Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was an Italian harpsichordist and composer. His harpsichord sonatas are highly distinctive and original.
Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples on Oct. 26, 1685, the son of Alessandro Scarlatti, the most famous composer in Italy in the early 18th century. Other members of the Scarlatti family were active as professional musicians. This background may have helped Domenico, for it encouraged his musical gifts and provided contacts in the musical profession. On the other hand, it gave him the problem of developing in his own way while under the influence of his father. Alessandro was not only a composer of genius, but a man of strong personality who did not get along well with some of his pupils and colleagues.
It is natural to assume, though there is no actual proof, that Domenico studied first with his father. As early as 1701, Domenico was appointed organist in the royal chapel at Naples. The following year he went to Florence with his father and stayed there for 4 months. Domenico then returned to Naples, where several operas of his were produced in 1703 and 1704.
A more important trip for Domenico occurred in 1708, when he went to Venice. There he became acquainted with Francesco Gasparini, a leading composer and the author of an excellent treatise on thorough-bass. It has been assumed, though again not proved, that Domenico studied with Gasparini in Venice. Also while he was in Venice, Domenico met and struck up a friendship with a young man, his exact contemporary, who was to become even more celebrated a composer: George Frederick Handel. It is from this period in Venice that we have our first report of Domenico's harpsichord playing. It describes how he played at a private musical gathering and astonished his audience by his brilliant virtuoso performance.
For the next 10 years Scarlatti worked in Rome. From 1709 to 1714 he was in the service of Maria Casimira, Queen of Poland, and for her private theater he wrote a number of operas. When Maria Casimira left Rome in 1714, Scarlatti became chapelmaster of the Portuguese ambassador. Then, from 1715 to 1719, he served as chapelmaster of the Cappella Giulia in the Vatican.
In 1720, or shortly before, Scarlatti left Italy; although he later returned to his native country, it seems that he never again took up a permanent post there. Probably in 1720 he was appointed chapelmaster of the royal chapel in Lisbon. This proved to be a most consequential appointment for Scarlatti. One of his duties was to teach members of the royal Portuguese family, and one of these members, the Infanta Maria Barbara, was a gifted and enthusiastic pupil. Her devotion to music was no passing fancy: she practiced and played the harpsichord apparently all her life. She also remained devoted to her teacher.
After Maria Barbara married Fernando, Prince of Asturias, in 1729, she moved to the Spanish court at Madrid, and Scarlatti went with her. He remained in her service for the rest of his life. He was knighted in Madrid in 1738; he married a Spanish woman, after the death of his first (Italian) wife; and he died in Madrid on July 23, 1757.
Scarlatti wrote 12 operas (2 of which were written in collaboration with other composers), chamber cantatas, sacred music, and over 550 sonatas for harpsichord. He composed much of his vocal music, both sacred and secular, before he settled in Spain. Most of it is characteristic music of the period: well composed but not particularly individual. A few of his vocal works are outstanding. But by and large Scarlatti was not at his best in writing for the voice. His true genius is revealed rather in his sonatas for harpsichord.
These sonatas are so individual, so varied in their forms and styles, that it is difficult to give a general description of them. One can say that the majority of the sonatas are built of two sections: they move from the tonic to the dominant key or to the relative major or minor and then back again to the tonic key. But within this basic form there are numerous substructures. And some of the sonatas are composed in forms altogether different.
The chronology of Scarlatti's sonatas has been much discussed and is still problematic. Most of his sonatas are preserved in copies made late in his life; but this does not necessarily mean that they were composed so late. Probably Scarlatti improvised his pieces, and perhaps wrote them down partially, during the course of his life. Then, at a later date, he had them written down in fair copies.
It seems that the earliest harpsichord pieces by Scarlatti are those in dance forms, or in forms similar to the toccatas of his father. Somewhat later Scarlatti began to compose those sonatas on which his fame rests: the brilliant virtuoso pieces with striking harmonies, bold dissonances, and sudden contrasts of texture. His sonatas are remarkable for the way they exploit the resources of the harpsichord—to musical advantage. They call for a large, two-manual harpsichord and for a highly proficient harpsichordist.
But brilliance and virtuosity do not account for the greatness of Scarlatti's sonatas. The best ones are perfectly realized works of art. Each one carries through its own, distinctive musical ideas, and each one is different from the others. This individuality is a central feature of Scarlatti's sonatas.
The characteristic, unique style of the sonatas seems to be original with Scarlatti himself. Although elements of his style can be traced to earlier keyboard music in Italy, Portugal, or Spain, there is nothing quite like the total effect. On the basis of his harpsichord sonatas, Scarlatti must rank as one of the most original creative minds in the history of music.
Further Reading on Domenico Scarlatti
The standard work on the life and works of Scarlatti is Ralph Kirkpatrick, Domenico Scarlatti (1953). Scarlatti's sonatas are discussed by Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era (1947), and William S. Newman, The Sonata in the Classic Era (1963).
Additional Biography Sources
Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, tercentenary essays, Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Kirkpatrick, Ralph, Domenico Scarlatti, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983, 1953.
Sitwell, Sacheverell, A background for Domenico Scarlatti, 1685-1757; written for his two hundred and fiftieth anniversar, Freeport, N.Y., Books for Libraries Press 1970.