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As part of its 20th anniversary celebrations, the Armonico Consort presents the first fully professional recording of two overlooked masterpieces from the Venetian Baroque.
Francesco was leader of the court orchestra and worked there for his brother for seven years before moving back to Palermo in 1691. It’s not entirely clear what post he held there, but he seems to have remained in Sicily for roughly the next twenty-four years. In 1699 an oratorio by him was performed at the Vatican in Rome, though the work is now lost. He applied unsuccessfully for the post of Vice-Kapellmeister in Vienna in 1715, though he was highly commended by Johann Fux, and a few years later, in 1719, he moved to London. Work for musicians was plentiful there, and continental musicians held significant posts, notably Handel, Bononcini and Geminiani. Violinist Geminiani was a former pupil of Alessandro Scarlatti who led the Neapolitan orchestra a few years after Francesco Scarlatti had returned to Palermo, and his success in London, and also in Dublin, may well have encouraged Francesco to move there. Francesco’s name turns up in many London concert programmes in the 1720s, though he did not manage to echo Geminiani’s fame in terms of appointments and recognition, and in 1733 he moved to Dublin. Sadly the only concrete evidence we have of him during his years in Ireland are concerned with marital problems and illness. A newspaper reported in August 1733 that 'Jane Scarlatti … hath eloped from her said Husband … This is to desire that noBody may give any Credit to the said Jane Scarlatti on account of her said Husband; for he will not pay any Debts that she shall contract'. Then in 1741 a benefit concert was advertised for him, since the composer—'though a long confinement by sickness, is reduced to very distressful circumstances'. The advert runs: 'At Geminiani’s Musick Room in Dame-street, on Saturday the 7th of February, will be performed a CONCERT OF MUSICK. In which Mr Dubourg will perform a solo, and Mr Worsdale sing some Songs.' There is no record of his death, but it is assumed that he died in that same year.
Francesco Scarlatti’s Messa and Dixit Dominus date from 1702 and 1703 respectively during his period in Palermo, but their survival is a result of his move to England. Autograph scores of both works are to be found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, along with a later 18th-century copy of the works and a letter. Written by John Dorian on 16 October 1786 and addressed to 'Dear Doctor', quite possibly the Professor of Music at that time, Dr Philip Hayes, the letter tells of his intention to drop off a copy of Scarlatti’s Mass to him in Oxford whilst on his way to the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford. However, his plans had to be postponed and he decided to send first the Mass and then the Dixit in the post, noting that 'I recommended at the [post] office that great care should be taken that the parcel should not be exposed to the wet [weather]'. The rest of the letter concerns committee business for the Music Fund, probably the London Festival of the Sons of the Clergy, but no actual music is mentioned. It is not made clear how Scarlatti’s autograph copies (which have been identified as such from scribal comparison with other sources) came to be in his possession.
An unpublished edition of the two works was made some years ago that principally followed the later copies of the works, but a new edition has been made for this recording that follows only the autograph scores. The later scores are much easier to read, but mistakes were made when copying out the music (an 18-bar chunk from one of the mass movements was entirely missing) and some significant performance directions were ignored.
The circumstances for which Scarlatti composed the two works are not known. It is not safe to assume they were written for liturgical performance, since public and private concert performances sometimes included settings of these words. Moreover, the Mass has two oddities: the Kyrie has no middle ‘Christe’ section, and although the Gloria begins with the text ‘Et in terra pax’ which suggests that a Priest would sing the opening words ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ as was standard practice, Francesco then unexpectedly begins the second section with the text ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’. The single most remarkable aspect of the works is their vocal scoring, with 16 independent vocal lines, being four sets of SATB. Scarlatti decided to maintain complete contrapuntal independence throughout, leading to 16 vocal lines that jump around with dizzying trajectories, all in the name of avoiding ‘illegal’ parallel movement of fifths and octaves. One of the reasons the autograph manuscript is hard to read is that it contains quite a few corrections, seemingly to avoid parallel movement. Whilst the tutti sections often move slowly with standard chord progressions, the singers are required to negotiate awkward leaps. Another striking aspect of the vocal writing, more obvious to the listener, is Scarlatti’s decision to group many ensemble movements together by voice part. Instead of the standard mix of solos and duets, we hear three or often four singers on the same voice part singing together, thus allowing the listener to hear and compare similar voices to an unusual degree.
Scarlatti also makes good use of the standard polychoral techniques adopted by many baroque composers, such as the cascading or random bouncing of short phrases between the four groups. There are fugal movements, sometimes heard against a chant cantus firmus in long note-values, and some superb moments of intense chromatic harmony in the durezze e ligature style (‘dissonances and ties’). The instrumental parts provide varied accompaniment to the voices, with a single trumpet playing often very high, with several movements calling for the violini alla unisono manner, where all violins play a single line over the continuo bass, and one movement that includes an obbligato cello.
It is indeed unfortunate that so much of Francesco’s music has been lost, but at least his time in England led to some significant survivals in the libraries in London, Oxford and Cambridge. It has been suggested that his setting of the Miserere, which survives in the British Library as well as in Vienna, was composed in support of his application to Vienna in 1715. Clearly he brought this piece along with others including his Messa and Dixit Dominus to England to help boost his chances for employment. The Oxford survivals in particular show his versatility and imagination as a composer, resulting in vocal textures extremely rare in the baroque repertoire.
Geoffrey Webber © 2023