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Domenico Scarlatti

Domenico Scarlatti (October 26, 1685 in Naples - July 23, 1757 in Madrid) was an Italian composer of baroque music.

Suprisingly little is known about his life apart from legends and anecdotes.

It is probable that Scarlatti first studied under his father, Alessandro Scarlatti, before becoming a pupil of Gaetano Greco.

In 1704, he remodelled Pollaroli's Irene for performance at Naples. Soon after this his father sent him to Venice, where he studied under Gasparini, and met Thomas Roseingrave who would later lead the enthusiastic reception of the composer's sonatas in London. Domenico was already a harpsichord-player of eminence, and there is a story that at a trial of skill with George Friderich Handel at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome he was adjudged perhaps superior to Handel on that instrument, although inferior on the organ.

In 1709, Domenico entered the service of Marie Casimire, queen of Poland, then living in Rome, and composed several operas for her private theatre. He was Maestro di Cappella at St Peter's from 1715 to 1719, and in the latter year came to London to direct his opera Narciso at the King's Theatre.

In 1720 or 1721 he went to Lisbon, where he taught music to the princess Maria Magdalena Barbara. He was at Naples again in 1725, but in 1729 went to Madrid as music master to the princess, who had married into the Spanish royal house. He remained in Spain for some twenty-five years. Maria Barbara became Queen of Spain. During this time he composed over five hundred keyboard sonatas. It is for these works that he is best remembered today.

Only a tiny fraction of this output was published in the composer's lifetime; Scarlatti himself seems to have overseen the publication in 1738 of the most famous collection, a book of 30 "Essercizi". These were rapturously received throughout Europe; they seem to have influenced J.S. Bach's "Goldberg Variations" and were championed by the foremost English writer on music of the eighteenth century, Dr. Charles Burney. Scarlatti's influence on late-eighteenth style was therefore probably considerable, although he has always tended to be written into music history as an 'outsider'. The reasons for this may be due to generalizations about epochs (Baroque/Classical) or perhaps due to nationalistic tensions: Spain is almost off the map of most art-music histories, while Italy is seen as the land of opera. Unfortunately for Scarlatti, instrumental music is typically seen as, in the words of the Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein, 'A German Art'.

The 'Essercizi', however, did not reveal the full scope of Scarlatti's style: they are strikingly conservative when compared to his keyboard output as a whole. The mass of sonatas which were unpublished during the composer's lifetime have only appeared in print in fits and starts in the two and a half centuries since, and the repertoire is by no means well-understood today. Bizarrely, the 'Essercizi' still dominate recital programmes. Scarlatti has, however, attracted notable admirers, including Chopin, Brahms and Heinrich Schenker. The Russian school of pianism has always championed the sonatas.

The sonatas' technical difficulties have often caused them to be regarded as mere studies in virtuosity, and modern pianoforte technique owes much to their influence. They display a harmonic audacity, and adventurous use of modulation (changing from one key to another), a freshness and variety of invention and a vigorous intellectuality in thematic and structural terms which belies their 'popular' tone and their apparently careless appearance on the page. Above all, perhaps, Scarlatti's sonatas reveal a knack for the musical 'mot juste' similar to that in Gershwin or Mozart.


Scarlatti sonata Recordings