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Al Stradella: a helluva fella

I am not alone in my morbid fascination

Detail from van Dyck's portrait of the Lomellini family.
Detail from van Dyck's portrait of the Lomellini family.

Alessandro Stradella is a name that might ring a bell with champions of early Baroque music. As for me, I knew he existed, but beyond a short Sinfonia from his Christmas Eve Cantata, I wasn’t familiar with his music. Then I learned he had been stabbed to death — twice. Now I was interested.

What is it about human nature that will overlook the life of a great composer until some element of drama or scandal is discovered? Whatever it is, it’s real: I am not alone in my morbid fascination. The 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries have produced operas, fantastical biographies, and fictionalized romance novels based on Stradella’s life.

Video:

Overture from the Stradella opera

The most famous was an opera entitled Alessandro Stradella, composed by Frederick von Flotow. The opera met with success, but the last fully staged production was in 1910 at the Metropolitan opera. The 1909 book of historical fiction entitled Stradella by F. Marion Crawford is available as a free ebook at gutenberg.org.

Stradella is generally considered to have been born into the lower aristocracy in the small town of Nepi, northwest of Rome. By the age of 24, he was a well-known commodity as both composer and singer. He was also well known as a lothario, at least by the wives and mistresses of powerful men. Further, while in Rome, Stradella unsuccessfully tried to embezzle money from the Catholic Church. After arranging, for a fee, the marriage of an undesirable elderly woman to the nephew of a powerful cardinal, Stradella fled from Rome to Venice. While in Venice, he became the musical tutor for Agnese van Uffele, the mistress of Alvise Contarini. A romance followed.

The house of Contarini was one of the 12 founding families of Venice and had produced eight Doges. You’ve got to hand it to Stradella: he swung for the fences. The affair was discovered, and Stradella fled with Agnese to Turin. Contarini hired assassins, who attacked Stradella with knives and left him in the street, thinking him to be dead.

But Stradella recovered, and left Agnese in a convent while he relocated to Genoa. While in Genoa, he seduced the daughter of the powerful and unforgiving Lomellini family. The Lomellini assassins did the job correctly, stabbing Stradella to death in 1682.

Video:

Stradella: Italian Arias

Stradella’s reputation as a composer was such that George Frederick Handel sent agents to Genoa with a mission to obtain any Stradella compositions. The agents were instructed to use any means necessary, both fair and foul. Stradella did not trust publishers, therefor the only copies of his music were in manuscript form, and Handel wanted a taste.

Stradella had a melodic gift that established him as a preeminent composer of arias, cantatas, and operas. Four complete operas have survived, along with almost 300 other compositions. At the time of his death, opera was about 100 years old and was still developing as an art form.

There are hours upon hours of Stradella’s music available online. It is more than worthy of a listen.

[Editor's note: this story ran in the October 14 print edition of the Reader. We regret the delay in posting it online.]

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Detail from van Dyck's portrait of the Lomellini family.
Detail from van Dyck's portrait of the Lomellini family.

Alessandro Stradella is a name that might ring a bell with champions of early Baroque music. As for me, I knew he existed, but beyond a short Sinfonia from his Christmas Eve Cantata, I wasn’t familiar with his music. Then I learned he had been stabbed to death — twice. Now I was interested.

What is it about human nature that will overlook the life of a great composer until some element of drama or scandal is discovered? Whatever it is, it’s real: I am not alone in my morbid fascination. The 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries have produced operas, fantastical biographies, and fictionalized romance novels based on Stradella’s life.

Video:

Overture from the Stradella opera

The most famous was an opera entitled Alessandro Stradella, composed by Frederick von Flotow. The opera met with success, but the last fully staged production was in 1910 at the Metropolitan opera. The 1909 book of historical fiction entitled Stradella by F. Marion Crawford is available as a free ebook at gutenberg.org.

Stradella is generally considered to have been born into the lower aristocracy in the small town of Nepi, northwest of Rome. By the age of 24, he was a well-known commodity as both composer and singer. He was also well known as a lothario, at least by the wives and mistresses of powerful men. Further, while in Rome, Stradella unsuccessfully tried to embezzle money from the Catholic Church. After arranging, for a fee, the marriage of an undesirable elderly woman to the nephew of a powerful cardinal, Stradella fled from Rome to Venice. While in Venice, he became the musical tutor for Agnese van Uffele, the mistress of Alvise Contarini. A romance followed.

The house of Contarini was one of the 12 founding families of Venice and had produced eight Doges. You’ve got to hand it to Stradella: he swung for the fences. The affair was discovered, and Stradella fled with Agnese to Turin. Contarini hired assassins, who attacked Stradella with knives and left him in the street, thinking him to be dead.

But Stradella recovered, and left Agnese in a convent while he relocated to Genoa. While in Genoa, he seduced the daughter of the powerful and unforgiving Lomellini family. The Lomellini assassins did the job correctly, stabbing Stradella to death in 1682.

Video:

Stradella: Italian Arias

Stradella’s reputation as a composer was such that George Frederick Handel sent agents to Genoa with a mission to obtain any Stradella compositions. The agents were instructed to use any means necessary, both fair and foul. Stradella did not trust publishers, therefor the only copies of his music were in manuscript form, and Handel wanted a taste.

Stradella had a melodic gift that established him as a preeminent composer of arias, cantatas, and operas. Four complete operas have survived, along with almost 300 other compositions. At the time of his death, opera was about 100 years old and was still developing as an art form.

There are hours upon hours of Stradella’s music available online. It is more than worthy of a listen.

[Editor's note: this story ran in the October 14 print edition of the Reader. We regret the delay in posting it online.]

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