Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757)

Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples on October 26th, 1685. The high rank of his godparents is proof of the esteem in which his father, Alessandro Scarlatti, was held as maestro di cappella. Domenico’s musical gifts developed with an almost prodigious rapidity. At the age of sixteen he became a musician at the chapel royal, and two years later father and son left Naples and settled in Rome, where Domenico became the pupil of the most eminent musicians in Italy. The originality of Bernardo Pasquini”s inventions and his skill in elaborating them, and Francesco Gasparini’s solid science and intense vitality united to form the basis on which Domenico developed his own genius. His association with Corelli (Gasparini being a pupil of Corelli) also contributed to the evolution of his adolescent genius and soon Domenico Scarlatti became famous in his country principally as a harpsichordist. He served for five years (1714-19) as maestro di cappella at the Cappella Giulia in the Vatican. He composed at least one oratorio (1709) and more than a dozen operas for his father’s Neapolitan theatre, S Bartolomeo (1703-4), the Roman Palazzo Zuccari (1710-14), and Teatro Capranica (1715, 1718).

His patrons in Rome included the exiled Polish queen Maria Casimira (1709-14) and the Portuguese ambassador to the Vatican, the Marquis de Fontes (from 1714), who in 1720 was to succeed in winning Scarlatti for the patriarchal chapel in Lisbon (his serenata, Applause genetliaco, was performed at the Portuguese Embassy in 1714 and his Contesa delle stagioni at the Lisbon royal chapel in 1720).

Scarlatti was also a familiar figure at the weekly meetings of the Accademie Poetico-Musicali hosted by the indefatigable music-lover and entertainer Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, at which the finest musicians in Rome met and performed chamber music. There Scarlatti met Handel, who had been born in the same year as Scarlatti. At the time of their meeting, in 1708, they were both twenty-three, and were prevailed upon to compete together at the instigation and under the refereeship of Ottoboni; they were adjudged equal on the harpsichord, but Handel was considered the winner on the organ. Thenceforward they held each other in that mutual respect which forms the surest basis for a life friendship. Through Ottoboni, Scarlatti also met Thomas Roseingrave who became his enthusiastic champion and, back in London, published the first edition of Scarlatti’s Essercizi per gravicembalo (1738-9) from which, in turn, the Newcastle-born English composer Charles Avison drew material from at least 29 Scarlatti sonatas to produce a set of 12 concertos in 1744. Joseph Kelway and Thomas Arne also helped to popularize Scarlatti’s music in England.

Attracted by the unknown, Scarlatti abandoned the post of maestro di cappella at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Natural curiosity and the fascination of distant countries induced him to undertake a voyage to London, where his opera Narciso met with only a moderate success. From London Scarlatti went to Lisbon (1720-28). As a harpsichordist at the royal court he was entrusted with the musical education of the princesses. The death of his father recalled him to Naples in 1725, but he did not long remain in his native town. His old pupil, the Portuguese princess, who had married Ferdinand VI, invited him to the Spanish court. Scarlatti accepted and in 1733 after a period in Seville (from 1729-33) he went to Madrid, where he lived until his death.

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 (Arabic) and later gypsy influences. He composed more than 500 harpsichord sonatas, unique in their total originality, and the use of the acaaccatura, the ‘simultaneous mordent’, the ‘vamp’ (usually at the beginning of the second half of a sonata). The “folk” element is constantly present throughout these works.

In addition, Scarlatti also composed at least 17 separate sinfonias and a harpsichord concerto. He exerted a major influence on such Portuguese and Spanish contemporaries as Carlos de Seixas and Antonio Soler.

Scarlatti returned to Italy on three occasions. In 1724 in Rome he met Quantz and Farinelli, who himself joined the Spanish court in 1737. In 1725 he returned at the death of his father in Naples – where he met Hasse. And in 1728 he returned to Rome, where he met and married his first wife by whom he had five children (she died in 1739, and by 1742 he was married again, to a Spanish woman, by whom he had four more children). In 1738, sponsored by King John V of Portugal, he passed secret trials to become a Knight of the Order of Santiago, and about 1740 Velasco painted his portrait, for which he wore the full regalia of the Order. He died in Madrid on July 23, 1757..