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Alessandro Stradella 1639-1682: His Life and Music.

A talented composer of aristocratic birth, a personable bachelor murdered for an affair of the heart at the age of 42, Alessandro Stradella was destined to become a legendary figure in the history of Italian music. Biographers from Bourdelot (1715) to Giazotto (1962) have spun their tales without much fear of contradiction, since Stradella was in fact a pretty elusive character, living on the fringes of society in Rome, Venice, Turin and Genoa.

In a letter addressed to Cardinal Flavio Chigi from Rome in 1670, Stradella described himself at the age of 31 as a freelance musician circulating in the market to earn money. Too high-born and perhaps too high-spirited to settle for a safe post as a maestro di cappella, he seems to have prospered through good social connections. They brought him a stream of commissions from the nobility and a bevy of wealthy noblewomen eager for private tuition. Amorous adventures and shady financial dealings caused him to become a fugitive and led to his untimely death on the streets of Genoa.

Carolyn Gianturco is not interested in perpetuating legends. She has spent the last twenty years or so tracking down the real Stradella in Italian archives, turning up new documentary evidence about his origins and clarifying many points of detail about the progress of his career and the dispersal of his goods and manuscripts after 1682. Irked no doubt by the legend-mongers and the need to check their spurious sources, and hindered by the protective attitudes of some musicologists and collectors towards their own discoveries, she has managed to produce in Part I of her book a full and verifiable account of Stradella's life. It is a skilful reconstruction, solidly grounded on the composer's letters, legal papers and other archival documents, the whole enlivened by the author's intimate knowledge of the social mores of the time.

There are inevitable gaps, but where documentary evidence is lacking the reader is offered possible scenarios. When, for instance, there are only two scraps of evidence to suggest that Stradella was educated in Bologna - one a parish listing from S Eustachio, Rome, of 1659 calling him 'D. Alexander Stradella Bononiensis' and the other a Genoese notary's appellation of 1682, 'Civitate Bononie' - Gianturco narrows down the possible dates of his presence in the city to a span of years before 1653 and then lays out in detail the institutions and teachers most likely to have given the young composer the good literary education and musical prowess he manifested in later years. Scrupulously, given the questionable nature of her sources, Gianturco refuses to affirm that Stradella was indeed educated in Bologna. The reader is left to weigh the evidence.

For a composer of no fixed abode whose property was sold off in batches after his death, Stradella seems to have been particularly fortunate in that only sixteen of his known compositions have been lost. Gianturco discusses the remaining 308 in Part II of her book. To deal with such a large body of compositions, including 173 cantatas, five operas, six oratorios, eighteen settings of sacred Latin pieces and 27 instrumental works, she adopts a generic approach. The ordering of the discussion is roughly that of the Gianturco-McCrickard thematic catalogue of Stradella's compositions published in 1991, the numbering of which is reproduced in the List of Works here (pp. 250-60). Scholars in search of information about Stradella's music should consult both publications: the present book for descriptions, synopses and analyses, and the thematic catalogue for sources (printed and manuscript), incipits, and detailed contents of the dramatic works.

The seven chapters on Stradella's music are packed with information, providing general readers with access to the exotic world of Seicento music-making, music analysts with useful data about the genesis of the concerto grosso and the ensemble sonata, and performers of early music with enough qualitative assessment of Stradella's works to encourage a bolder exploration of them than hitherto.

A schematic approach to the discussion of the music has some disadvantages. In the chapter on theatre music, for example, we read about the operas Stradella composed in Genoa at the end of his career before we are informed about the prologues and intermezzi he supplied for revivals of operas by Cavalli and Cesti at the Teatro Tordinona, Rome, in his apprentice years. The question of whether his early engagements in the theatre affected his later practice is not addressed. Was his preference for Cicognini-like intrigue dramas in Genoa a matter of personal taste based on youthful experience, or was it a response to the innate conservatism of the Genoese noblemen who commissioned the operas? Stradella's fitful career as a theatrical composer remains unfathomed.

In the chapter dealing with the oratorios, Gianturco classifies the six surviving scores according to whether the characters involved are real or unreal, the latter being defined as personifications of abstract qualities. Though such a method of categorization has long been a convenient means of differentiating oratorio types, it remains only a rough guide, based on the title-page rather than the internal dynamics of the libretto.

Stradella's Santa Pelagia, which features two real characters (Pelagia, a courtesan converted to Christianity, and her confessor, Bishop Nonno of Antioch) and two personifications (The World and Militant Religion) is classified as a morality. One cannot quibble with that, since there is much moral posturing in the libretto, and particulars about the heroine - her occupation before conversion and her destiny as a hermit afterwards - are only vaguely alluded to in the dialogue. But when Gianturco states that all the characters are inflexible - 'No one changes his position' (p. 199) - one is bound to question her judgement of the heroine. From revelling in cupidity at the midpoint of the oratorio - 'How thrilling the arrow/When it strikes the heart' - Pelagia is reduced to sobbing tears of regret for her worldliness by the end of the drama. Here is a clear case of internal evidence running contrary to theoretical assumptions about oratorio types.

It is heartening to find an analyst of Italian vocal music focusing on the quality of the texts before considering their musical settings. Through such a strategy, Carolyn Gianturco gives us new insights into the dormant splendour of Stradella's large output of cantatas. Here, as in other parts of her pioneering study, she draws us ever closer to the real Stradella.

VICTOR CROWTHER
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Author:Crowther, Victor
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1995
Words:1055
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