By Miguel Ángel Aguilar Rancel (translation: Mark Wiggins)

IDilettantiThe Italian-English dictionary compiled by Ferdinando Altieri, published in 1726, contains no entry for the noun “dilettante”, but does include the verb “dilettarsi” – to entertain oneself, enjoy, take pleasure in – and even the expression “dilettarsi di musica”. The word is also related to the French “amateur” (one who loves), which derives from the Latin “amator”, and it is closely connected with the word “connoisseur”. All such words refer to an aptitude or a passion, frequently for an artistic activity; but the three principal words here also implicitly denote an interest and a practice which excludes professional assiduousness. In that sense they are ambiguous expressions, which can bear both positive and negative connotations. In today’s world, which extols professionalism and specialization, perhaps the inclination leans towards the second connotation. In past times, when the aristocratic code prohibited professional practice of any art (except perhaps that of letters), which it considered as a bourgeois or even lower-class activity, dilettantism served as a mark of distinction for the nobility. This phenomenon became pronounced during the civic and civilized 18th century, when the aristocracy was steadily weighing up the merits of its traditional martial calling, a time when, in a milieu of growing internationalization (and of travelling), the notion of being cultivators of the arts – which had arisen in the period of the Autumn, or Waning, of the Middle Ages, and more particularly in the Renaissance – was intensifying.

The countertenor Xavier Sabata, a big enthusiast for the style of recitar cantando, has chosen with great care this selection from composers, supposedly dilettantes, for whom this concept would have been a doubly misleading one. As an artist with a great sensitivity for infusing each word, phrase and melodic unit with the appropriate accent, colour, rhythm and inspiration required to bring them to life, Sabata has opted for pieces which, rather than expressing any lack of expertise, display and bring up to date the aim of the Florentine Camerata; this was to place the music at the service of the text, the verse and the emotions. Few genres are so apposite for Sabata’s purpose here than that of the chamber cantata. This short and superior dramatic scene (o en scored for more than one voice), which received accom- paniment either from an ensemble or from basso continuo, avoided the sophistication of the barely intelligible madrigal as well as the richness and o en spectacular melodic writing found in opera. Together with the two opera arias, all the cantatas chosen for and recorded on this album consist of short works for alto soloist with a simple continuo accompaniment. This not only has the virtue of highlighting the importance of the text, but also of the cantata being presented as a form of presumed lesser complexity, for allegedly dilettante composers.

The “most recent” composer represented here is Giacomo Maccari (c.1700-a er 1744), who sung as a tenor in the ducal chapel of St Mark’s in Venice. Few details concerning his compositional activity exist, except for those as supplied by a contemporary of his, Carlo Goldoni. Having written a single opera seria, Maccari was driven increasingly to concentrate on the semi-serious genre of the intermezzo. The cantata, Non mi si dica più, marked Adagio, consists of two short tripartite arias (both of which are da capo), written in an expressive, markedly emphatic style and based on short and very melismatic themes. Each aria is divided halfway by a owing recitative, which is almost arioso in form, whilst following the text in a strict manner.

More widely known, and coming from one generation earlier, is Emanuele, Baron d’Astorga (1680-1757). Scion of the Sicilian nobility, his life story encompassed melodra- matic elements not unlike that of another Southern Italian aristocratic composing gure, Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa. Astorga received an advanced education and, in a highly revealing way, showed himself to be neither ashamed of nor inclined to hide his musical output. He exercised this openly and combined it – at different times across his somewhat hazardous and peripatetic life – with responsibilities of a political nature. Although he left a broad-ranging oeuvre, which included operas and serenatas, during his own lifetime he was primarily known for his chamber cantatas. Rather than the origina- lity shown by Marcello, In queste amene selve displays an elegant and accomplished style, with a prominent melodic inspiration, which points in the direction of the new Neapolitan generation, within a recognized structure based on two recitatives, each followed by a da capo arietta.

As with Maccari, not much is known about the life and creative career of Vincenzo Benedetti (b1683). Evidence in indirect sources indicates that he was born in Emilia-Romagna, studied languages, and lived in the Swiss canton of Basel and in the Kingdom of Valencia, although it is uncertain as to whether he studied music in his native Italy, or in these other two mentioned countries. References exist to his professional activity as an alto singer, but it is impossible to assert with any clarity as to whether he was a natural alto following the breaking of his voice (as with a modern day countertenor) or a castrato. His cantata, La Gelosia, possessed of a certain timeless air, consists of an recitative followed by an Allegro da capo aria; the latter is outgoing in character and warm in its tuneful disposition, with roulades covering two bars of semiquavers, and with a very smooth transition to its B section.

Proceeding broadly-speaking from a similar generation is Giovanni Maria Ruggieri ( c.1665-1725), about whom little more is known than that he is mentioned as a “dilettante” in one of his editions and also in a dedication. He composed sonatas, sacred music, and operas with a certain degree of success. The two arias which are included on this recording, copies made for versions with basso continuo, were discovered by Xavier Sabata in the British Library in London. They are known to have been written by Ruggieri for his opera Armida Abbandonata; according to Piero Weiss this opera was produced no less than five times between 1707 and 1715. Reflecting operatic conventions down to the beginning of the century through a host of small details, these two brief tripartite arias display an elegiac and high flying melodic tone coupled with deeply poetical melismatic passages.

A little older is Diogenio Bigaglia (c.1676-1745), a dilettante churchman who rose to become Prior of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, albeit less so on account of the quality of his musical output; this output naturally consists of sacred works, but there also exist chamber cantatas. Più ch’io cerco del mio bene is imbued with an emotionally charged e ect, whilst being bound to the text and relatively syllabic. Its outline is sometimes angular in shape, which supplies the piece with a greater tonal contrast.

Such a healthy “amateurism”, which focused on the meaning of the text working from relatively compact forms, could also be applied to the Venetian aristocrat Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739), an amateur composer, brother of the likewise dilettante composer Alessandro Marcello. He was also the author of one of the most vitriolic pamphlets ever directed towards opera at the time of its greatest level of sophistication: Il teatro alla moda. The gradual recording of part of his oeuvre is serving to call into question the notion of amateurism as somehow lacking in skilfulness. Instead it emphasizes a deliberate separation from then contemporary forms in order to bring together suggestions of an intensely personal character and uncommon originality; in a certain way this is coherent with the aversion demonstrated by Marcello towards the conventionally stylized forms of the dramma in musica. Marcello’s cantata, Lucrezia, avoids the stereotypical à la mode models and makes use of – freely and in an ever-changing manner – the recitative, the arioso and the fully melodic style along its fluid, mobile, almost organic course, which is replete with repeated gurations, ornaments, and silences full of expressive purpose.

Little is known with certainty of who might have performed this vocal repertory, which was intended for domestic interest and entertainment in environments of a high social level. In the case of Benedetto Marcello the performer might well have been his colleague and wife Rosanna Scal , a singer of popular songs. The vocal line in his cantata covers an extraordinary range: through it extending from D3 to E5 – more than two octaves in the low and very low ranges – the performer would necessarily have had to make resort throughout to an extensive use of the Mechanism 1, or first-mode of phonation (popularly known as the “chest” register or voice), and occasionally to negotiate the breaks with the Mechanism 2, or second-mode of phonation (similarly known popularly as the “head” register or voice). All this would be called upon owing to the plentiful number of leaps which decorate specific ranges within each of these two modes. In whatever form, it is not so much a question of what has been investigated about the practices of the time – what Alberto JV Pacheco calls “registraçao” and which we call the “balance of mechanisms”; there are indications that it might have been somewhat di erent to the recognized unique “register” or unique mechanism which was steadily being introduced across the 19th century and which has almost become predominant since at least the Second World War. On the other hand, the rest of the cantatas here embrace a more or less homogenous range, with almost constant limits between A3 and D5, something which appears to be quite widespread for altos in the first quarter of the 18th century and is of course the range favoured by Handel for Francesco Bernardi Senesino. For the time being, the precise definition of such vocal models must remain highly speculative, in that it is an accessible extension for any of the vocal types available in the period: women, alto castrati and natural altos. From diferent types of balance of the mechanisms or modes could be deduced totally contrasting vocal efects.

Xavier Sabata deals with all these with his rich, voluptuous and well-nuanced voice in Mechanism 2, but also employs Mechanism 1, when the pitch or the poetic efect requires it. Words and their colours are, and have always been a primary objective for this countertenor, a constant ideal of the vocal aesthetic of the Seicento, and an imperative in the intimate and expressive chamber cantata: the ideal vehicle with which to “dilettarsi di musica... e di parole”.