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Repertory Archive

Domenico Scarlatti


Virtually nothing is known of the early training or career of composer Domenico Scarlatti, who was born and baptized Giuseppe Domenico in Naples, Italy in 1685. There is no record of his attendance at a conservatory, nor evidence of his training with any notable Italian composers of the day or elder Scarlattis. At the age of fifteen, he was appointed organist and composer of the Naples royal chapel, of which his father Alessandro was maestro, but no compositions from that very period are extant. On leave of absence from the chapel, Domenico traveled to Florence with his father in the following year, where the elder Scarlatti hoped to secure more favorable working conditions in the court of Ferdinando de’ Medici. However, he returned to Naples after four months where he wrote music for two opera productions in 1703 and revised Pollarrolo’s Irene in 1704. Ordered by his father, who felt the need for broader horizons for his genius son, Domenico then traveled with the celebrated castrato, Nicolo Grimaldi to Venice, stopping in Rome and Florence. Nothing is known of Scarlatti’s four years in Venice, but in 1709, he entered the service of Maria Casimira in Rome, under whose patronage his renown grew. For this private court, which had papal permission to present “decent comedies”, Scarlatii composed at least one cantata, one oratorio, and six operas. In Rome, Scarlatti became part of the important circle of virtuosos and composers that presented weekly chamber music recitals (Accademie Poeticomusicali) at the home of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. Among those in the group which included Corelli and Handel, was a young Englishman, Thomas Rosengrave, who became one of Scarlatti’s greatest friends and most ardent admirers and became the key figure in the dissemination of the composer’s vocal and keyboard music in England. In 1713, Scarlatti became maestro di cappella of the Basilica Giulia, and after Maria Casimira left Rome in 1714, accepted a similar appointment with the Marquis de Fontes, the Portuguese ambassador to the Vatican. But he was still apparently unable to free himself from his domineering father, against who legal documents were filed 1717, and who continued to exert great influence over his son even after that intervention. Scarlatti resigned his Roman positions in 1719, then traveled to Portugal, where he became mestre of the wealthy patriarchal chapel in Lisbon. Again, very little is known about his time in Lisbon, largely because many public records were destroyed in the earthquake of 1755, but Scarlatti did make several trips to his home country, traveling to Rome to meet Quantz, and to Naples to pay final respects to his dying father. In 1728, he returned to Rome to marry 16-year-old Maria Caterina Gentili, the mother of his five children, and spent the rest of his life in Portugal and Spain. During his years in Lisbon, Scarlatti’s duties included the musical education of King John V’s talented daughter, the Infanta Maria Barbara, and her brother Don Antonio. He especially concentrated on the keyboard training of the Infanta, with whom he formed a lifelong musical symbiosis that resulted in the creation of his most important work– a body of more than 500 single-movement sonatas for unaccompanied keyboard. He followed Maria Barbara to Madrid when she married the Spanish Crown Prince Fernando in 1728, and spent the last 28 years of his life among her retainers. Scarlatti became a Knight of the Order of Santiago in 1738. His first wife, Maria Caterina, died in 1739, and he married Anastasia Maxarti Ximenes in 1742. From these two marriages, Scarlatti had nine children, and none of the four surviving children were to become musicians. Scarlatti died in Madrid in 1757. During his early years in Naples, Scarlatti’s musical expression was restricted by the current Neapolitan school of composing in which the composer merely provided a blueprint for the castratos and other performers. After 1720, free from the dominance of his critical father, Scarlatti could explore and develop his own individual gifts. To an even greater extent, after leaving Italy, Scarlatti could bask in the encouragement of Maria Barbara and her court, and could use the sounds, sights, and customs of Iberia to add new dimension to his musical language. The resulting compositions, binary from movements simply called “sonatas”, became a uniquely wide-ranging and entirely original corpus of music. They were, firstly, fresh visions of the potentials of binary form, and, most importantly, they explored new worlds of virtuoso keyboard technique.