Christmas Eve is two days away, and Christmas carols and Christmas pop songs might by now have poisoned your ears. Here is an antidote. Is pure, joyful and pacifying. It is solemn without veering into kitsch. It’s classy. It’s over 300 years old, but not outdated. It’s perfect for Christmas.
A cantata for a nobleman
In 1695, the Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti wrote his Christmas cantata “O di Betlemme altera”, probably upon a commission of an Italian nobleman. As many fellow composers, he was financially dependent on patrons and the commissions they paid for new pieces of music. The patrons could be the nobility and the clergy, and Scarlatti composed sacred music as well as profane music in abundance.
We have met Scarlatti already before, when I discussed his “Salve Regina“. Traditionally, a Christmas cantata like “O di Betlemme altera” would be performed as entertainment music before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and this works was no exception to that rule. The origin of the Italian text remains shrouded in a mystery. I could not find any Bible text corresponding to it and the secondary literature that I consulted does not mention anything about its origin. I really cherish the recording by the English Concert and Choir led by Trevor Pinnock released in 1993. So run and get that record and earmark it for Christmas Eve if you want some decent music before mass!
The piece was written for soprano/alto voice, strings and basso continuo*. Hyperion Records has nicely summed up the structure of the piece: “After an introductory recitative comes a jaunty aria, ‘Dal bel seno’, full of opportunities […] for the soloist to show her skill at ornamentation. The second aria, ‘L’autor d’ogni mio bene’, is glorious, with solo violin and viola accompanied by ‘Violoncello e Leuto’ […] providing a shimmering, atmospheric accompaniment to a delicious melody. The final movement completes the delightfully pastoral scene, with a lilting melody accompanied by orchestral drones.” The recitativo “O di Betlemme altera povertà” (Oh, from the unfortunate poverty of Bethlehem…) gave the cantata its name.
From Palermo to Rome to Naples
Scarlatti came form a family of musicians. He was born in Palermo on May 2, 1660. Little is known of his early musical education. At the age of 12, he was sent to Rome to grow up with relatives. By 1680, he had been appointed maestro di cappella to Queen Christina of Sweden, living in Rome. She was an enthusiastic patron of the arts, and Scarlatti was one of the composers she promoted. In 1684, Scarlatti moved to Naples and entered into the service of the viceroy. When he composed the Christmas cantata, he was still in Naples. It was a particularly productive time for Scarlatti. Almost half of the operas performed there between 1684 and 1702 were written by Scarlatti.
I hope, you will enjoy Scarlatti’s music as much as I do. He is certainly one of my favorite Baroque composers. And he can easily chase away ear worms like “Jingle Bells” and “Last Christmas”!
© Charles Thibo