scarlatti to return to his former post; he agreed, and spent there the next decade of his life, at the zenith of his fame.
His operas set a style that endured for half a century. Scarlatti made the overture a substantial composition unconnected with the opera, and divided it into three movements that remained standard till Mozart: allegro, adagio, and allegro. To the aria he gave its typical eighteenth-century dominance and its da capo form, in which the third section repeats the first; he infused it with passion, tenderness, and romantic coloratura, and made it a vehicle for castrato feats of virtuosity and improvisation, but its frequency artificially interrupted the feeling and the action. He resisted for a time the popular demand for sentimental airs; finally he yielded to it, and for fifty years the music drama enjoyed a thousand triumphs without producing works capable of buffeting the tides of taste. Opera declined till Gluck startled it to new life and form, in Vienna (1762) and Paris, with the haunting loveliness of Orfeo ed Euridice.