When the urbane French magistrate and civic dignitary Charles de Brosses visited Naples in 1738, the city at the foot of Mount Vesuvius struck him as the only place in Italy to exude a palpably metropolitan atmosphere: “The city is cram-full of people. All the bandits and good-for-nothings of the provinces have flocked to the capital. […1 The populace here is noisy the bourgeoisie vain, the nobility fond of showy ostentation and the gentry covetous of grand titles.” The aristocracy he went on, had “adopted a Spanish rather than an Italian lifestyle; they maintain a good presence, are at home to strangers, have an air of noble politeness, keep open house and, often enough, a well-stocked table, too.”
In the cultural life of Naples (the city had become the capital of an independent monarchy in April 1734, when Charles Ill had captured it from the Austrian Habsburgs), music occupied a position of some importance. Even if Charles himself was less interested in music than his wife Maria Amalia of Saxony, it is significant, none the less, that he launched his programme of urban renewal with a grandiose new opera house, the Teatro San Carlo, which was opened on 4 November 1737 with an opera by Domenico Natale Sarri. As “maestro di cappella” at the royal court, Sarri was now at the very pinnacle of
his musical career. He had come to Naples at the age of six and studied at one of the city’s four great conservatories. The preeminence of these teaching institutions, all of which had originally been founded as orphanages in the 16th century, had drawn many talented music students to the city and laid the foundation-stone for Naples’ outstanding musical standards.
In the city’s theatres the curtain went up on brilliant opera performances, while its churches reechoed with polyphonic psalms and passions and with impressive settings of the mass. But it was above all in the city’s countless aristocratic salons and academies that music played its most dominant role. It was here that the patrons of the arts would meet, here that music-loving Maecenases and members of the higher clergy, men of letters and musicians would foregather. Private concerts at the homes of the nobility were occasionally open to the general public, admission was generally free, and among the refreshments that were not infrequently served were coffee, confectionery, liquors and ices. Particularly popular — in addition to shorter cantatas and operatic scenes — was instrumental chamber music. Aristocratic amateurs would often seize the opportunity to demonstrate their dilettante skills on various instruments by taking part in these performances.
Johann Friedrich von Uffenbach was an amateur musician and a member of an old Frankfurt family of prosperous tradespeople. He attended several domestic concerts of this kind during his visit to Italy in 1715, one of which he described as follows in his diary: “While listening, everyone is so attentive and so rapt that you could hear a pin drop, so still does everyone remain. Although the hot-headed Italians kept rolling their eyes and although all the members clapped in admiration when each piece was over, it was only after they had first folded their coats several times and placed them between their hands, so that no sound should be heard, which would have been a sign of disrespect and which is permitted only in theatres.”
This politely muffled applause may perhaps have been intended for a piece by Alessandro Scarlatti, who, during his lifetime, was the central figure in Naples’ musical life. The father of the equally famous Domenico Scarlatti, he wrote no fewer than 77 surviving operas, 22 oratorios and some 800 cantatas in addition to some very fine instrumental music, including the present Sonata in A minor for recorder, two violins and basso continuo.
Alessandro Scarlatti’s direct rival in Naples was Francesco Mancini, whose native talent had been nurtured at the Conservatorio di S. Maria della Pietà dei Turchini. Mancini was temporarily appointed “maestro di cappella” in 1707 in the wake of a shift in the balance of power brought about by the War of the Spanish Succession, but it was only on Scarlatti’s death In 1725 that he was finally able to take over this high office from his predecessor. Mancini’s Sonata in D minor for recorder, two violins and basso continuo is scored for forces identical to those used by Alessandro Scarlatti, thereby allowing listeners of the present recording to draw an interesting comparison between the two works and decide which of their two composers was the more accomplished in the field of chamber music.
As “maestro di cappella” and teacher at several conservatories, Francesco Durante was another of the leading musical figures active in Naples in the first half of the 18th century. Whereas Alessandro Scarlatti and Mancini enjoyed their greatest successes as opera composers, Durante concentrated almost exclusively on sacred and instrumental music. His Concerto in G minor is a typical example of a style described as the “stile misto”, that is a combination of traditional elements of Italian instrumental music with new melodic and harmonic subtleties associated with the 18th century.
It was these composers and musicians (and their no less famous pupils at the conservatories) who contributed to Naples’ fame as the musical capital of Italy. Even as late as 1770, when the English writer on music Charles Bumey set out for Italy to collect material for his General History of Music, his visit to the city was bound up with the liveliest expectations: “I entered this city, impressed with the highest ideas of the perfect state in which I should find practical music. It was at Naples only that I expected to have my ears gratified with every musical luxury and refinement which Italy could afford. My visits to other places were in the way of business, for the performance of a task I had assigned myself; but I came hither animated by the hope of pleasure. And what lover of music could be in the place which had produced the two Scarlattis … and innumerable others of the first eminence among composers and performers, both vocal and instrumental, without the most sanguine expectations.”
Translation: Stewart Spencer