I can’t let the day pass without ‘mentioning’ (in this updated re-post) that it is Alessandro Stradella‘s birthday (April 3, 1639, near Rome), the mesmerizing figure at the center of my first published novel, A House Near Luccoli.
Illustration by DM Denton©
In the seven and a half years since its publication, I have certainly noticed more interest in and attention on Stradella and his music. In January of 2016, BBC Radio 2 broadcasted How to Flee From Sorrow* – Behind (Stradella’s) lovely, well-ordered music was a life bursting with ambition and starved of security. The program’s musical director was Alberto Sanna, musicologist and violinist, who has released the first-ever complete period-instrument recording of Alessandro Stradella’s beautiful yet neglected Two-Part Sinfonias.
*The entire program is not currently available, except as occasionally re-broadcast on BBC Radio 4, but teasers are available here and here.
Click here for a wonderful and insightful piece about Stradella – “Wild man of the Baroque” – by the program’s writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce.
Since 2016, the Festival Barroco Alessandro Stradella has been held in September in Stradella’s birthplace of Nepi, Italy. Click here for the program from 2018.
The composer’s arrival at a house near Luccoli in April 1681 put a cat among pigeons.
She smelled a candle burning, but it didn’t light the short hall. In the main room a window was open, with the settee moved closer to it, Signor Stradella a masterpiece resting there. One dark leg was stretched and falling over the back of the couch, a ruffled hand on its knee; the other bent to the floor and, even without stocking and shoe, appeared ready to walk away. He had also undressed to his shirt still buttoned high and wrinkled softly because it was made of the finest linen. A slight breeze blew his hair over his face. As he realized her burdened entrance, his right shoulder pillowed a half-smile and he reached out lazily.
“Did you bring bavareisa?”
“What’s that?” She clumsily laid the tray down on the gray marble hearth, not wanting to bend with her back to him.
“Cioccolata and caffè.”
“We don’t have coffee. It’s too expensive.”
“I’ll pay for it.” He swung into sitting, hunched and rubbing his neck. “I’m getting one of my headaches.”
“It’s the weather.” Donatella offered him a drink.
He accepted it, the tips of his fingers friendlier than they should have been. “A veil over the sun, like a woman at Messa.” He tasted it. “Ah. Fresco.”
“Squeezed this morning. Nonna says it’s good for clearing the voice.”
“Cara Nònna.” He raised his glass, then emptied it with a kiss on its rim. “I’ve heard she was very rebellious. I wonder you didn’t become the same.”
“I wasn’t meant to.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it didn’t happen.”
She was still holding the folder.
“I believe that’s why you’ve come?”
He moved slowly to make space on the table where his inventions were layered and sprawled, so many at once. By the time she placed the copy there he was sitting once more, leaning forward, his head in his hands.
“You can let me know.” She felt intrusive. “I’ve never seen you at Maddalena before.”
He rose, admitting his rudeness. “I was testing the sound for a wedding there.”
“It must be a special one.”
“Ah. I’ll make it so.” His teeth showed. “Così.” He leaned over the table, the side of his face long and angled, eyelashes still and mouth taut, the first page flipped for the second, the second for the third, every one after that as unremarkable.
He looked at the first page again, his index finger, chin, and muted hum following the stanzas. “Ah. You see. Just a little more space here and this note a little higher, the words not quite aligned.”
Her hope of impressing him was gone.
“No, no.” He showed sensitivity to being misunderstood. “Even my last copyist, a priest, cursed my sloppiness.”
“I did my best.”
“Ah. Anyway, there are many arie in the serenata, besides duetti and trii and sinfonie. I need copies of each by—you saw the date; barely a month away. Before that for rehearsal.” He closed the folder, falling back on the settee. “And only so-called musicisti in Genova, too quick or too slow or distracted by ambizione. Will you do more for me?”
She had to consider. His reputation. Her motivation. She couldn’t sign her name to the work, freely spend any payment, or even show some pride. Sneaking around, her aunt would eventually find out and put a stop to it anyway.
“Is that cake?”
“For the flies?”
“Oh.” She rescued the plate.
He took a slice, eating it almost without chewing. “As we live dangerously opening windows.” He reached for another, nodding for her to take what was left.
“All right,” she answered.
“I mean … I will help you.”
“Oh, yes.” She broke a corner of the last piece on the plate.
He got up to pour her a glass of limonata, staring as her lips, covered in crumbs, finally took a sip.
~ From A House Near Luccoli
Despite the circumstances that dictated the ending of the novel, Stradella continues to influence hearts and conversations in its sequel To A Strange Somewhere Fled.
Excerpts from To A Strange Somewhere Fled
She made her mark as unexpectedly as before, becoming more and more involved with its swirling and sliding and dotting, rising and falling with her shoulders and satisfaction. She was definitely possessed by a melodic hum and laughter in her head, the tease of a draft on her neck, and the surprise that she hadn’t forgotten how to serve a master. She knew he was smiling as she checked her work, a mistake here and there repentantly fixed, page after page turned into another chance to show that, in theory and practice and ways she didn’t need to understand, she was worthy of his presence.
Yes, it felt like he was there, pacing the room and wringing his hands as he realized he couldn’t change anything. She could, with his permission. What else allowed her to hear a note held longer or twilled higher, a crescendo misplaced, or toccata written more for poetry than a harpsichordist’s dexterity? What would have put such ideas in her head, except the desire of one who had touched her with his variations?
There was the appropriate silence before Lonati was as elegant and amiable with bow and violin as no other activity afforded him. With every stroke, nod and faraway expression, he was an echo of Alessandro, exacting the very best from the composition and the late composer’s nature, generous with his talent, uninhibited with his playing, making the music his own only as he adored it. His reminiscent virtuosity swept Donatella onto the waves of Le donne più bella like a ship with a steady breeze in its sails, Reggio’s archlute-continuo encouraging the rolling sensation.
It looked as though Master Purcell was trying to hide under the stairs. Roger inquired about his journey from London and he emerged to reveal that he had interrupted the trip with a night at Oxford and much drinking, and another at Rousham Park and even more feasting.
Donatella didn’t expect him to recognize her, but when Roger moved aside she became “that most courteous copyist who had also forgiven Stradella.”
“And I hope you’ll pardon me, Harry, but the guests will soon arrive and you need to tidy yourself and prepare.” Roger didn’t know he showed concern for anything but the plan for the evening ahead.
“Well, I am a little dusty.” Master Purcell winked in Donatella’s direction. “I wonder if Stradella was always impeccably turned out.”
They walked into the hall and Donatella wanted to tell him about the man she had known as reported but, also, in very different ways. Would Master Purcell believe Alessandro had been in need of friendship more than love, or that he had grown tired of making music for those who only listened to their own importance? Would it seem as ridiculous to say he would have rather roamed the streets, lost in the crowds and songs of Carnival, than found to be wanting in nobler society? She could describe him as flamboyant in disguise and excessive when it came to enjoying himself, yet he had the sense to be gracious in his manners, and even humble when it weighed in his favor and, especially, his purse. She might also reveal the unshaven, disheveled creature that growled with frustration and cursed the affairs that caused him more trouble than they were worth.
Surely, Master Purcell would rather hear about Alessandro’s genius and even his sacred purpose: how the music came to him like the archangel Gabriel, because he was highly chosen with or without the patronage of any prince or princess.
I “knew” Alessandro Stradella. I recognized his distinct voice, his swaying form, his infectious smile, and his wandering heart. I had witnessed the rise and fall of his talents, how his music had showered him with forgiveness if not fortune.
So I celebrate his birth!
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