MUSICAL FAMILIES

ELIZABETH HILL LOOKS AT TWO GENERATIONS

In Italy, there were few families more influential than the Scarlattis. Alessandro Scarlatti, known as the ‘Italian Orpheus’ by his peers, became the most important opera composer between Monteverdi and Rossini. As founder of the Neapolitan school of opera, he helped establish Naples as a leading operatic centre, composing operas that were an important link between the early Italian Baroque style and the Classical style that would emerge under Mozart 100 years later.

Domenico Scarlatti Image: Alamy

At 19, Alessandro was appointed Maestro di Capella at the court in Naples, at the same time as his brother Francesco was made the first violinist. In 1702, political unrest in Naples prompted Alessandro to move on. He sought work in Florence and Venice and again in Rome. By now his operas were showing advanced melodic development and use of harmony. He established the form of the Italian opera overture (which was a forerunner of the classical symphony) and developed the aria into a form in which the comic or dramatic traits of a character received fuller expression in musical terms. He also ventured into orchestral writing, expanding the concept of the Sinfonia with his 12 Sinfonie di concerto grosso.

In his later life, Alessandro returned to Naples, where he had been replaced in royal favour by a younger generation of composers. He went into retirement, giving private lessons, and died there, poor and in debt. Alessandro was not just a prolific composer of over 600 cantatas, more than 100 operas, many oratorios, serenatas, sonatas and other instrumental pieces, he also ensured that his musical genes were passed on to the next generation. Born in 1685, the same year as Bach and Handel, Domenico was the sixth of ten children. He began by following in his father’s footsteps, writing music for the stage and the Vatican. He left Rome in 1719 and went to work for royal families in Lisbon and Madrid, where his duties included the musical education of the royal children, particularly the gifted Portuguese princess Maria Barbara.

With no opera in Portugal, his output there comprised almost entirely sacred works, serenatas and keyboard music for teaching purposes. For the next 35 years, he improvised and composed over 500 keyboard sonatas in the styles that surrounded him. These sonatas were so influential that Chopin, Brahms, Bartók and Shostakovich cited them as a huge influence and inspiration. Thomas Roseingrave, the Irish composer and organist who was to play an active role in disseminating Domenico’s music in England and Ireland, said that Domenico played the harpsichord ‘like ten hundred devils’ and regarded him as exhibiting ‘every degree of perfection to which he thought it possible he should ever arrive’.

Domenico spent the last 28 years of his life at the Spanish court under the patronage of Maria Barbara, now Queen of Spain. His legacy was a new, populist compositional style that would eventually transcend the Late Baroque and become known as the ‘Classical style’.

A dynastic succession in performance, rather than composition, has occurred in more modern times between a father and daughter as we consider the Perlman family.

When an interviewer asked Itzhak Perlman about his disability (he contracted polio at the age of four), Perlman said it did not affect his performance. “I can’t walk very well, but I’m not on stage to do walking. I’m on the stage to play. People should judge me for what I can do, not for what I can’t do.”

Itzhak Perlman Image: Alamy

Perlman’s big break came through American television in 1958 when he was 13. Wanting to highlight talent from the new state of Israel, the Ed Sullivan Show held auditions and Perlman was a finalist. Following studies at Juilliard with Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay he won the prestigious Leventritt Competition and his career was launched. Soon recognised as one of the most brilliant violinists of his generation he has played with the great performers of his day, including Barenboim, Zukerman, Du Pré and Ashkenazy.

Perlman’s artistry, his charm and humanity, and his joy for making music has endeared him to audiences for the last 60 years. He has received a host of awards and honours for his contribution to the performing arts in the mainstream media including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In recent years he has turned more to conducting, and devotes considerable time to education, participating in the Perlman Music Program and teaching at Juilliard.

From infancy, Perlman’s children were surrounded by a circle of musicians jokingly known as the ‘Kosher Nostra’. Itzhak’s daughter Navah is comfortable with the expression ‘music brat’ to describe growing up as a child of a classical music superstar but has nevertheless made her own mark as a concert pianist and chamber musician, despite a major setback when she was diagnosed with a rare group of autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis. Today she performs to critical acclaim in major concert venues around the world and is an active and respected performer of residency and educational outreach activities, teaching masterclasses and participating in chamber music residency programs.

Musical Families will feature the Scarlatti father and son and the Perlman father and daughter at 2pm on Tuesdays 3 and 17 March.

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