Most of the readers of The Seventeenth Century Lady are not only fans of 17th-century history, but also of the Baroque music of that time. It is therefore my pleasure to have DM Denton here with a guest post about Alessandro Stradella – a commonly (and sadly!) overlooked composer of wonderful Italian Baroque music.
Alessandro Stradella: Fascinating, Flawed, Forgiven, and Unforgettable
In June of 2002 I found myself expectantly listening to the music of Alessandro Stradella and an engaging encapsulation of his story replete with romance and intrigue, triumph and tragedy, like an opera drawing on the divinity and failings of gods and men.
I live in Western New York with access to Canadian TV and radio broadcasts, and in those days, while commuting to work, I often tuned into a fascinating program on CBC Radio 2 called In the Shadow, which highlighted the lives and works of musicians and composers who had been largely ignored or forgotten. That morning the host Tom Allen featured a certain 17th century Italian maestro.
It seemed amazing that, until that hour, as a woman entering her fifties who had long been enthralled with Baroque music, I had never heard how from Rome to Venice to Turin to Genoa, Stradella was, in his time, a celebrity and highly regarded as a composer and performer, his murder on the streets of Genoa in 1682 breaking hearts and satisfying avengers, making him a muse and miscreant for centuries to come.
The elusive Stradella was the man I was waiting for—at least the one a character I was destined to invent was. She wouldn’t be an accomplished musician or singer, or prosperous patron, or so beautiful she didn’t need to be anything else. At first she had no idea how she might meet him, in person and imaginings, years passing and circumstances predicting it would never happen. Until he was at her door, alive and well in the superb port city of Genoa where accolades had fallen on him and more trouble, too; the rumor that he relished one as much as the other following him everywhere.
Like her I was slowly, guardedly, but unavoidably let in on his brilliancy and charm, ego and urgency; allowed behind the scenes of his work and high and low lifestyle. A house near la via Luccoli was where we both began with him: Donatella to surrender to an outcome she could hardly hope for and myself to that inexplicable compulsion a writer—a novelist—has to tell and suppose.
It was another three years before I began writing my historical fiction with Stradella at its heart. The most reliable resource I came upon was by a musicologist based in Italy who had studied Stradella for over two decades, Professor Carolyn Gianturco. In 1994 she published Alessandro Stradella, the Man and His Music, now considered the definitive biography of him. Her extensive exploration of archives around Italy traced his noble lineage and corrected inaccuracies such as his birth place and date; her academic perspective investigated and asserted his importance in the development of Italian Baroque music. Despite her efforts, due to gaps in his documented history, many questions remained unanswered, including the source and extent of his musical training and why he was continually lured into scandalous, even criminal behavior that jeopardized his professional and personal well-being.
For a novelist, less proven is more to be creative with—respectfully a little at odds with Ms. Gianturco who kindly read the novel with the understanding it was fiction and in appreciation of its intent to help bring Stradella out of the shadows, but as protective of his image as she might be of a darling son’s.
I found clues for my characterization of Stradella in his articulate, self-effacingly but shrewdly boastful letters to patrons and friends; in dedications that, like his music, hit all the right notes; in his restlessness (well, he was an Aries) and attraction to women who weren’t appropriately available; in his ability to find friends and forgiveness no matter his trespasses; in a fascinating list of his possessions at the time of his death (which shaped the first chapter of A House Near Luccoli); in the bold elegance of his signature, and, of course, in his stunningly fluid and melodic music, richly textured, theatrical, mythical, playful even comical, but also courteous and reverent.
He was the epitome of the paradox of true genius, in ‘one breath’ making masterpieces and, in another, messes. These are the first words I wrote for A House Near Luccoli, which ended up in the third chapter:
Before her was a gracious creature, especially his hands composing in mid-air and eyes shifting slowly in observation and expression. His hair was an admission of the recklessness that got him in trouble, the vagrancy of his genius making him too accessible. Without music’s influence he might not wander like a prince among his subjects, although who could think that was all there was to him?
I focused on Stradella’s last year in Genoa, structuring my narrative with a succession of actual events, mainly musical, and initiating the fictional Donatella’s association with him through his need for a new residence and copyist. The title of the novel reflects a possibility that Stradella last lived in a house just off the via Luccoli owned by Giuseppe Maria Garibaldi, one of the managers of the Teatro Falcone where Stradella had been the impresario until he was dismissed because of yet another indiscretion, supposedly with Garibaldi’s wife. Stradella’s dangerous and often embroidered relationship with Agnese Van Uffele, the mistress of a Venetian nobleman who asked Stradella to tutor her in music, was long over by 1681. I did play a little—as I felt Stradella would have—with some of the myths that even while he lived were born and nourished. Like the story that assassins sent to confront him as he left a church were so deeply affected by the beauty of his music that they not only refused to kill him but also confessed to the plan and helped ensure Stradella’s safety.
Perhaps, not such an unbelievable tale after all—at least not for those of us who have been captivated by Stradella’s music.
Here I imagined him describing the performance of the wedding cantata il Barcheggio, which had its first performance in June 1681 on a barge in Genoa’s harbor.
“Then my musica began. A mixture of harmonious voices, poetry and fine instrumentalists,” Signor Stradella read from his palms, “a signor importante wrote.” He lifted his hands in a question of his own but didn’t hesitate to admit the singers were exceptional, as they should be, undertaking the instruction of not only notes but subtle interpretations. Adagio, presto, mezzo tempo, allegro assai staccato, adagio e staccato, adagio forte e staccato, presto e staccato . “I must’ve driven them mad with my demands—and not just the singers. “The tromboni had to play rather staccato and with little breath like a dying man for a last word. It all took place on the center barge left open to the skies, settling stomachs, steadying gazes and silencing small talk. I stood up to the challenge, as cowardly as brave, with sea legs on land, sailing from one city to another, almost going down, buoyant again, even against the wrath of the gods. Let Anfritrite be jealous that she and Nettuno weren’t the only lovers ruling the sea that night, such depth of musica in her whistles and hisses and whirlwinds. But also the calming of her concern convinced that imitation was flattery. So Paola and Carlo might have their celebrazione, some sacred applause, even the appreciation of voices and a thousand and more trombe.”
By the second decade of the 18th Century Stradella’s compositions were rarely performed, eclipsed by cloak-and-dagger operas and novels that portrayed him more as a libertine than serious composer. Of course, a little truth can spark and fuel lies. Whether acting on a patron’s whim or his own impulse, uncertainly and risk were inevitable for Stradella. It was his nature to embrace them. My intention was foremost, through specifics and speculation, to present Stradella as an enticingly fascinating if flawed human being and, without reservation, a gifted composer.
When informed that “jealousy was the motive to it” Purcell lamented Stradella’s fate, and “in regret of his great merit as a musician”, said he could forgive him any injury in that kind. ~ From Purcell studies by Curtis Price
Even before I had completed A House Near Luccoli, I sensed I might carry Stradella’s inimitable spirit and music forward into a sequel. That plan was encouraged by Henry Purcell’s reported reaction to Stradella’s untimely death, which fit in with my thoughts of moving Donatella to Oxfordshire, England (she was half-English, her parents already residing there and nothing and no one left to hold her in Genoa).
Also, I was drawn to finally write from my very personal experience of living in the Oxfordshire village of Wroxton and Wroxton Abbey, an away-from-London refuge for Francis North and his brother Roger North, both amateur musicians and important figures in the court of Charles II, who offered yet another incentive to include Henry Purcell due to Roger North’s assertion that the high point of his musical experience was entertaining the ‘divine’ Purcell.
In To A Strange Somewhere Fled just released by All Things That Matter Press, a sonnet, ‘stolen’ music, inexpressible secrets, and an irrepressible spirit have stowed away on Donatella’s journey to a strange somewhere between endings and beginnings. The title came to me from a verse in The Despair by the 17th poet Abraham Cowley, put to music by John Blundeville:
No comfort to my wounded sight,
In the Suns busie and imperti’nent light,
Down on cold earth; and for a while was dead,
And my freed soul to a strange somewhere fled.
Then down I lay my head;
DM Denton, a native of Western New York, is an author and artist. She finds her voice in poetry and prose, in silence and retreat, in truth and imagination. Through observation and study, inspired by music, art, nature and the contradictions of the creative spirit, she loves to wander into the past to discover stories of interest and meaning for the present, writing from her love of language and the belief that what is left unsaid is the most affecting of all. Her educational journey took her to the UK where she stayed for sixteen years. She returned to the US in 1990, to a rural area of Western New York State where she resides in a cozy log cabin with her mother and a multitude of cats. For more information, please visit Diane’s blog and website. You can also follow her on Twitter @bardessdmdenton