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ISSN: 1089-747X
Copyright © 1995 by the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Volume 1, no. 1

Carolyn Gianturco, Alessandro Stradella 1639-1682: His Life and Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994)

Reviewed by Ellen Rosand*

[1] Alessandro Stradella, an important composer of vocal and instrumental music in Italy during the third quarter of the seventeenth century, is probably best remembered by music historians for the circumstances of his death: he was murdered. Although the reasons for his violent end have never been completely uncovered, not even in the present volume, which provides the most complete biography of the composer yet published, the event seems to have been merely the culminating one in a long series of scandalous adventures. These included a number of shady dealings involving wealthy widows in Rome, the last of which led to his forced departure from that city in 1677; and absconding to Turin with the mistress of a Venetian patrician, which provoked an unsuccessful attempt on the composer's life.

[2] Such events may seem irrelevant, mere biographical details, but the kind of character they bespeak -- unstable, erratic, passionate, impulsive -- may have some bearing on the nature and range of Stradella's musical accomplishments. Somewhat atypically, he composed in virtually all of the genres current during his lifetime, for theater, chamber, and church. The reasons for this can be traced to the varied demands of his patrons, an unusually diverse lot ranging from Roman princes and Venetian noblemen to members of the Genoese aristocracy. Indeed, unlike many of his contemporaries, rather than serving any single patron for an extended period, the composer made his living as a free-lance musician, fulfilling a variety of commissions wherever they happened to arise.

[3] The author of this volume, Carolyn Gianturco, has been actively engaged in Stradella research from the time of her doctoral dissertation more than a quarter of a century ago, and she has communicated her findings in numerous articles, catalogues, and editions published since then.(note 1)This most recent and most substantial of her contributions to the Stradella story is in two parts, the proverbial life and works.

[4] The five chapters of Part I make use of a remarkable number of new archival documents to present a biography that is radically revised as regards the composer's birthplace (Nepi, not Rome) and birthdate (1639, not 1644), although the new date is not absolutely convincing, relying as it does on a presumed confusion between two Stradella sons baptized with the same name.(note 2) In some respects, however, the revised biography is too complete. For numerous "new" details regarding the composer's life and education are supplied by conjecture rather than hard evidence. Repeated recourse to "It must have been"s and "most likely"s tends to weaken the biographical narrative; more disconcertingly, such conjectures gradually turn into fact. The putative Bologna connection that would explain later references to the composer as Bolognese is a case in point (pp. 16-17). "It is quite possible . . . that Alessandro was sent to study in Bologna. . . ." "In short, Alessandro was in Bologna, if at all [my emphasis], at most from ages 4 to 14 [or less]. . . ." "Whenever he went to Bologna, most likely his Augustinian stepbrother would have wanted him to be in his order's seminary. . . ." And finally "During Alessandro's years in Bologna, the Maestro Cappella at San Domenico . . . was Francesco Milani. . . ."

[5] Although we learn more than we need to know about every one of Stradella's family members and many of his patrons, including the street addresses of their houses, we are still lacking what is perhaps the most important biographical information about him: the nature and source of his musical training. This is unfortunate, since knowing who his teachers were would go a long way toward helping us understand his musical style. This lacuna, no fault of the author, who has done her best to stitch together a credible biography, may nevertheless be responsible for one of the most problematic aspects of the second part of the book: the absence of adequate context in the discussion of the works. Indeed, despite extensive description of the music in eight chapters, we are left in the dark as to how it fits within the development of the genres in which Stradella was active: in descending order of importance, cantata, theater music, oratorio, madrigals, Latin sacred music, and instrumental music. And this tends to distort -- even to diminish -- our appreciation of the music.

[6] In fact, Stradella was quite a good composer, as comparison with his contemporaries or near contemporaries Cavalli, Cesti, and Ziani would easily show, but we get too little sense of it here. Although Gianturco manages to describe a number of works in considerable detail, providing at least some sense of Stradella's style -- his skill at text interpretation, the variety of his formal structures, his abilities as a melodist -- a good many of her observations point up features that are in fact conventional for the period: the makeup of the instrumental band of his operas, for instance -- two violins and continuo -- mentioned numerous times with something of surprise for its thinness, is absolutely typical in operas of the second half of the seventeenth century. Likewise, the use of what she calls arioso at moments of increased emotion in La Susanna (p. 196) is not only typical of Stradella, but of virtually all of his contemporaries. Even where she does offer some context, such as in her discussion of the prologue for Il Girello, where she cites Cavalli's Giasone for similar use of versi sdruccioli, she fails to recognize the absolutely conventional association between that verse form and invocations of the supernatural. It is to be lamented that Gianturco's scrupulousness with regard to footnoting her biographical sources does not extend to taking into consideration the work of other scholars on the musical style of the period.

[7] In addition to the absence of historical context, the musical discussions suffer from a failure to go beyond mere description to hazard interpretation. In connection with a striking aria from the cantata Troppo oppressa dal sonno nel suo letto, for instance, she might have recognized a possible mimetic function in the "insistent placement of syllables on rhythmically unstressed notes which are then tied over to stressed notes" (p. 91). Could this be an example of what Monteverdi called "music depicting sleep?"(note 3) Too often statements are tossed off quite casually without sufficient recognition of the complexity of the issues they raise. A remark such as "the prologue is in the key of D major, the tonality of the opera" (174), ignores the whole question of whether operas can actually be said to have tonalities at all, at least before Mozart. And the term arioso is certainly too complex to be defined simply as "sections of recitative text set to aria-style music" (p. 84).

[8] The most serious shortcoming of the book, however, and one that exacerbates the problems already alluded to, is the limited number of musical examples. Forty-four in all, ranging from tiny snippets to several measures in length, they are unfortunately not listed or indexed anywhere in the volume. One can never be quite sure if the source of problems in a particular book are not caused by the economics of the publishing business. Indeed, Gianturco implies in her foreword that the publishers wanted a smaller volume than the one she ultimately produced. Nevertheless, the paucity of musical examples, particularly for a composer like Stradella whose works are not very accessible, places an impossible burden on the textual description. Only some kind of textual magician would have the power to communicate the sense of the music adequately in prose. An exception should perhaps be made for the chapter on the cantatas, the most substantial one in the book (63 of the 250 pages of text), since Gianturco has herself made most of the music available in her Garland edition.(note 4)

[9] Fortunately, economic exigencies do not seem to have affected the non-musical sources. Indeed, the abundance of documents and their translations is downright luxurious. Although one might have wished for one or two additions -- the original of the document regarding Stradella's death, for instance (p. 59), or the original text of a highly significant passage on the cantata by Crescimbeni (pp. 77-78) -- it would be downright ungrateful not to applaud the inclusion, in Appendix 2, of all of Stradella's known writings, in the original text as well as English translation. These include two opera dedications and four Latin motet texts as well as twenty-four letters, published here for the first time. Arguably the most valuable material in the entire book, these letters actually do provide a context for Stradella's activities. In addition to supplying information about performances and singers unknown until now, they give us a vivid sense of Stradella's personality and of his difficulties in pursuing his career, the uncertainties of a composer who, for whatever reason, and despite a huge talent, could not find -- or perhaps was unsuited to -- steady employment.

[10] Gianturco is owed a debt of gratitude for opening the life and work of this unusual composer to public scrutiny. Many readers, tantalized by her descriptions, will surely be inspired to seek out the music, to get to know it, even to perform it!

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References

*Ellen Rosand (ellen.rosand@yale.edu), the author of Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice and the forthcoming Monteverdi's Ventian Trilogy, chairs the Department of Music at Yale University.
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1. Twenty-six different items by her are listed in the bibliography. Her main predecessors in the field were Owen Jander ("The Works of Alessandro Stradella Related to the Cantata and the Opera," Ph.D. diss., Harvard university, 1962) on the cantatas and operas, and Remo Giazotto, whose Vita di Alessandro Stradella [1962], obviously left much to be desired, at least to judge from Gianturco's comments on it. In fact, her scrupulous footnoting of biographical documents is evidently a response to her frustration at having been unable, in many cases, to trace Giazotto's sources.
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2. It would be interesting to have had a footnote on the discrepancy, since the earlier date is given in the same author's New Grove article of 1980, though not in her 1992 OperaGrove entry.
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3. Letter of 24 May 1627 to Alessandro Striggio. Claudio Monteverdi: Lettere, dediche, e prefazione, ed. Domenico de' Paoli (Rome: De Sant= is, 1973), 251.
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4. Cantatas by Alessandro Stradella. The Italian Cantata in the Seventeenth Century, Carolyn Gianturco, gen. ed. (New York: Garland, 1987), IX.
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