Those familiar with art history are likely to know the figure of Michelangelo Merisi, aka Caravaggio, not only for his magnificent paintings, iconic of the early Baroque style, but also for the mysterious circumstances of his violent death. His paintings, both in the sacred and in the secular sphere, still fascinate and charm thanks to their depth, to their chiaroscuro, and to the inextricable intertwining of ecstasy, holiness and sensuous overtones. Much of the above could apply both to the biography and to the output of Alessandro Stradella, another major artist of the Italian Baroque, though one whose masterpieces are found in the domain of the sounds instead of the colours.
Stradella had an adventurous life, whose coups de théâtre have elicited the interest and curiosity of many biographers, librettists and composers in the following centuries. He was successful with women, and his story is a tale of elopements, hurried escapes from jealous husbands or brothers, failed attempts to kill him and – eventually – an aggression leading to his death.
Even though these adventures belong very much in the sphere of the secular, as a composer Stradella was equally successful and appreciated as a creator of both sacred music and of secular works. Many of his compositions have survived, including several dramas or comedies with music (i.e. the early forms of opera), fragments of similar works, a very high number of secular and sacred cantatas, as well as instrumental music (including Sonatas and Concerto-like forms).
He also composed at least eight Oratorios – a genre which was still relatively recent at his time –, most of which embody the ideals and value of the Catholic Reformation after Trent. Music was seen by many Catholic Reformers as a touching and efficacious way to instill religious feelings, ideals and virtues. These early Oratorios therefore could be based on Biblical stories (thus favouring a personal and emotional response to the Scriptural narrative), on the lives of saints or martyrs, or on moralising subjects, with virtues and vices being frequently personified by the characters on stage.
The most common subjects were, predictably, the protagonists of Biblical episodes which possessed a particularly strong dramatic power (such as Judith and Holofernes, or Jephthah’s daughter, to name but two of the most frequently chosen), or, among the saints, the most famous ones and (even more importantly) those whose feast-day required a special and solemn celebration.
To be sure, St. Edith would not have qualified in any of the preceding categories. She was an English princess whose short life blossomed just before the year 1000. St. Edith’s mother, Wilfrida, a noblewoman, had been a nun at Wilton Abbey, but was abducted by Edgar, king of England (who was known, ironically, by the title of “Peaceful”). Edgar did penance for his crime by not wearing his crown for seven years; Edith was born, and, of course, was destined to become the wife of a man of royal descent. However, Wilfrida did not remain at Edgar’s side for long: approximately one year after Edith’s birth, she went back to the monastery with her child, was elected abbess and entrusted her daughter to the nuns who took care of her education (along with that of other noble girls). As reported by Edith’s biographer, the monk Goscelin, the girl used to dress sumptuously, in spite of her intense religiosity; she maintained that “pride could exist under the garb of wretchedness, but a mind could be pure under rich vestments”. Actually, under her mother Wilfrida’s rule, the nuns wore white robes embroidered in gold, “to the glory of God”. When her time came to choose her vocation, Edith preferred to remain in the monastery, renouncing the splendour of a queen’s life; she died very young, and was renowned for her wisdom, knowledge, beauty and holiness.
Her feast-day was celebrated on September 16th, and a seventeenth-century Italian hagiography narrates her story as follows: “St. Edith, the daughter of Edgar King of England, preferred the humility of Christ’s Cross to her father’s kingdom’s pomp and to the vanity of worldly greatness. […] Having become a nun, she greatly loved the holy humility, exercising works of Christian piety and serving the other nuns in their humblest needs. She refused, due to humility, the title of Abbess, choosing to be the least of all rather than to rule the others” (Delle vite de’ santi d’ogni mese, Bologna, 1675).
It clearly appears from these lines that humility was the trait for which Edith was most praised; it is not therefore by chance that a character by the name of Humility is found in Stradella’s Oratorio, contending with other qualities (such as Greatness, Nobility, Sensuality and Beauty) for the young princess’ heart. In fact, even though the story of St. Edith is not devoid of dramatic interest and could provide an intriguing libretto, the Oratorio by Stradella hardly narrates any episode of the saint’s biography. Rather, it stages the interior struggle of the protagonist, who is drawn to monastic life but who has to listen to the advice of these personified qualities. They in fact attempt to convince her to take the crown instead of the veil.
St. Edith is therefore the only real, human character on stage. This confers to her person a particularly powerful aura, and draws the audience’s attention on her feelings and personality. While the other singers represent “just” disembodied qualities, she is the only human being whose heart may encompass different, and sometimes conflicting, feelings.
Thus, once more the question arises: why does an English saint who lived more than six hundred years earlier and who was not the object of particular devotion in Italy become the protagonist of an Oratorio?
The most likely answer is also rather puzzling. It has been argued that the (unknown) occasion for the creation and premiere of Santa Editta may have been the wedding, in 1673, of Maria Beatrice d’Este, a fifteen-years old noblewoman, with James Stuart, who was forty-one and was the heir to the English throne. There was nothing strange in the idea of celebrating an aristocratic wedding with an oratorio; moreover, James’ nationality could encourage the librettist to find a subject related with English sacred history. As happened to virtually all aristocratic weddings of the time, the marriage had been combined for political reasons: King Louis XIV of France, in the midst of the confessional turmoil following the Reformations, wanted a Catholic couple on the English throne, and was supported by the Pope.
Similar to St. Edith, however, the intended bride was personally inclined to become a nun; similar to St. Edith’s mother, moreover, the bride’s mother, Laura Martinozzi, favoured her daughter’s wishes. When, however, the Pope himself wrote a letter to Maria Beatrice requesting her consent to the marriage with James, the two women could not refuse anymore.
On the one hand, then, it is understandable that an Oratorio about a holy English princess could celebrate the wedding of an Italian girl to an English prince. On the other, however, it strikes us as entirely inappropriate that the story of a nun who was allowed to choose the veil instead of the crown should celebrate the wedding of another girl who would have preferred to have the same power to choose.
Moreover, as we have seen, St. Edith was famous for her humility, but her appreciation of the royal garments did not entirely conform to the stereotype of a humble nun. This ambivalence is also found in the Oratorio: perhaps not in the libretto, created by the nobleman Lelio Orsini (c. 1623-1696), a prince from Latium, but certainly in the music written by Stradella.
In fact, the protagonist sings numerous arias, encompassing a wide range of moods, styles and affections. In comparison with other coeval saints, the chronicle by Goscelin tells us much about the character of this young saint, who comes to life not as a bidimensional portrait but rather as a real woman (we even learn that she had several pet animals, and that one of her miracles involved rescuing her chest of dresses from a fire!). And even though the libretto’s words are much less lively, the music supplies the drama and vivacity surrounding the protagonist’s figure.
St. Edith’s refreshing and youthful personality is in fact portrayed in some of her arias, sparkling with fantasy and exuberance. This is the case, for example, with Speranze gradite, in a joyful triple time evoking dance steps and with virtuoso passages of great musical appeal. Even more dazzling is Se l’arciero lusinghiero, where the piercing and flying arrows are very graphically depicted through dazzling scales. The protagonist’s primacy, however, is masterfully balanced by the interventions of the other singers.
Similar to the other known oratorios by Stradella, in fact, Santa Editta is sung in Italian and is divided into two parts. Even though there are six characters, the Oratorio requires only five singers (once more, as in the other similar works by the composer), since one singer may interpret two roles.
There is a clear correspondence between the vocal ranges and the “personality” of the characters embodying the qualities who speak with Edith. The most sensuous and earthly character, Sensuality, is sung by a bass, whose low voice seems to associate him to the basest passions. He is the first character to appear in the Oratorio after the two positive personae (St. Edith and Humility); his arguments are also those which Edith can counter more easily. He is also the first to disappear from the Oratorio, whereas Beauty, Greatness and Nobility remain until the very end.
Beauty is in turn a “material” quality, but it is endowed with a higher status, since Beauty is also a quality of the Godhead. It is therefore symbolized by a tenor voice, possibly suggesting the beauty of a young male lover (as happens in most operas). Greatness is interpreted by a contralto, a voice whose range is halfway through the entire compass of the human voice. In fact, a love for greatness may encourage both holiness and depravity: it can lead to a life of virtue or to a lust for power. The two remaining characters are sung by a soprano, thus showing that Nobility and Humility can coexist. In fact, these are the two traits for which St. Edith is remembered, since she was a noblewoman by birth and a humble person by choice.
Nobility never gets a solo aria; it represents a dynamic and creative force which prefers to enter into dialogue with the other characters in the three duets she has to sing (one of which is precisely with Edith). This does not imply for Nobility to be a minor character: rather, her duets are masterpieces of rhetoric and her arguments are those Edith finds hardest to counter. The musical personality and role of Nobility are balanced by those of Humility, who in fact eschews the lights of the stage and intervenes as if framing the Oratorio with her wisdom. Among the memorable moments of this Oratorio are in fact one of the duets (Bella luce del Ciel che difende, sung by Edith and Nobility: here the proximity between the two characters is evident), and the ending. This is prepared by a charming trio (indicated as “chorus” in the libretto) by the three high-pitched “qualities” who seem finally convinced by Edith’s arguments. The true conclusion, however, is entrusted to Humility, who closes the Oratorio according to her style and personality, with two lines of a simple recitativo, which brings to light the spiritual meaning of the entire work. In her words, citing from the Biblical King David (in turn a saint and a sovereign), “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him”.
The entire Oratorio, therefore, struggles with and beautifully demonstrates the double-sidedness of many human feelings, aspirations and desires. Similar to Edith, who chose sanctity and chastity while continuing to love beauty and elegance, and similar to the qualities, whose arguments are frequently sensible and reasonable, though ultimately discarded by the princess, the music joins gorgeous melodic lines, magnificent melismas and intense dialogues before finding its ending in absolute simplicity.
Even though Stradella’s Oratorios have reattained fame only in relatively recent years, these features continued to fascinate their early listeners years after the composer’s death (and this is particularly remarkable at a time when all music was contemporary by definition). After the premiere, the Oratorio was in fact performed twice more in Modena, in 1684 and in 1692, thus bearing witness to Stradella’s enduring fame after his death. The extant manuscript score for the Oratorio, found in Modena, was probably prepared for these performances. This Da Vinci Classics album, therefore, gives voice – quite literally – to this magnificent score, and to the fascinating personality of its protagonist.
Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Ensemble Il Groviglio An entanglement of ideas, sonorities and multifaceted personalities. A vibrant interweaving of pinched and caressed strings, centered on baroque music, that brings together musicians from Italy, France and everywhere. This is the ensemble “Il Groviglio,” made up of young musicians trained in Europe’s best conservatories (Paris, Florence, Basel, Versailles). Since the beginning, the ensemble has explored on 17th and 18th century Italian repertoire and focused on some lesser-known composers such as Francesco Provenzale, Alessandro Stradella or Antonio Draghi. The ensemble was appeared at numerous international Festival such as le Petit Festival de Bretagne, the Festival Marin Marais, the Festival de Musique ancienne de Vanves and the Festival Baroque de Pontoise. Il Groviglio's last engagements include the Stradella’s oratorio Santa Editta for the first modern world premiere in some Swiss and French Festivals.
Alessandro Stradella: Stradella came from a noble family originally of Fivizzano in Tuscany; when his great-uncle Alessio became Bishop of Sutri and Nepi, the family moved south. Alessandro’s father Marc’Antonio was a member of the Cavalieri di S Stefano, a prestigious military order founded in Pisa by the Medici. During the War of Castro he became vice-Marquis of Vignola, and it is possible that in 1642–4 Alessandro lived there with his family. From 1653 to 1660, after the death of Marc’Antonio, Alessandro lived with his mother and brother Stefano in the Lante palace in Rome, where he served as page. The first notice of Stradella as a composer is from 11 March 1667 when a Latin oratorio by him was performed for the Arciconfraternita del SS Crocifisso. He soon began to receive commissions from the Venetian Polo Michiel, and by the beginning of 1668 had composed the prologue ‘O di Cocito oscure deita’ (text by G.F. Apolloni) for Jacopo Melani’s comic opera Il Girello, one of the most frequently performed operas of the century. The next collaboration between Stradella and Apolloni was the serenata Se desio curioso (La Circe), presented on 16 May 1668 at Olimpia Aldobrandini Pamphili’s palace in Frascati to celebrate Leopoldo de’ Medici’s investiture as cardinal. Stradella’s family connections gained him access to noble patrons but, although he received commissions from Rome and Venice, payment was not prompt, and he found himself in financial difficulty. On 27 November 1670 he asked his patron Cardinal Flavio Chigi for a large loan. The outcome is not known, but Stradella began to collaborate with the new Teatro Tordinona, composing prologues, intermezzos and substitute arias for the 1671–2 seasons.
During his Roman years Stradella continued to compose oratorios, now in Italian, such as S Editta, vergine e monaca and Ester, liberatrice del popolo ebreo, both to librettos by Lelio Orsini. In Autumn 1671 he wrote the cantata L’avviso al Tebro giunto to celebrate the marriage of Anna Teresa Pamphili Aldobrandini and Prince Giovanni Andrea Doria of Genoa. August 1674 saw the performance of the serenata Vola, vola in altri petti, commissioned by Prince Gaspare Altieri to be performed before Christina of Sweden; it is the earliest datable composition known to employ concerto grosso instrumentation. On 28 January 1675 Stradella’s motet Pugna, certamen was heard in the church of SS Domenico e Sisto for the investiture of Angelica Lante as a nun; it too was scored for a concerto grosso ensemble. Another work with the same instrumentation was heard on 31 March: the oratorio San Giovanni Battista, commissioned by the Venerabile Compagnia della Pietà. Also in 1675 Stradella’s abilities were recognized by Pope Clemente X, who made him an honorary ‘servant’. It was about this time that Queen Christina wrote a detailed scenario which Baldini elaborated into verse and Stradella set to music as the serenata Il Damone; it also employed concerto grosso instrumentation.
Although not precisely datable, several cantatas are shown by their texts to have been written during Stradella’s years in Rome. The cantata Ecco Amore ch’altero risplende celebrated the wedding of Anna Altieri to Egidio Colonna on 14 June 1676. The first mention of Stradella’s instrumental music was made shortly after, in a letter of July 1676, when a sonata (perhaps for concerto grosso) was commissioned by Polo Michiel. In the autumn Stradella corresponded with the Venetian on the question of whether it was advisable for him to leave Rome. Together with the castrato Giovanni Battista Vulpio, he had contrived to get 10,000 scudi from an ‘ugly and old’ woman to arrange her marriage to a relative of Cardinal Cibo, the papal secretary of state. The culprits were threatened with imprisonment, and Stradella left for Venice at the beginning of February 1677. There both Polo Michiel and his brother Girolamo requested his music. There was mention of Stradella composing an opera for the Teatro di SS Giovanni e Paolo to a text by Gianfrancesco Saliti, possibly for Carnival 1678, but nothing seems to have come of it. We do know, however, that Alvise Contarini asked him to teach his mistress Agnese Van Uffele, and that she and Stradella left Venice together in June 1677 and went to Turin, from where Stradella was brash enough to ask Polo Michiel for letters of recommendation. When, less than a month later, Contarini arrived in Turin, Agnese entered the convent of S Maria Maddalena and Stradella that of S Domenico. Contarini departed, but instructed the archbishop that the girl should marry Stradella or take the veil. Succumbing to pressure, Stradella agreed to marry Agnese, and on 10 October 1677 he signed the marriage contract. While walking away from the convent, however, he was attacked from behind and left for dead. The two henchmen found asylum in the palace of the French ambassador. (Through all this, Stradella succeeded in promoting his music: the cantatas Se del pianeta ardente and Sciogliete in dolci nodi refer to the regent, Maria Giovanna of Nemours.)
There followed an international ‘Stradella affair’. Maria Giovanna put Agnese’s father in prison, objected to ‘foreign’ powers entering her territory and wrote to Louis XIV complaining about his ambassador’s behaviour. It was affirmed by various court representatives that the henchmen had been hired by Contarini, and in the end France and Savoy used the affair to settle another diplomatic problem. By November Stradella had recovered and resolved his differences with Contarini, and at the beginning of 1678 he arrived, alone, in Genoa. Nothing more is heard of Agnese Van Uffele. In Genoa he was immediately put in charge of the orchestra at the Teatro del Falcone and asked to prepare some of the female singers. A group of nobles agreed to pay him 100 Spanish doubloons a year and to provide him with a house, food, and a servant; in return, he had only to stay in Genoa. In quick succession he composed La forza dell’amor paterno (performed 15 times during the 1678–9 season), Le gare dell’amor eroico and the comic opera Il Trespolo tutore. At the same time he was teaching and composing other music, both sacred and secular. In 1680 he wrote the cantata morale Alle selve, agli studi, all'armi, to words by Benedetto Pamphili, and the sacred cantata Esule dalle sfere and some works were published in miscellaneous collections in England (1679) and Italy (1680). In 1681 Duke Francesco II d’Este in Modena requested an oratorio of him: La Susanna (to a libretto by the duke’s secretary, Giovanni Battista Giardini) was heard in the oratory of S Carlo in April. Another commission, this time for an opera, arrived from Duke Flavio Orsini in Rome, who asked Stradella to set his own libretto, Moro per amore. On 24 May the composer sent him the finished score, saying that he was composing a ‘cloak-and-dagger operetta’ for six characters to be done at a summer villa. He was also finishing a serenata to celebrate the wedding of Carlo Spinola and Paola Brignole: Il barcheggio, ‘a mixture of harmonious voices, poetry and instrumental music’, was performed in the bay of Genoa on 19 June.
Stradella’s life ended tragically at the age of 42 when an unknown assassin stabbed him to death for reasons which are still unclear. In a city of public puritanism and private crime, free access to the nobility, especially women, had already been complained of in anonymous letters, and it was said that the murder had been organized by a certain Giovanni Battista Lomellino, who became jealous when he realized that an actress who had been made pregnant and abandoned (supposedly by Abate Granvella), and whom he had aided, preferred Stradella to him. Whatever the reason, Stradella’s burial in S Maria delle Vigne, one of Genoa’s most aristocratic churches, and the careful attention paid to his mutilated body and to his soul (involving payment for 24 masses) are signs of respect accorded a gentleman. It should be noted that none of Stradella’s personal scandals had ever affected the demand for his music.
Stradella left no will, and his belongings were divided between his relatives. As early as 19 August 1682 his half-brother Francesco offered music to Francesco II d’Este; it is likely that the Stradella manuscripts catalogued Mus.F in the Biblioteca Estense, Modena (see illustration), came both from the composer himself (who, after La Susanna, continued to send music to the duke) and through his half-brother’s offer. In 1688 a Genoese nobleman, Giuseppe Maria Garibaldi, offered copies of Stradella’s music in exchange for copies of music already in the duke’s library; the manuscripts catalogued Mus.G in the Biblioteca Estense presumably came about in this manner. The dukes of Modena were probably responsible also for the Stradella pieces in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, since Francesco V d’Este took to Vienna what he considered his family’s private collections. Stradella manuscripts owned by the Venetian bibliophile Jacopo Soranzo (1686–1761) eventually found their way to the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin. The important Stradella autographs and other manuscripts in the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, were probably left in the city by the composer or sent by him to Polo and Girolamo Michiel. Both Handel and Burney acquired Stradella manuscripts which are now in the British Library, London, and Christ Church, Oxford; other music acquired by Viscount Fitzwilliam is now in Cambridge. Many works in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, were taken there from Italy by Napoleon as spoils of war. In short, although Stradella’s music is now to be found in 55 European and American libraries, the most important collections were formed in the 17th and 18th centuries.
These same centuries witnessed the continued performance of Stradella’s music, especially in Italy and England, but also the rise of the ‘Stradella legend’. The Histoire de la musique et de ses effets of Pierre Bourdelot and his nephew Pierre Bonnet-Bourdelot, published posthumously in 1715, included a seven-page biography of Stradella, the falsities of which were frequently repeated (by Burney and Hawkins among others) and further elaborated; it became the source for opera librettos set by Niedermeyer (1837), Flotow (1844), Franz Doppler, Adolph Schimon (1846), Giuseppe Sinico (1863) and Virgilio Marchi (1866), as well as for novels, songs, poems and plays. Remo Giazotto’s two volume Vita di Alessandro Stradella (Milan, 1962), although purporting to be based on actual documents, is yet another blatant fabrication of events. Even the aira ‘Pietà, Signore’ (also known as Aria di chiesa and Agnus Dei) is not by Stradella, although it bears his name on hundreds of copies and arrangements; it was possibly composed as a spoof by F.-J. Fétis, although it has also been attributed to Louis Niedermeyer..