Part 1 No 1: Sinfonia [3'07]
Part 2 No 1: Sinfonia [0'32]
The banning of opera performances during Lent in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Rome meant that composers had to turn their attention to biblical subjects. However there is no sense that either composer or librettist felt at all limited in their subject matter, judging from the extraordinarily inventive oratorios that were produced during this time. Scarlatti’s work tells the dramatic story of David and Goliath. Whilst the biblical account relays the story in a few sentences, the anonymous librettist of Davidis pugna et victoria expands upon these to create an extensive libretto, with the characters fully developed and explored. Scarlatti’s musical response to the libretto demonstrates his gift for characterization, which acts as a commentary on the unfolding narrative. Performances of thrilling dynamism and instinctive style from Academia Montis Regalis make the strongest possible case for this work.
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The oratorio played a prominent part in the musical life of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italy. During Lent, when opera was banned, audiences throughout Italy satisfied their desire for music drama (albeit unstaged) through the biblical and hagiographical narratives portrayed in oratorios. The genre found a particular home in Rome where, unlike opera, it provided entertainment of a devotional nature to which no pope could object.
The oratorio emerged in the early seventeenth century as a means by which the followers of Saint Philip Neri, the Oratorians, could attract a greater number of worshippers to their services. Prompted by the success of this approach, numerous other religious groups began to sponsor oratorio productions, whilst the genre also gained popularity as entertainment in more secular surroundings, notably the sumptuous palazzi of the nobility. On these occasions the works frequently derived from the oratorio erotico tradition and the break between the two halves, traditionally the point at which a sermon was preached, was the opportunity for lavish refreshments.
Most of Alessandro Scarlatti’s (1660–1725) thirty-eight oratorios were written for the Roman environment, either for performance in oratories or in the palaces of the noble patrons he acquired throughout his career. Born in Palermo, Scarlatti’s family moved to Rome in 1672 and, whilst there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that he studied with Giacomo Carissimi, it seems certain that he would at least have come into contact with this great composer’s works, including his oratorios. By the age of eighteen Scarlatti had his first appointment in the city, as maestro di cappella at San Giacomo degli Incurabili, and before long he was in the employ of some of the most important and influential patrons in Rome, including Queen Christina of Sweden. In 1683 he made the move to Naples, and the majority of his career was divided between these two cities (with forays to the likes of Florence and Venice as part of his seemingly never-ending search for further employment), until he finally settled in Naples in 1708. Whilst Scarlatti’s reputation is traditionally based on his undoubted achievements as an opera composer, he made important contributions to all of the key musical genres of the period, writing cantatas, masses, motets, concertos, sonatas and, of course, oratorios.
The surviving libretto of Davidis pugna et victoria describes the work as a ‘dramma sacrum’ performed in the oratory of the Arciconfraternita del Santissimo Crocifisso on the second Friday in Lent, 1700. The Crocifisso was a company of Roman noblemen, founded in the sixteenth century, who gathered together to undertake spiritual exercises. Their presence in the city during Lent must have been unmistakable: their annual procession through the streets on Good Friday could involve as many as 15,000, with entertainment provided by musicians transported on floats. They are the only Roman confraternity to have exclusively cultivated the oratorio in Latin: each year five noblemen were each given the task of arranging the music for a Friday during Lent, and were charged with appointing a composer and paying for the performance. Composers commissioned to set Latin oratorios for such occasions included Carissimi, Francesco Foggia, Alessandro Stradella and Francesco Gasparini. Scarlatti is known to have had works performed at the Crocifisso five times between 1679 and 1705, although Davidis pugna et victoria is his only Latin oratorio now extant (aside from La concettione della beata Vergine, which is a Latin version of an oratorio volgare).
Setting an oratorio text in Latin assumed a more educated audience, and the works tend to go beyond simple didactics. Latin oratorios are also usually more conservative in form than those in the vernacular, as is demonstrated, for instance, in the use of a double chorus and the presence of a narrator in Davidis pugna et victoria. However, there are convincing musical reasons for believing that this work is not merely conservative for 1700, but was actually written some time before this date. On stylistic grounds (notably the presence of strophic and ground bass arias, and a harmonic vocabulary that employs the Neapolitan sixth but not the diminished seventh) Malcolm Boyd suggests that the performance in 1700 was a revival of an earlier work, and that Davidis pugna et victoria may in fact be one of the unnamed oratorios written for the Crocifisso between 1679 and 1682. The presence of both da capo and strophic aria forms is certainly characteristic of a work dating from the late seventeenth century: at the turn of the century strophic arias became virtually obsolete and the da capo form nearly ubiquitous. Aspects of scoring show the influence of two earlier composers on Scarlatti’s work, both of whom wrote Latin oratorios for the Crocifisso. The use of a separate eight-part chorus (rather than an ensemble simply formed of the soloists) is a common feature in the works of Carissimi, but is much rarer later on in the century. In addition, Scarlatti’s scoring for concertino (two violins and bass) and concerto grosso (two violins, two violas and bass) is reminiscent of Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista of 1675 (the only difference being Scarlatti’s use of a second violin part in the concerto grosso; Stradella’s oratorio is available on). On only one occasion (Goliath’s rousing Philistaei, reboate) does Scarlatti make use of the contrast between the two groups that this scoring affords. Otherwise he employs the concertino for more intimate passages, and uses concerto grosso when more force is required.
Like the majority of Latin oratorios, the subject matter of Davidis pugna et victoria is biblical, in this case the story of David and Goliath. The booklet for the 1700 performance contains the following argomento, or summary of the plot:
Encamped face to face, the armies of the Philistines and the Israelites eagerly awaited the outcome of such a bloody and perilous war. Saul was fearful, having already experienced the formidable power of his enemy. The Philistines were confident in the encounter because of the valour of the giant Goliath (whose very stature brought terror to even bolder enemies, being altitudinis sex cubitorum, & palmi [six cubits and a span in height], according to the Holy Scriptures) and already claimed themselves victorious and envisaged the laurels on their heads. But God, who at times finds unexpected ways of victories and triumphs to favour His chosen people, endowed the shepherd boy David with such strength that, with a small stone hurled from his sling, he was able to knock down the huge bulk of the proud giant. Tulitque unum lapidem, & funda iecit, & circumducens percussit Philistaeum in fronte, & infixus est lapis in fronte eius, & cecidit in faciem suam super terram [he took a stone, and cast it with the sling, and fetching it about, struck the Philistine in the forehead, and he fell on his face upon the earth]. Thus in a few lines the Sacred Story sums up the immensity of so celebrated a victory. All is, however, fully expressed in the First Book of Kings [1 Samuel in modern Bibles], chapter 18, where it is clearly seen, with the hidden mystery of heaven, how the unwarlike right hand of a tender lad oppressed pride and overcame the haughtiness of a man who despised God.
Whilst the biblical account (actually to be found in 1 Samuel 17) relays the story in a few sentences, the anonymous librettist of Davidis pugna et victoria expands upon these to create a libretto over two hundred lines in length. The characters are fully developed and explored; for example, a large proportion of the first part of the oratorio is devoted to Saul’s trepidation at the prospect of battle with Goliath. Both Saul’s and the narrator’s reflections on the uncertainty of fortune would have been familiar poetic themes to a seventeenth-century audience, who encountered such ideas not only in oratories, but also in the chamber and the theatre, through the cantatas and operas of the day. The addition of the character of Saul’s son Jonathan (who is not mentioned in the biblical account) provides a foil for Saul’s melancholy, and allows the poet to explore the report in 1 Samuel 18:1 that after David’s battle ‘the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul’. The close relationship between the two is reflected in the passage of swift dialogue in which it is made clear that they share the same outlook on the battle, as well as the division of the aria text In flore labente, of which each character is assigned a strophe.
The poet chooses not to quote directly from scripture, but instead the work is freely composed, aside from the narrator’s description of the death of Goliath. At this point the poet quotes the closing words of Virgil’s Aeneid to describe the death of Turnus: ‘Vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras’ (‘With a groan he gave up his unworthy life in the shadows’). The quotation would have been readily recognized by the select audience at the Crocifisso, who would have appreciated the parallel between Goliath and Turnus, both of whom were bloodthirsty warriors, and by implication the identification of David with Aeneas, the successful leader, faithful servant of fate and founder of Roman civilization.
Scarlatti’s musical response to the libretto demonstrates his gift for characterization, which acts as a commentary on the unfolding narrative. After an introductory sinfonia, scored for five-part strings (the presence of two viola lines is characteristic of late seventeenth-century Roman music), the narrator introduces the situation, painting the picture of a fearful Saul on the battlefield in simple recitative, followed by an aria commenting on the instability of fortune (Fata regum et sereno). This theme is reiterated in Saul’s first aria, Quisquis alta per inane. These two movements demonstrate the variety found in the arias in this work: the first is a strophic continuo aria with a string ritornello separating the strophes, whilst the second is a (more modern) da capo aria, with a motto opening, in which the strings play throughout. Each features constantly moving melodic lines that represent the uncertainty of fate, but the inclusion of pervasive string figures punctuating the vocal line lends a sense of intensity to Saul’s aria, befitting his more emotional state. Saul’s entrance is marked by a particularly evocative arioso passage (Heu perii), accompanied by the reduced forces of the concertino, in which frequent suspensions and descending melodic lines perfectly capture Saul’s despair at the news that his opponent will be Goliath.
In contrast to Saul’s despondency is the optimism of Jonathan, whose lively triple-time movements reflect his energy and the note of hope he provides. The direct opposition between father and son is reflected in their swift exchange of views in the duet Tuba, tuba: Jonathan vows to fight, and Saul to flee, at the sound of the trumpet call to battle. This is one of several references to the tuba to occur throughout the text, which Scarlatti sets to a fanfare figure, in this case accompanied by a frantic bass line that highlights the tension of the situation. That Jonathan’s arguments have had no effect upon Saul is demonstrated by the emotional aria Mea fata, superbi, videte, one of the highlights of the oratorio, in which the king admits defeat. This lyrical movement is in essence an intimate duet between voice and continuo, strongly featuring the interval of a rising minor sixth that occurs frequently as an expression of sorrow in vocal music of this period. However, we are soon torn away from the melancholic repose provided by this movement back to the chaos of the battlefield, as the eight-part chorus of Israelites, accompanied by full strings, announces its intention to flee. The independent movement of thirteen separate lines vividly conjures up the confusion and panic spreading through the crowd. The mayhem is swiftly brought under control by David’s entrance in a commanding passage of recitative, followed by the aria Verte tela, verte faces. Scarlatti then vividly portrays the closeness of the relationship between David and Jonathan through their duets (O Jonathae spes una David and Sic et mortis orrore labente), in which they closely echo one another’s lines, their melodies weaving together to present a united message of hope. In addition, the two strophes of the aria In flore labente, in which the former melancholic reflections on the instability of fortune are transformed into the positive assertion that life and hope will be reborn, are divided between the two. Buoyed up by the words of Jonathan and David the Israelites become convinced that they can win, as expressed in the rousing fugal chorus that concludes the first half.
The Secunda Pars introduces the figure of Goliath, whose bellicose nature is characterized perfectly by strong arpeggio figures. Scarlatti represents the confrontation between David and Goliath through a swift exchange of recitative, arioso and aria sections. David displays his youth and agility in a quick-moving aria exploiting the top of the soprano range, whose short throw-away phrases seem like taunts (Non imbelli duello puelli), whilst Goliath’s bravura is expressed through lengthy passages of coloratura (Saevo dente fremente leonem). The climax of the work begins with Goliath’s call to arms to the Philistines (Philistaei, reboate), which employs both concertino and concerto grosso strings, the former interacting with Goliath through imitative arpeggio figures. Excitement builds through a succession of swift modulations and an increasingly busier texture, leading into the chorus Ad arma, in which Goliath and an eight-part chorus of Philistines, accompanied by five-part strings, vividly announce their entrance into battle. In complete contrast to this bluster is David’s continuo aria Tu mihi superum aeterne rex, a prayer to God made with the utmost simplicity, whose smooth vocal lines transcend worldly cares. At this point the narrator returns to describe the death of Goliath, followed by a striking double chorus in which the affective laments of the Philistines are skilfully juxtaposed with the Israelites’ rejoicing. The crisis averted, all that remains is for the Israelites to celebrate, a task undertaken by two unnamed figures from the crowd, whose three arias display great energy and vigour (in the case of the Presto conclusion to Age terra fortunata), or a serene peace, in the exquisite ground-bass aria Deque lauru.
Rather than concluding with a chorus (a practice discouraged by the literary theorist and first historian of the oratorio, Arcangelo Spagna, in 1706), the work finishes with David returning to the earlier subject of the uncertainty of fate. Scarlatti responds with a lively instrumentally accompanied aria whose encircling triplet motif embodies the turning of fortune’s wheel. The abrupt ending, which sounds almost unfinished, comes as something of a surprise. However, as a perfect illustration of the uncertainty and unexpectedness of life, it is precisely the kind of ingegno that the cultivated audience at the Crocifisso would have appreciated, reminding us that the function of the oratorio was not only to instruct, but also to entertain and delight—an end that Scarlatti achieves with great aplomb.
Carrie Churnside © 2009