Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)

Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples on October 26th, 1685. He was the sixth of ten children of Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonia Anzalone. Largely, the events of his childhood are undocumented, but it is likely that his father provided all of his early musical training. Domenico's musical gifts developed at a prodigious rate. The first official record of his employment (at the age of 16) states that on September 13, 1701, he was appointed organista e compositore di musica at the royal chapel of Naples where his father was maestro di cappella. The younger Scarlatti's official duties in this position remain unknown, and there are no existing manuscripts of any sacred musical compositions from this period.

In 1702 Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti left Naples for Florence on a four-month leave of absence, a journey in which they sought possible employment for Domenico from Prince Ferdinando de Medici. While in Florence, Domenico met the keyboard instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori, who was then experimenting with the hammer action of his gravicembalo col piano e forte. When a post for his son was not forthcoming, Alessandro left Florence for Rome, while Domenico returned to Naples and assumed his father's duties there for the 1703-1704 season. Two operas written in 1703, L'Ottavia ristituita al trono and Il Giustino, marked the 18-year-old's debut as a composer of opera.

Alessandro held aspirations that his son would succeed him as maestro di cappella in Naples, but that appointment was not granted, and subsequently Domenico resigned his post as organist in 1704, leaving Naples and joining his father in Rome, where he assisted Alessandro at San Maria Maggiore. Domenico remained in Rome for over 12 years, except when in May of 1705, in another effort to secure Domenico a permanent position, Alessandro sent him to Venice through Florence in the company of the famous castrato, Nicolo Grimaldi. Nothing is known of Domenico's stay in Venice except that he became acquainted with Gasparini, Vivaldi, and Handel there. By January of 1708, he had returned without success once more to his father in Rome.

Scarlatti's second encounter with Handel presumably took place within months of his return. This was the famous "contest of virtuosity" at which Handel is said to have prevailed at the organ while Scarlatti held his own on the harpsichord. However, this event is reported only in Mainwaring's biography of Handel, written many years later. Scarlatti was a familiar figure at the weekly meetings of the Accademie Poetico-Musicali hosted by the music-loving Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni at which the finest musicians in Rome met and performed chamber music. At these weekly concerts, Scarlatti met some of the greatest virtuosos and composers of his time, including Arcangelo Corelli and the young Thomas Roseingrave, who was later to play an active role in disseminating Scarlatti's music in England and Ireland by publishing the first edition of Scarlatti's Essercizi per gravicembalo (1738-1739).

In 1709, Scarlatti entered the service of dowager Queen Maria Casimira of Poland, who was living in exile in Rome. In the libretto of his opera L'Orlando, written in 1711, he is named as the Queen Maria's maestro di cappella, a post he held for five years. By the time Queen Maria left for France in 1714, she had received from Scarlatti at least one cantata, one oratorio, and seven operas. Another of his patrons in Rome from 1714 onward was the Portuguese ambassador to the Vatican, the Marquis de Fontes, who by 1720 had gained an appointment for Scarlatti to the patriarchal chapel in Lisbon. Scarlatti's serenata, Applause genetliaco, was performed at the Portuguese Embassy in Rome in 1714, and his opera, Contesa delle stagioni, was later performed at the Lisbon royal chapel in 1720.

Although the younger Scarlatti became famous in his own country principally as a harpsichordist, he served for five years (1714-1719) as maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia at the Vatican, a position that he undoubtedly gained through the influence of his friend, Cardinal Ottoboni. He composed at least one oratorio (1709) and more than a dozen operas for his father's Neapolitan theater, the Teatro San Bartolomeo (1703-1704), the Roman Palazzo Zuccari (1710-1714), and the Teatro Capranica (1715 and 1718). Despite his growing success providing music for both sacred and secular employers, Domenico was unable to free himself from his father's domineering control. Finally, on January 28, 1717, he was granted legal independence from his father and was then free to chart his own course of action.

In August of 1719, Scarlatti resigned his positions at Rome and went to Palermo, where a he was admitted to the Unione di Santa Cecilia on April 16, 1720. He remained there until at least December 1722. By 1723, he was in Lisbon where he served as mestre de capela of the Portuguese royal court. The following year he traveled to Rome, where he met Quantz and made his first acquaintance with the great castrato Carlo Broschi, better known as Farinelli. He returned there in 1728 to marry 16-year-old Maria Catarina Gentili.

Only with his departure from Italy after his father's death in 1725, did Domenico Scarlatti appear to have developed the style that has rendered him one of the greatest keyboard composers of the Baroque era. For nearly ten years he was attached to the Portuguese court as chapel-master, and he also served as music teacher to the young Princess Maria Barbara and her younger brother, Don Antonio. Upon the former's marriage in 1729 to the heir to the Spanish throne, Fernando VI, he moved to Spain, spending the last 28 years of his life at the Spanish court. Most of the five hundred and fifty-five surviving harpsichord sonatas appear to have been written for this highly musically gifted princess.

In Madrid, Scarlatti was for a time alone in the musical spotlight, but when Farinelli arrived in 1737, the composer's position must have changed to some degree. On April 21, 1738, knighthood was conferred on Scarlatti by his former patron, King John V of Portugal. His earliest dated collection of sonatas was published in 1738 under the title Essercizi per Gravicembalo, and dedicated to King John. From this time onward, Scarlatti composed very little vocal music; rather he confined himself to the composition of harpsichord sonatas. In these works, he conferred on the Baroque binary form both a variety and expressive range that were never surpassed by any other composer of his time. In 1739, his young wife suddenly died, and at some point before 1742, he married Anastasia Maxarti Ximenes who was to become the mother of his last four children.

When Domenico Scarlatti died in Madrid, Spain on July 23, 1757, he left behind a large collection of manuscripts of his brilliant harpsichord sonatas that remained almost entirely unknown outside of Spain and Portugal until their partial publication was realized by Carl Czerny in 1839, followed by their virtually complete publication by Longo in 1906. Throughout the 18th century, he was known only for his earliest sonatas, many of which were published in England. However, the generally favorable recognition that he first gained in England was founded on the relatively limited scope of his earliest works.

From 1752 to 1757, thirteen volumes of Scarlatti's sonatas were meticulously copied for the use of Queen Maria Barbara. They were carefully written in a rather large format like that of the Essercizi, widely spaced and decorated with colored inks. To this series were added two preliminary volumes that had been originally copied in 1742 and in 1749. The volume of 1749 is even further illuminated with gold for the titles, tempo marks, and hand indications. All fifteen volumes were bound in red Moroccan leather with the combined arms of Spain and Portugal tooled in gold on the cover.

In 1835, the Queen's volumes of Scarlatti's sonatas were acquired by the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. These fifteen manuscript volumes, now known as the "Venice manuscripts," contain 496 sonatas. The volumes that have since been numbered XIV and XV are actually the earliest, from 1742 and 1749 respectively, that preceded the thirteen volumes of the series proper. An additional fifteen volumes, largely duplicating the Queen's series, were copied from 1752 to 1757, in part by the same copyist. They lack the colored decorations of the Queen's set and are bound up in plain leather. They are now the property of the Sezione Musicale of the Biblioteca Palatina, housed in the Conservatorio Arrigo Boïto at Parma and known today as the "Parma manuscripts." This set of manuscripts contains 463 sonatas. In a few cases their dates are earlier than those of the parallel Venice manuscripts. Among them are a few compositions not contained in the Venice manuscripts, most notably the twelve sonatas that are apparently Scarlatti's last. Together with the Essercizi, these two sets of manuscripts by the Queen's copyists form the principal sources for all but a few of the 555 Scarlatti sonatas. Except for a few earlier pieces, the first thirteen volumes of the "Venice manuscripts" appear to have been collected approximately in chronological order.

In these two collections, Scarlatti first showed the full range of his genius. He was 67 years old at the time of his death. Yet a gradual change is still perceptible, a process of maturing that continues through the very last sonatas. His early works gave way to a style of writing that renders the harpsichord sonata a full vehicle for the entire expression of Scarlatti's personality and for the distillation of his entire life's experience.

Most of the 555 surviving Scarlatti sonatas were conceived in pairs: one sonata may be in minor and the other in major, but both members of a pair always have the same tonic. The relationship between the sonatas of a pair is either one of contrast or of complement. The sonatas that bear a complementary relationship may share a certain overall unity of style or they may be composed in the same harmonic color. In the contrasting pairs, a slow sonata may be followed by a fast one. A simple sonata with a slow tempo may serve as an introduction to a more elaborate one, or an elaborate sonata movement may be followed by a simpler and lighter sonata. These works are characterized by many unconventional features, which include irregular phrases or groups of phrases, extensive use of the acciaccatura, and unusual modulations. Scarlatti also explored virtuoso technique in these sonatas, employing devices such as frequent crossing of the hands, runs in thirds and sixths, leaps wider than an octave, rapid arpeggio figurations, and rapid repeated notes.

During his lifetime, Domenico Scarlatti's influence as a composer was greatly limited. Primarily, only those musicians associated with the royal courts of Portugal and Spain were aware of his unique accomplishments as a composer for the harpsichord. The majority of his brilliant sonatas were published posthumously, long after his death, and they remained unknown outside of Iberia. With the thorough musical grounding he brought with him from Italy and his own brilliance on the harpsichord, Scarlatti immersed himself in the folk tunes and dance rhythms of Spain with their distinctive Moorish and later gypsy influences in his ingenious 555 unique harpsichord sonatas. One can only imagine the impact his music might have had on other major composers of his time if his late compositions had been widely circulated throughout Europe. However, Scarlatti led a happy life of contented seclusion, working for the royal courts of Portugal and Spain. The position of widespread fame that his music enjoys today was largely bestowed by history, but Scarlatti's music was a major influence on such notable Portuguese and Spanish contemporaries as Carlos de Seixas and Padre Antonio Soler. From our perspective today, his works define much of the best essence of Baroque keyboard art, but in unique, personal expressions, far different from those of his Italian and German contemporaries.

This composer has 2 works on AvA:

6 Sonatas

Ref. ava181801

Work Cover

18.00 €

Sonata (inédita)

Ref. ava070137

Work Cover

11.00 €