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Alessandro Stradella, 1639-1682: His Life and Music.

Carolyn Gianturco. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. 13 pls. + xvi + 333 pp. $64.

Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682) is one of the few Italian composers between the time of Palestrina and Rossini who was never forgotten, though for a reason that would hardly have pleased him: he was murdered. His assassins and their motives remain unknown, though a prominent Genoese family and its sexual honor (or jealousy) are strongly suspect. A librettist's dream, this, and so it was that in the nineteenth century, when the memory of virtually all the composer's contemporaries was as dead as they were, no less than six operas brought his story to the stage. I knew of one of these works, by Friedrich von Flotow; I now know the others because Carolyn Gianturco ends the first part of the book under review (72-73) with a list of them. Such level of detail distinguishes the whole of this monograph, which despite some stylistic inelegance and narrative indirection will surely remain the definitive work on the composer for a long time.

Alessandro Stradella consists of two parts. Part one, "The Life," begins in almost as spectacular a fashion as it ends. In chapter one, "Nepi and Bologna," Gianturco starts by surveying Stradella's ancestors, members of the minor nobility. She then documents what she and others first revealed over a decade ago: that Stradella was born in the provinces of Rome, not the city itself, in Nepi, near Viterbo, in 1639 (10-12). (This revision, by the way, would have been less spectacular had not the Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto convinced everyone, perhaps including himself, that the composer was born in Rome in 1644. No one else has ever seen the baptismal document Giazotto reproduced in his 1962 biography, and Gianturco gently lets readers draw their own conclusions concerning his methods.) In any case, the remainder of the chapter follows the movements of Stradella's parents and hypothesizes a period for the young Alessandro in Bologna. Chapter two begins in 1652 when Stradella's mother, widowed in 1648, arrived there with her sons to become part of the household of a noble family. References to Stradella himself now become more frequent, and Gianturco documents his activates after 1667 in impressive detail. It was then that the composer began receiving important commissions for a brilliant series of oratorios and opera prologues, the latter for Rome's first public opera theater, the Tordinona, which opened in 1671. It was also then that Stradella revealed an equal talent for making powerful enemies, and his shady dealings as a freelance marriage broker forced him finally to leave Rome early in 1677. Chapter three shows him seeking temporary refuge in these cities for the remainder of that year; true to form he managed to flee the first with the mistress of a Contarini and in the second nearly get himself killed by the latter's bravi. Chapter four narrates the last five years of Stradella's life, another mixture of first-rate music and second-rate intrigue. Chapter five finally corneas Stradella's time to our own.

In part two, Gianturco shows us the true reason for which Stradella should never have been forgotten: a body of work that sets him alongside the greatest of Baroque masters. Discussing the music by genre, she begins with the cantatas (chapter six), which form the most admired bulk of Stradella's output; Gianturco reminds us (122) that Handel was sufficiently impressed with one of them to base parts of Israel in Egypt upon it. Chapter seven treats his operas and prologues, while chapter eight examines his oratorios. The reader would have been better served had the material in parts of chapters nine and ten, on "Arias, Duets, Trios" and "Madrigals," been woven into chapter six, which could be retitled "Vocal Chamber Music"; the rest of chapter nine belongs with chapter seven, which is on theater music. The same goes for chapter eleven -- "Sacred Vocal Music with Latin Texts" -- which could have been included with chapter eight under the title "Music for the Church" (the resulting narrative economy would also have been more congenial to Stradella, whose contemporaries classified music according to its use in church, chamber, or theater). Proceeding further, chapter twelve, "Instrumental Music," charts the composer's equally important contributions to non-vocal music, particularly his marvelous string music, while chapter thirteen, "Pedagogical Work," summarizes a musical primer from the composer's pen. The book closes with two appendices. "List of Works" follows the numbering of the thematic catalogue of the Stradella's works that Gianturco and Eleanor McCrickard published in 1991, while appendix two, "Stradella's Extant Writings," contains texts and translations of twenty-four letters, two opera dedications, and four motet texts.
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Author:Holzer, Robert R.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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