Cafaro, Il trionfo di Davide

In a series of blog posts I will try to shed some light on some of the discoveries of the past year. I didn’t always find the time to blog about these straight away, but with the upcoming international historical mandolin symposium coming up I’m preparing presentations anyway. 😉

The first in the series is about the use of mandolin in an oratorio. I must admit that it’s not a real mandolin aria as the role of the mandolin is limited – but the importance of the discovery lies more in the circles in which the instrument was used.

The source is a manuscript in two volumes (I: 111 f., II: 119 f. of 22 x 28 cm) and is preserved in the French National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale de Fance, Paris). The shelf mark is Richelieu – Musique – magasin de la Réserve MS- 1673. It is actually also digitally available through the digital counterpart of this library, Gallica:

The mandolin is used in a da capo aria in volume 2. (The link above goes to volume 2.)


It’s always a pleasure when the provenance of a manuscript is so clear. The manuscript dates the first performance and other sources confirm this to be in 1746. The composer is Pasquale Cafaro, who was a student and later teacher at the Naples Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini. He even succeeded di Majo as the maestro di capella of the Chapel Royal of Naples. He was quite renowned for his operas, oratorios, motets and masses.

The manuscript even has some history to it – it was once owned by a Giovanni Battista de Benedictis. However, the library does not list anything else about the acquisition history.

Mandolin aria?

The first indication is found on f. 92v of volume II, at the bottom of the page. The writer of the manuscript made a point of announcing the next pieces, so in this case there is a note “Siegue Davide col Mandolino”.

When we turn the page to f. 93r, the instrumentation is indeed changing with at the top of the score “Mandolino”, followed by unison violins I & II, violetta, Davide, and the bass. The aria has a tempo mark of “And.e” (Andante) and the strings have the indication of “p° assai”. The violins I & II actually are indicated to be in unison with the mandolin part straight from bar 2 onwards. As you might notice, this means that the mandolin is probably only used as an extra bit of flavour in the orchestral sound – rather than having a separate part and role in the aria.

After a short instrumental introduction the singing starts. The lyrics aren’t always clearly readable but I have tried to decipher them as best I could. “Cambia in amore, gran dio d’Abramo, l’empio furore del nostro chè della mia cetera al suono amabile si venda docile quo fù Mosè.” This piece ends on f. 94v (“Subito Coro”‘). There can be little doubt that the “cetera” mentioned in the lyrics convinced Cafaro to use a mandolin. Of course he might have thought of other plucked string instruments, but not all would fit his purpose and the mandolin does have a tradition of being used in oratorios.

The part of Davide is in the same rythm as the mandolin/violins and is actually also in unison. The writing does bear all the hallmarks of what made Naples’ vocal output so famous in the 18th century. This small first phrase of the aria is located on f. 93r-94v.

This initial aria singing is followed by a chorus on f. 95r-96r which has violin I, II, violetta, vocal parts are Gionata, Micol, Samuele and Saulle, and there is also a bass, this time with figuration. This little chorus is a de facto repeat (though somewhat reworked) of the first part of the aria by Davide, followed by a short instrumental ending. The bottom of the page has the clue “Siegue subito Davide col Mandolino”.

The first phrase of the aria is an Andante in 3/8 beat in C major.

The contrasting middle section is from 96v-98r (Davide) and 98v-99v (chorus). Here we swith to an Allegretto in 2/4 beat in G major (though it does flirt with g minor at points). At the end we find some figuration in the bass so perhaps even the Davide arias might be performed with a full continuo section.

This aria part again starts with an instrumental introduction followed by the vocal part of Davide. “Fà che è sua lege Dio d’Israele Ci sia fedele Qual fù Noè Ah le suè furie Dio degli eserciti Il cor di Saule Non sfoghi in me”.

Again a chorus follows with the same instrumentation and again it reworks the first phrase of the aria part by Davide and a small instrumental end. The note again reads “Siegue subito Davide col Mandolino”.

As can be expected, the subsequent aria part by Davide is the real da capo of the first aria part (f. 100r-101v) again followed by a chorus (f. 102r-103r) to conclude the piece to then switch to a recitativo. “Rendi placato qual cor stegnato E l’arme siegua di Giosuè È docce il tuo Davide Dio di vittorie Aura ri fuggio Se non in te”.


Even though the musical contribution of the mandolin is rather limited (unison with violins and/or Davide), this piece is an important scoop. It is by my knowledge the first piece we can certainly link to on of the Naples conservatoriums in the 18th century. That in its own right merits this piece a place in mandolin history.

On the subject of the mandolin type used, it is rather difficult to make out. Even though one would suspect a Neapolitan mandolin might be considered, we’re not 100% sure when that instrument was invented (usually supposed to have happened at the same time of the creation of this piece). It might be more logical to assume that Cafaro stuck to the traditional mandolin type used in so many early and mid 18th century arias, the Milanese baroque mandolin tuned in fourths.

It is my hope that this little contribution might start further investigations into the use of the mandolin by other Neapolitan composers and the conseratories, and maybe also can either elaborate on some of my work on this piece.