Domenico Scarlatti

Biography

Domenico Scarlatti was an Italian baroque composer, harpsichordist organist and singer known for his virtuoso performances and for composing many fine sonatas.

Scarlatti was born in Naples, the sixth child of the composer Alessandro Scarlatti. It is not certain how Domenico’s early music education began, but it can be assumed that he learned a large amount at home, as he had many musical family members, including also his uncle Francesco and older brother Pietro.

By the age of 16, two years before leaving for Florence with his father, Domenico was already an established musician and became the organist at the royal chapel in Naples. In 1702, the two embarked on a journey to Florence; Alessandro’s goal was to make Domenico known to Ferdinando de’ Medici and also to further his own career; he succeeded at neither.

Alessandro decided not to return to Florence, and instead sent Domenico back to eventually take over Alessandro’s position as organist, but due to Domenico’s lack of experience, this was an unsuccessful venture. Domenico travelled to Rome in 1704 to be with his father. His father stated in a letter to Ferdinando de’ Medici, ‘I have forcibly removed [Domenico] from Naples where, though there was room for his talent, his talent was not for such a place.’ He discussed further, ‘I am removing him also from Rome, because Rome has no shelter for music, which lives here as a beggar’. Alessandro then described how he would let his son develop his talent and career on his own, describing him and his talent as ‘an eagle whose wings are grown; he must not remain idle in the nest, and I must not hinder his flight’. Domenico then proceeded to Venice to continue his musical education. It is likely that while in Venice he studied with Francesco Gasparini, a pupil ofCorelli.

Scarlatti was also involved in the Accademie Poetico-Musicali, for which he attended meetings hosted by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. Through these meetings he became acquainted withGeorge Frideric Handel and the two were rivals in a friendly competition. Handel was judged to be a superior organist, which Scarlatti also admitted, but they were deemed equals on the harpsichord. The two composers respected each other greatly and enjoyed a lifelong friendship.

Domenico’s father joined him in Venice in 1707, however, after a series of unsuccessful opera attempts, he went to Rome, and Domenico followed.

While in Rome, Domenico became famous for his extraordinary harpsichord abilities. He was employed for five years atmaestro di cappella at the Cappella Giulia in the Vatican where he composed an oratorio and many operas for various theatres and churches, including S Bartolomeo, the Palazzo Zuccari and the Teatro Capranica.

In Rome he gained the important patronage of the exiled queen Maria Casimira from Poland, for whom he composed many operas and serenatas.

Scarlatti also came into contact with Tomas Roseingrave, who championed and published his music. He published the first edition of theEssercizi per gravecembalo(1738-9) which inspired Charles Avison, an English composer, to write a set of 12 concertos, based on the sonatas. Also essential to the popularization of Scarlatti’s music in England were Joseph Keway and Thomas Arne.

In 1714, Portugal became significant in Scarlatti’s life, after he met the Marquis de Fontes, the Portuguese ambassador. For him, Scarlatti wrote the Applauso genetliaco to celebrate the birth of a child. Five years later Scarlatti moved to Lisbon.

After leaving his post in Rome, Scarlatti travelled briefly to London on his way to Lisbon, where he arrived in 1720. In Lisbon, he became the harpsichordist of the royal court under King Joao V and was also in charge of the princesses’ musical education. Though there was no opera in Lisbon, he continued to have his operas staged at the Teatro Capranica, where his father’s final operas were also being staged.

Alessandro Scarlatti’s death in 1725 sent Domenico into a deep depression. He returned to Naples for the funeral and then went to the Spanish court under Ferdinand VI, who had married the princess. He first lived in Seville, until 1733, and then in Madrid, where he stayed until his death. While in Spain, Scarlatti studied the native folk tunes and dance rhythms, which he incorporated into his Italian style. Ferdinand and the famous castrato singer Farinelli tried to convince Scarlatti to compose opera to introduce to Madrid, but he refused.

Though almost none of his work was published in his lifetime, many of his manuscripts survive. In addition, many survive with thanks to his gambling problem: to get out of debt, he asked the Queen of Spain to help him; she agreed, on the condition that he would write down his improvised keyboard music. During his final years, he spent his time compiling his keyboard music, which he then arranged in various volumes of 30 sonatas. The manuscripts were given to the queen and then passed down to Farinelli after the queen’s death in 1758. The sonatas then became known throughout Europe.

Scarlatti’s output includes more than 500 unique sonatas for harpsichord, 17 sinfonias and a harpsichord concerto. His first published work is the famous Essercizi (1738). This, along with his sonatas all use the basso continuo model, which comprised an improvisation over a bass line. Scarlatti took this practice to the extreme, and was able to leave behind routine formulas. The influence of Alberti’s harpsichord sonatas is also evident in his works. His third and fourth volumes of sonatas show his newfound stylistic maturity.

Scarlatti’s operas include Irene (1704) and two other operas for the Teatro S Bartolomeo in Naples and the even more significant seven operas he composed for Queen Maria Casimira in Rome between 1710 and 1714; only two of these operas survive in their original form. The operas are often described as resembling his father’s operas, yet Domenico includes some Venetian elements in particular that Alessandro never used. Another work, very much different from his father’s work, is the satiricalLa Dirindina (1715), which he wrote for Rome.

Scarlatti’s Salve Regina (1757) and Stabat mater (1715)are among his most popular works for both audiences and performers.

His immediate influence can be seen in his successful pupils such as Carlos de Seixas and Antonio Soler. References to his music are also found fromRossini andVerdi.

Images courtesy of Cantorion, the BBC and public domain

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