Concertisti Classica, la musica classica in Italia
Classical Music in Italy
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1st part - Musical duels: Händel vs Scarlatti
Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a practice that found great response from the public was that of 'musical duels', challenges between two musicians generally of equal fame, acclaimed for their virtuosity on the keyboard.

The competitions, most of the times friendly, kindled the spirits of the gods 'supporters' of one or the other artist in the context of private receptions that mostly took place in noble palaces. These challenges were in fact gladly organized to animate the so-called 'academies', artistic and musical events to which the guest invited a circle of aristocratic friends, academics, artists. The 'duel' foresaw that the two virtuosos, true stars of the time, in turn demonstrated their virtuosic abilities by performing in their own repertoire or improvisations on an assigned theme.

Three of these musical duels challenge thelast. . . Note, are particularly famous: the first took place in Rome at the beginning of the eighteenth century and put in competition Händel and Domenico Scarlatti, the second, between Mozart and Muzio Clementi, took place in Vienna on Christmas Eve 1781, the third saw a challenge Liszt and Sigismund Thalberg in 1837 in Paris.

Handel vs Scarlatti

The first memorable challenge saw two great musicians compete, virtuosos and above all composers among the greatest in the entire history of music, Georg Friedrich Händel and Domenico Scarlatti. Peers (they were both born in 1685, Scarlatti in Naples, Handel in Halle), they had met a couple of years earlier in Venice, establishing friendships and mutual esteem. According to a well-known anecdote, in the lagoon city Domenico Scarlatti had intervened at a masked ball when suddenly the notes of a harpsichord played in an extraordinary way were heard. At the keyboard sat a massive man with his face covered by one bauta, the characteristic Venetian mask. Scarlatti had no doubts, and addressed his interlocutors with an ironic joke "There are two cases: that man is either Handel or Satan!".

We find evidence of Handel's superlative talent everywhere in the writings of the time: diaries, chronicles and reports, letters and memoirs describe him, so much his contemporaries were impressed; There are also unequivocal evidence of Scarlatti's mastery, including that of Thomas Roseingrave (1690 - 1766), English composer and later editor of Scarlatti's music. Hearing him play, he wrote about him: “As soon as he started playing, I immediately had the impression that a thousand devils had entered the instrument. Never before had I heard, in a performance, that certain type of passages and effects. "

When Handel and Scarlatti soon met again in Rome, the conditions for a musical duel between the two - evidently both of a diabolical skill - were therefore all there.

The musical challenge took place in 1708 in the halls of the Palazzo della Cancelleria, at the court of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, one of the greatest patrons and promoters of Roman musical life between the 17th and 18th centuries. The two young musicians, friendly rivals, challenged each other in the presence of nobles, members of Arcadia and musicians.

The evening was extraordinary, as John Mainwaring (1724 - 1807), English theologian and writer and first biographer of Handel tells us (Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel, London, 1760); the two greatest virtuosos of the time performed prodigious improvisations on organ and harpsichord. Scarlatti had amazed everyone with his music and with his absolute mastery in playing the harpsichord. Handel for his part had left those present breathless, such was the prodigious skill on the organ.

Scarlatti's playing was characterized by "a certain elegance and delicacy of expression ", as reported by the reports of the time. Handel for his part sported a sound rich in "Fullness, strength and energy."

Faced with such talents, how to decree a winner? And in fact the match ended on a par: Scarlatti was declared first on the harpsichord, Händel on the organ. This is confirmed by Scarlatti himself in a much later writing, recalling that episode: "At the age of 24 I entered the competition with a young man named Handel and who was esteemed a prodigy and I won him at the harpsichord, as he won me at the organ." 

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