Alessandro Scarlatti
Alessandro Scarlatti; drawing by David Levine

It should be a cause for rejoicing that much of our ignorance of the history of music is permanent, irrevocable. In economic and social history, a statistical sampling or a well-established general trend can sometimes stand in for a large number of missing specific facts: we do not need to know the details of every market transaction, every marriage contract. In the history of music, as of any other art, nothing can supply the absence of the individual work. Knowledge of the work itself is not simply one of the prerequisites of research in music history, but the goal. Economic history does not exist until the data are grouped and generalized: for music history, generalization is either a second best, or an intermediate step on the road that starts with the work and returns to it with greater understanding.

The history of music begins to collapse under the strain of too many works. Understanding a work of music is not quite synonymous with enjoying it, but it demands imagining someone else’s enjoyment, and seeing why this is, or once was, possible. Any generalization is based on this necessary effort of appreciation. No music historian, therefore, can build on his predecessor’s labors with anything like the confidence, however limited, of the historian of science. Each advance in any branch of history may demand a tiresome reexamination of each piece of detailed evidence, but in the history of an art it also leads to a renewed concentration on the individual work, a reappreciation. Too much evidence, and the process would grind to a halt.

For this reason, the historian of, say, eighteenth-century music tended to rely blindly on nineteenth-century values to select his evidence for him and, in short, to determine his field of study. He concentrated above all not on what was done in the eighteenth century but on what later generations thought was important out of all the things that were done. This old-fashioned attitude could be justified persuasively enough: history is what is remembered. Mozart was remembered and his elder and once-famous contemporary Wagenseil, who wrote some fine works, was forgotten; Mozart remains a living force in the history of music until this day, while Wagenseil must be disinterred each time in order to re-enter history. I have been told, to my surprise, that Wagenseil continued to be performed occasionally in Vienna during the early decades of the nineteenth century, twenty and thirty years after his death in 1777. That proves that one can be both performed and forgotten. (In fact, it still happens today. Many works are played only because the conductor once learned the score and the parts are easily available, and no one—neither public nor orchestra—pays the slightest notice, except for the critic who reports the event.)

A wave of historicism in the twentieth century and an ever-growing uncertainty of values threaten the comfort and stability of musicology. What ought to count, it is now felt, is not what later generations thought great, but what contemporaries judged significant. Since this formula would eliminate now-acknowledged masterpieces like Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew, which (as far as we know) passed unregarded and unappreciated by Bach’s contemporaries, it has to be enlarged to include everything that contemporaries or their posterity judged significant. That opens the floodgates. Since hardly an opera was ever produced or a piano sonata published that did not have the respect of someone besides the composer, the study of music ceases to be concerned only with masterpieces (why should it be?) and becomes genuinely democratic and tolerant. Works of music, like their composers, are children of God and He loves them all.

Happily, therefore, many thousands of works have disappeared beyond recall. On hearing that a manuscript of Byzantine chant, which had never been transcribed or photographed, had been destroyed, a friend who works in that field exclaimed with relief: “Thank God! One less to deal with.” It is not the unimportant and the trivial that have gone forever. Major works, unquestionably among the finest of their time, have been totally annihilated. This is above all the case with operas, almost none of which were published before the end of the eighteenth century. Few people needed or wanted a full score and the orchestral parts of an opera, and even during the nineteenth century it was usual for an opera company to pay for a handwritten copy: manuscript copies, indeed, were easily obtained, and there were copying bureaus in several Italian cities and elsewhere.

In the eighteenth century, manuscript copies were naturally even more widespread than in the nineteenth. Bach’s Well-Tempered Keyboard, for example, was known and played by many musicians including Mozart and Beethoven long before it was published. Copying music was a menial but not a degrading task: Rousseau preferred to make his living by it. An opera that was performed only a few times (and in an age of frequent and revolutionary changes of musical style, many operas became old-fashioned almost before being staged) had a good chance of vanishing completely, leaving nothing behind except the libretto, if that, and the bill for the scenery and costumes. Of the more than a dozen operas by Monteverdi, the first master of the form, only the earliest one (Orfeo of 1609) and two late ones (Il Ritorno di Ulisse of 1641 and L’Incoronazione di Poppea of 1642) have come down to us. What he did in the intervening thirty years was never published and the manuscripts were destroyed during his lifetime.


The greatest composer of opera at the beginning of the eighteenth century is generally agreed to be Alessandro Scarlatti. So far this reputation has been based largely on hearsay, on the word of a few scholars who have actually seen a score. Scarlatti wrote more than a hundred operas between 1679 and 1721: the music for less than half of these has survived, sometimes only in fragmentary form. Until 1974, only two of these operas had been completely published, neither in a satisfactory edition.

For the study of the history of music, the most important event of the 1970s has been the start of a complete critical edition of Alessandro Scarlatti’s operas, under the direction of Donald Jay Grout, with the help of Joscelyn Godwin and H. Colin Slim. What graduate students in music today know about their subject comes largely from Grout’s one-volume general history, the best book of its kind ever written. After his recent retirement from Cornell, he has devoted himself passionately to the operas of Alessandro Scarlatti. The first volume came out in 1974, and four more have been issued to date. Professor Grout told me that around another two dozen operas are salvageable, enough of their music having come down to us to warrant publication. At the present rate of a volume a year, the edition should be complete soon after the year 2000 if Harvard University Press perseveres. Perhaps someone will then commence work on a complete edition of the 500 or so cantatas of Scarlatti that are still extant today.

Serious opera (opera seria) between Monteverdi and Mozart has had a bad press, while the importance of comic opera (opera buffa) has been more generally recognized. Opera seria, in its time the most prestigious form of music, is the most neglected today, the least performed and perhaps the least understood. It is obviously unfair to judge the opera seria from 1660 to 1760 by the dramatic standards which we would apply to most plays and most other operas, but this very unfairness requires some comment. The operas of Monteverdi, both Orfeo and L’Incoronazione di Poppea, treat classical mythology and classical history in a baroque style with some plausibility and great dignity. Later, Mozart could meet Beaumarchais’ plays and even Molière’s with a dramatic conception fully their equal, as Verdi could deal with the plays of Victor Hugo and Shakespeare. In early eighteenth-century opera in France, however, the influence of the tragedies of Racine was palpable, but more as a reproach than an inspiration. In Italy (and Germany, where the opera was largely Italian in language and even in style), the conception of drama in opera was even more constrained.

Racine’s plays and the eighteenth-century French opera librettos that imitated them, however distantly, reached out of their court atmosphere not only to the mythological world of Greek tragedy but also to the political world of ancient Rome and, by implication, of modern Europe. The Italian librettos (even—or perhaps above all—those of Metastasio, the greatest of the early eighteenth-century Italian poets, and master and tyrant of the libretto form) stay almost entirely within a completely artificial court ideal, heavily influenced by the antiquated pastoral of the Renaissance; the politics rarely rises above court intrigue and then only when some kind of dynastic consideration is involved.

An example is the medieval male-chauvinist tale of Griselda, the patient wife who never wavered in the respect, obedience, and love she owed her husband, even when he beat her, took away her children, and repudiated her publicly. In its original form, it has a grisly emblematic power. In the libretto by the court poet at Vienna, Apostolo Zeno, set by Scarlatti among many others, it is degraded into a series of public humiliations for the low-born wife of King Gualtiero, so that his rebellious nobles would be persuaded by her virtue that she was worthy to reign and, above all, that the son she bore Gualtiero was a worthy heir.

Another opera by Scarlatti, Marco Attilio Regolo, has a subject that would have been most apt for a heroic drama of Corneille: a Roman general, captured by the Carthaginians, is sent by them on his word of honor back to Rome to arrange peace; instead he urges war and returns voluntarily to Carthage alone to be put to death. For most of the opera this subject is pushed aside: the Roman general has a wife and a daughter captured with him; the commander of the Spartans, allies to the Carthaginians, loves the daughter; the Carthaginian general loves the mother, and he repudiates his fiancée, the princess of Sicily, who loves him although she has only seen his picture; and she disguises herself as a man to plan revenge—what kind of revenge is unclear. (A later libretto by Metastasio on the same subject restored the basic heroic theme, but dissipated most of its energy.)


It is easy enough to make fun of any form of drama, and opera is particularly subject to absurdity. But nineteenth-century opera—hero and villain exchanged long ago as infants in the cradle, the hunchback with the beautiful daughter, the dragon-killer—has a fairy-tale charm: it is disfigured mostly by its obeisance to the moral pieties, as when John of Leyden in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète gives up his revolution because he loves his mother. Early eighteenth-century opera seria repudiates comparison with any other form of literature except court pastoral—and that in an insipid form, with all the Renaissance idealism and bold speculation of the pastorals of Sidney and Tasso drained out of the genre: even the erotic casuistry of the early seventeenth-century pastoral is coarsened and cheapened.

The politics of romantic nineteenth-century opera has some force in, say, William Tell, The Huguenots, Don Carlos, and The Sicilian Vespers; but, with few exceptions, the political interest of opera seria is that of the alliance by marriage of ruling families. Will the princess disguised as a shepherd win the love of the prince disguised as his best friend? No doubt marriage between two ruling houses was the façade behind which some of the important political developments took place in the seventeenth and even the eighteenth centuries, but the pastoral conventions of opera seria are a façade for a façade—in so far as they retain any significance at all.

The original ideals of opera had been jettisoned by 1700. The invention of opera in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries came about at least to some extent as an attempt to recreate Greek tragedy. We are almost as ignorant today as then about music in classical Greece, but one thing was known: Greek tragedy was chanted and sung. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the model of Greek tragedy had been largely abandoned (although it was never wholly forgotten, merely pushed into the background of consciousness as an inconvenience: it came to the fore again by the 1760s with the operas of Gluck). Opera seria became a specialized, artificial form that had little to do with the drama of its own time or of any other.

The narrowness of the world of opera seria arose from its dependence on court and singer. The dependence on court patronage was inevitable because of expense. Opera has almost always been a losing proposition, needing huge, even extravagant subsidies. Put on a concert of avant-garde chamber music, and you will lose only a few thousand dollars, and perhaps break even. Produce the most popular opera (say, La Bohème) and there is a dead certainty that the loss will run into tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands if you do it on the scale of the Paris Opéra. Those losses are invariably paid for out of the taxpayer’s pocket, directly or indirectly. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the court was often directly concerned in the production of opera. There were public opera houses, too, but they also generally required aristocratic patronage. Popular singers commanded high fees, scenery was lavish, scenic effects (traditionally including earthquakes, a bear, etc.) expensive. The influence of the patron’s taste on both subject matter and form in the opera was as inescapable as the influence of advertising on television programs.

The tyranny of the singer has always been the glory and the misery of Italian opera. The early eighteenth century was the age of the castrato. In Rome, where for a time women were not allowed to appear on the stage, all the parts of an opera would often be sung by eunuchs. Musical forms became standardized to permit individual vocal display: duets are infrequent, trios and quartets rare. The basic form is a three-part aria in ABA form called the da capo aria: the third part is a literal repetition of the first part—literal, except for improvised embellishments added by the singer, generally very lavishly. From 1700 to 1740 almost all arias in opera seria take this form. The technique of embellishment was then among the most elaborate and most powerful that Western music has known before the coming of jazz. The return of the first part was a real test both of the singer’s vocal technique and of his or her ability to improvise expressive ornamentation. The early eighteenth century concentrated most of the power of expression in the ornamentation—written out in works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Couperin, or improvised in those of Handel and Alessandro Scarlatti.

The only other musical texture admitted by opera seria, with rare exceptions, was that rapid, barely sung, largely spoken form called recitative. Dry recitative—recitative secco—is the main form, the harmonies provided by a keyboard and a bass instrument. Accompanied recitative is a more expressive version, the harmonies now provided by the orchestra. An intermediate form of the seventeenth century, the arioso, expressively sung but with a speaking quality and a free musical structure, was abandoned. The chorus of the early essays in opera was dropped in Italy (although retained in France): any chorus was provided briefly by the five or six principals singing together. Without arioso and chorus, and with only a rare ensemble, opera was reduced to two textures: recitative, barely distinguishable from speech; and aria, formal and elaborate.

This division now determined the dramatic form: action took place in recitative, sentiment was expressed in aria. No attempt was made to combine formal music and action; occasionally there was an interesting harmonic change or—even more rarely—a broken phrase and an expressive turn or two in the recitative. This was not a love-match between drama and music but a marriage of convenience, each party going its separate way. The librettist was, of course, interested in the recitatives (one could easily understand the words there and he often put his most interesting poetry into them) but hardly anyone else was. It is true that recitatives were often not as dull as they were said to be, but the musical interest is always at its lowest point.1 People often talked or played chess during the recitatives, and stopped only to listen to the arias.

The century’s disdain for the recitatives of opera seria is shown by the contemporary manuscript copies: many of them omit all the recitatives. Some of these manuscripts were selections of airs for private or semi-private performance. They also omit orchestral introductions and the few ensemble pieces. Others, however, have the complete opera with all the orchestral detail minus the recitatives. As late as the 1770s, Niccolò Jommelli’s beautiful Olimpiade was published in full score but without the secco recitatives—a pity, because Jommelli’s settings of dry recitative were far less perfunctory than those of most other composers. A production based on this score would have meant hiring someone to rewrite the recitatives—not a daunting prospect, evidently. (The score cannot have been intended for private performance, as it is very elaborate, and one of the arias uses a double orchestra.) It was obviously not worth engraving recitatives when the local musician could recompose them more cheaply.

One exception to this general musical indifference to recitativo secco needs to be noted. The recitatives of comic scenes are often included with the arias in manuscripts for home performance. For Scarlatti’s Eraclea of 1700, only the comic recitatives survive, although the formal music of the arias is otherwise complete. In comic scenes the arias and recitatives are much more closely integrated, and it was, indeed, only in comic opera that the eighteenth century was to find a way to unite dramatic action and music. The first experiments in this seem to have been made by Galuppi in the 1740s, and it was Mozart who finally achieved the synthesis. What probably saved comic opera was that it never seemed an important enough genre to become official government music with a large subsidy. It was therefore forced to depend on the rendering of a lively and realistic action in music instead of on expensive singers and scenery.

The exclusive alternation and opposition of recitative and aria turns opera seria into a series of situations that create pretexts for emotional outburst and vocal display; the two are largely synonymous—that is the strength of the style, as no period has ever better understood the emotional effect of virtuosity. (The instrumental virtuosity of the romantic era—of Chopin and Liszt—is a re-creation of this traditional operatic technique.) After each outpouring of sentiment, the singer generally left the stage (so he could be recalled by applause, I presume) even if his aria had been a declaration of love or a plea for mercy which would imply some hopes of an answer.

In the finest works of the period, above all those of Alessandro Scarlatti and Handel, there is much great music. The librettos often contain some lovely poetry and some shrewd and neat juggling with the conventions of the genre. Metastasio is a far more elegant versifier than any other librettist: he makes even da Ponte and Boito look coarse, not to mention Wagner and most of the hacks who wrote for Rossini and Verdi. (Scarlatti died before Metastasio’s period of fame, and Handel rarely set his texts.) If one’s level of expectation is not too high, one can find a certain dramatic coherence in the best operas. It is not only that one needs different standards to appreciate opera seria, however, but lower ones—at least if it is judged as drama. These works for the stage, therefore, stand apart from the great achievements of Monteverdi and Mozart which came before and after them. Some of the music in them is as sublime as any ever written, but a revival will, I think, always seem quaint, always remain an archaeological enterprise.

The reason for this is that a string of great arias does not make a great opera. The finest operas of this period are, one must admit, more than a mere string of arias—but only a little more. The structure of the genre prevented it from being much more than that. There were many complicated rules about which type of aria should follow another—rules more often obeyed than broken: each principal singer had to have a certain number of arias of different types, and less important singers had to have an allotted number, too, placed so as not to take away from the grand effect made by the stars. The classification of aria types was very complicated: it appears to have been an important consideration to librettist and composer, although it is more than a little puzzling today.

Any attempt to find psychological portraiture in these works is most often wishful thinking on the part of the critic. The kind of aria written was largely tailored to the needs and whims of the original cast. This gives the illusion of consistency of character to the music written for each role, but it is only a consistency of musical type. When the cast changed (or when a principal singer changed his mind about the style he liked), new arias had to be written, often by another composer to new words—frequently enough the new aria fit badly into the plot.2 It must have been exceedingly rare for two productions of an opera to have exactly the same music: singers were accustomed to sing an effective aria they had learned from an earlier work in any other opera they were appearing in.

Late in the century, Mozart was obliged to make minor revisions for the second production of Don Giovanni, when it was done in Vienna. His changes, however, leave the large-scale structure intact. The trouble with early eighteenth-century opera is that there is no large-scale structure that could be damaged. This was, in a way, an advantage: the effect of revision and rewriting was minimal—unless the revisions were particularly absurd. As a result, there is no musical shape to the opera as a whole: the libretto has some shape but there is nothing in the music to correspond to it; the structural principle of the music is essentially one damn aria after another. The succession of arias was governed largely by contrast—what musical life there in the form is discontinuous, from moment to moment. Only Handel seems to have succeeded sporadically in creating groups of arias that hang together as a larger complex, and there is no consistency about his procedure.3

The creation of a large form in opera does not exist between Monteverdi and Mozart. It was not beyond the grasp of the contemporary composer when he was given a variety of textures to build with. Bach created a large-scale form in The Passion According to St. Matthew with such a variety: besides aria and recitative, he had arioso, chorus in concerto grosso form, and chorale. Handel had a similar success in oratorio with similar means. Most of these means were forbidden to the Italian opera from 1700 to 1770. Earlier, Monteverdi had the freedom of texture that was lost afterward, turned into a rigid succession. The development of the ensemble and the large finale (a long succession of ensembles at the end of an act) in comic opera gave Mozart by the 1780s the possibility of constructing a total form, and restored integrity to opera.4

Edward J. Dent has written:

Scarlatti, indeed, is the founder of that musical language which has served the classical composers for the expression of their thoughts down to the close of the Viennese period. Thematic development, balance of melodic phrase, chromatic harmony—all the devices which the seventeenth century had tentatively introduced, are by him woven into a smooth and supple texture, which reached its perfection in one who, although he never knew his true master, was yet his best pupil—Mozart.5

This is the kind of nonsense that sometimes masquerades as the history of music. In fact, Scarlatti had far less to do with later stylistic developments than his younger rivals, composers of early eighteenth-century Italian opera like Lotti and Porpora. Dent’s book on Scarlatti is the only one in English, so passages like this still get quoted. It represents a standard device: in order to establish the importance of a little-known figure, he is made the ancestor of someone that we all know—a kind of reverse pedigree established through the grandchildren. Only in this way, it appears, can he truly enter history.

In a trivial sense, of course, Dent is right: history is a continuum, and anything that happened in 1700 is necessarily the ancestor of all that happened in 1780. The facile and widespread view that Dent represents, however, is the history of music as an endless marathon in which the great composers hand the torch on to each other across the ages while the minor figures play their indispensable role of tending the flame, keeping it alive. But in so far as the history of music is the history of what is “great” (however that is defined or determined), it is discontinuous, a history of ruptures and breaks. The traditional view, which attempts to integrate these discontinuities into a grand movement of history—little waves ruffling the surface of the great sea of time—is generally harmless. In the case of a wonderful but—until now—inaccessible figure like Alessandro Scarlatti, it is insidious. To appreciate both Scarlatti’s greatness and his subsequent extraordinary eclipse, we need to understand that he was a dead end.

Even Dent’s larger considerations are misleading: the seventeenth century did not introduce, tentatively or otherwise, “thematic development, balance of melodic phrase, chromatic harmony”—all this existed since at least the fifteenth century, and the use of these devices in the eighteenth century is radically different from their use in the seventeenth. But it is perhaps a pity to belabor a writer like Dent for the kind of foolishness we have all been guilty of: he had the enthusiasm that distinguishes the better British musicologist, and many of his observations on Scarlatti are very fine.

For the nonspecialist, assessing Scarlatti’s place in the history of opera has been made much easier by Howard Brown’s facsimile printing of fifty manuscript copies of Italian operas from 1640 to 1770. I should think that except for the works of Handel and Pergolesi fewer than two dozen operas from this period have been printed complete: the easily available material has therefore suddenly been tripled. Few of Brown’s choices are opera buffa: the concentration is upon opera seria. The fifty operas have been chosen from the works of forty-five composers. We get no adequate idea of any one composer although a good view of the general activity in Italy and Germany. An important composer like Niccolò Jommelli is represented by two operas; another had been published by the great German scholar Hermann Abert in 1907. Unfortunately all three now available works are from the 1760s. Since Jommelli was already writing operas in the late 1730s it would be interesting to see something of the early work. At what point did he acquire the extraordinary style of the operas written for the court at Stuttgart: brilliant, serious, even grim, without charm, and with an intense development of short motifs comparable to the instrumental music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach?

Looking over several of the drearily tuneful works in this series gives one a foretaste of the scholarship of the twenty-second century, when musicologists will dredge through piles of Broadway musicals, discovering some kind of musical invention only in rare figures like Gershwin and Arlen. The average libretto of the Broadway show, too, is no more absurd or incoherent and not always less pretentious than those of opera seria.

Brown’s publication has not resolved for me the mystery of Johann Adolf Hasse’s immense and long-lasting reputation: the opera he prints, Siroe, of 1733, seems to me to have the same easily singable, easily forgettable style that I know from the only other example printed some years ago, Arminio. Those historians who are as puzzled as I am explain it by Hasse’s durable marriage to the most famous soprano of the time, which gave him the prestige of years of brilliant performance, but that is surely insufficient to account for his glory. Brown calls Siroe “a superb example of Hasse’s music when the composer was first at the height of his powers.” Perhaps the secret is that the music is both vigorous and facile. It stimulates mildly without shock. It is a pleasure to turn from it to the comic opera of Galuppi that Brown prints, La Diavolessa.

In general, Brown’s choice of operas is impeccable: every one of his composers deserved to be present, although some of them need a larger scale; a new series is planned, and perhaps the gaps will be filled. Everyone interested in eighteenth-century music should be deeply grateful for the ones already printed.

The operas by the contemporaries and successors of Scarlatti in this series demonstrate the justice of Grout’s observation,6 very different from Dent’s assessment:

His [Scarlatti’s] fate, like Bach’s, was to be outmoded before his death, “a great man…forgotten by his own generation.” His influence, except on Handel and Hasse, was only partial and indirect. His own happy combination of strength and sweetness, of passion and humor, was not to be heard again in music until the time of Mozart.

Scarlatti is indeed sometimes like Mozart but the relation, as Grout implies, is not historical, but an affinity of type—just as Ingres thought rightly enough that Mozart was like Raphael. Scarlatti’s actual influence was small: to the names of Handel and Hasse, we should perhaps add Vivaldi. The influence on Hasse is difficult to define; perhaps Group put him in because he is known to have studied with Scarlatti. But the young Hasse arrived in Naples only a year or so before Scarlatti died in 1725: the association was not long, and the little of Hasse’s music that I know seems to come straight from the style of those rival composers who were popular when the old Scarlatti was neglected.

The operatic style of Handel is in great part a direct expansion of Scarlatti’s: what Handel missed of the older composer’s delicacy and wit, he made up for by an unparalleled rhythmic energy, a sense of mass, and a flair for dramatic effect. Neither he nor Vivaldi often accepted the stereotypes developed by the younger contemporaries of Scarlatti—Antonio Lotti, Leonardo Vinci, Antonio Porpora (samples of whose work are now at last available in Brown’s set). These stereotypes—short symmetrical phrase grouping, simple popular tunes, easily perceptible formal symmetries—carried the seed of the future: if anything led to Viennese classicism (not all that directly in this case either), it was this largely uninspiring music, and not the subtle, aristocratic, reactionary art of Alessandro Scarlatti.

Between the style of Handel, as it came from Scarlatti, Purcell and others, and Mozart, there is a break. It was not until the 1780s, when Mozart’s musical language was already fully formed, that he could take account of Handel’s achievement. From those years may be dated the re-entry of Handel and Bach into the mainstream of musical influence. They have never needed rediscovery since. Alessandro Scarlatti lacked that good fortune. The time has probably passed when he could be a vital musical influence, but with Grout’s beautiful new edition he is now a permanent acquisition for musicians and students.

The present revival of interest in opera seria is no doubt part of that new conservative movement that hopes to revive French nineteenth-century academic painting, the Victorian potboiler novel, the salon music of Gottschalk. The rehabilitation of opera seria is helped and discredited by the strange alliance of two comic figures, the antiquarian and the opera buff.

Neither is necessarily interested in music: the opera buff may be interested mostly in sopranos, old recordings of coloratura arias, and operas that no one has heard of; the antiquarian in ancient instruments and obsolete styles of performance. They are like those adolescents in Britain who watch trains or copy down automobile license numbers, and they have the same relation to music that those do to transportation.

The opera buff knows interesting things like what year Mme. Callas lost weight, and how long Selma Kurz could sing a high E at the end of “Caro nome” in Rigoletto (she would go back stage, walk up a flight of stairs, and reappear on the balcony of Rigoletto’s house on the stage still singing the note). Some opera buffs would rather hear a performance of Auber’s Gustave III ou le Bal Masqué than Verdi’s masterpiece on the same subject, Un Ballo in Maschera. The antiquarian knows that early instruments were very different from modern ones and generally played out of tune, and that is the way he likes to hear Handel played; he knows that eighteenth-century singers often ruined their arias by overembellishment and outraged the composers, and he would be thrilled to hear someone sing that way today. He complains when he cannot hear a keyboard instrument accompanying a Haydn symphony, although Haydn’s contemporaries complained when they could hear it. He has his patches of ignorance: he is certain that all of Scarlatti’s sonatas are for the harpsichord, and thinks that choral music in the Renaissance was always a cappella (or, alternatively, never a cappella—the ignorance remaining constant while the sophistication changes). They are both rank materialists; they equate a work of music with its performance and would not understand the profundity of Mark Twain’s “Wagner is better than he sounds.”

The renewed attention given to opera seria provides a field day for these two: their interests are generally opposed, but now they have joined hands. To some extent, anyone will sympathize with the camp taste for this absurd genre. Opera seria glorified the singer; its chief interest (like that of Lucia di Lammermoor a century later) was dazzling vocal display used to express a heartbreaking situation; hardly anybody has ever heard or seen one of these works; the music has until recently been difficult of access; a large part of the research on the subject consists delightfully of gossip about the lives of the castrati and the prime donne; and almost every aspect of the style of performance is not only obsolete but in some cases impossible to reconstruct.

There is often a lack of frankness about the special pleading for old performance practice and old instruments. It goes largely unmentioned that the style of vocal ornament used from 1700 to 1750 is unsuited to anything except a small hall (and opera houses were often then quite tiny), but anyone who has ever heard the delicate French ornaments in a Rameau opera bawled over the orchestra in the present vastness of the Paris Opéra will never forget it. We are not often told that we do not know how some of those old instruments really sounded, particularly the keyboard instruments—it is naïve to imagine their sonority has not altered in two centuries—and that we are still not exactly sure how others were played. An “authentic” performance of a Scarlatti opera—even if there were such a thing—is not even going to be approached in this life. The antiquarian and the opera buff have stopped short of insisting on a return to the castrato, but that is only because they think they have no chance of getting away with it.

If we are to capture even a part of the heritage of Scarlatti for the general musical public, then it must be taken out of the hands of these people, and restored to musicians. We also need modest views. One sentence in the preface of Joscelyn Godwin’s wholly admirable edition of Marco Attilio Regolo makes me uneasy: “Any producer of the opera should aim at the greatest possible splendor and display. ‘Modern’ sets make a sad background to this extravagant poetry and elevated music.” Mr. Godwin is right, but I hope nobody listens to him. Even if anyone could afford to pay for it (and anyone eventually means the taxpayer, opera being supported by tax-free grant or contribution), I do not see why this discreditable and discredited genre should be resuscitated. No doubt Scarlatti’s music would gain by being heard in something like its original context, but (as I have tried to explain above) the gain is too small to be worth the cost. The music can stand without such props.

The problem, indeed, is that the music is so good that it is only worth doing superlatively well. I am tolerably entertained when Dittersdorf, or Henselt, or Vivaldi, or Praetorius are given a moderately good performance. It is the inadequacies in a performance of Mozart, or Josquin, or Beethoven, or Debussy that are unbearable. A full opera of Scarlatti is beyond our reach: we need singers with several years of experience in the style, and a great deal of experimentation in performance, before we can envisage a large-scale attempt. The editors’ advice on performance practice is very wise in these volumes. Applied to make music and not antique reproductions their recommendations are indispensable to any attempt to perform these works. Perhaps a concert performance of an act would be workable: if audiences can take to Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict in concert, they might accept an hour of Scarlatti.

Grout’s beautiful words about the operatic music of Scarlatti’s great contemporary Rameau should be recalled here:

Today it stands as a classic example of great music forgotten because it cannot be detached from a dead operatic style—for Rameau’s opera cannot be revived as a living art without reviving the age of Louis XV. Yet by means of the requisite knowledge and imagination, one can in some measure learn to hear and see it as it lived in Paris under the ancien régime and thereby alone arrive at a just estimate of its greatness.7

This is as true of Scarlatti and equally tragic. The new edition gives us the requisite knowledge and the opportunity to use our imagination. The music transcends its time, as a glance at the scores will show. The genre for which it was written is dead. Rightly and permanently dead. It remains to be seen whether some part of the music may be made to live again after all.

This Issue

May 31, 1979