Alessandro Scarlatti: Sinfonia No. 2 in D Major

Alessandro Scarlatti was first and foremost a composer for voice, and with good reason. In the seventeenth century, the voice was the most highly regarded and technically developed musical instrument; and the vocal aria, the most significant and organized musical form. As an Italian composer of opera, he bounced back and forth between Naples and Rome– neither which were particularly kind to his art.

The operatic scene in Rome, at times when opera was not outright banned, was held in the ironclad fist of the church: composers were obliged to include a disclaimer with the libretto of any opera on a mythological theme that the heathen gods depicted in the action were merely poetic devices and not under any circumstances to be interpreted as endorsements of non-Catholic beliefs. Naples, meanwhile, came with enormous pressure to produce accessible and popular operas for the public, and Scarlatti was usually paid late for them if at all. The War of the Spanish Succession, in which Naples was one of the disputed territories, certainly didn’t help. Despite these cultural difficulties, Scarlatti still wrote more than a hundred operas as well as a collection of oratorios and other sacred music and more than five hundred chamber cantatas for voice.

Purely instrumental music would have remained a minor afterthought if it were not for the influence of Corelli, who did more for the development of his instrument than any other. Corelli’s influence on the development of violin technique and repertoire is so enormous, and his fame as a violinist during his lifetime and afterwards so significant, that some early biographers attempted to justify it by tracing his lineage back to Noah: the only explanation for his gifts was that he was literally biblical. Corelli and Scarlatti’s friendship pushed the bounds of both of their art: Corelli’s slow movements show the fingerprints of Scarlatti’s arias, and Scarlatti improved as a violinist and an instrumental composer through contact with Corelli.

Corelli was the father of the concerto grosso, and it was to his friend’s new genre that Scarlatti contributed the Sinfonia set, of which the Sinfonia No. 2 for a solo group of flute and trumpet, in 1715. In five movements, the flute and trumpet trade off the solo role that Scarlatti had developed his aptitude in assigning to the purest of wind wind instruments– the human voice.

Wind instruments were, by the end of his life, not his favourite. When the renowned flutist J.J. Quantz came to meet him in 1925, Scarlatti was disgruntled with the student who introduced them: “You know I cannot endure players of wind instruments,” he said, “for they all play out of tune.” If it was the execution of his solo role for them ten years earlier that had put him off, it’s a good thing that, unlike many of his operas, the works survived to allow wind players another shot at them.