Italian composer (1685-1757) who spent most of his adult life as a harpsichord teacher at the Spanish court.

He was very famous for his brilliant play and left to the world about 568 exercises (or 'sonatas') for harpsichord.

In a way these sonatas are more like birdsong than music; they consist mainly of one-sentence musical ideas, loosely knit together in a simple, standard structure to form a 3 to 7 page exercise. Some of these ideas are mind-blowing, many of them are very beautiful, and some of them are fun to play, so I spend a lot of time with Scarlatti.

I used to collect recordings of them, too. My first CGI script was a Scarlatti sonata database. It was to contain sheet music, MIDI files (by John Sankey), some sound samples, and a search interface by which you could find sonatas by musical characteristics. It was never finished. I still think the Web dearly needs something like this, a for music.

Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti was a harpsichordist and composer, mostly of keyboard music, in the late baroque period.

Scarlatti was born on October 25, 1685, in Naples, Italy, the sixth of ten children. He had good musical blood. His father Alessandro Scarlatti, by preference a composer of opera, was the maestro di cappella at the vice-regal court in Naples the year he was born, where his uncle Francesco was first violinist. There must have been a run on famous composers in 1685 -- Handel and Bach were also born that year!

There were advantages and disadvantages to being as musically gifted as your father. On the positive side, you got excellent training, both musically and socially, but on the negative side, there was a good chance you ended up sort of a tag-along afterthought to your father’s career.

This is just what happened to the young Scarlatti. He benefited from terrific opportunities. When he was 16, he was a composer and organist in the royal chapel at Naples. He studied under Francesco Gasparini, who himself was a student of Arcangelo Corelli. He composed many works for his father’s theatre, and for others too.

Gradually he tried to remove himself from his father’s exploitative influence, and set out on his own, and do a bit of networking in Rome. When his father wasn’t calling him back, he met Handel, and the two even had a friendly competition where they were adjudged equally skilled on the harpsichord (although Handel had the edge on the organ), and Thomas Roseingrave, who introduced his work to England. Two early patrons during this time were the dowager Queen of Poland, Maria Kazimiera, and the Portuguese ambassador to the Vatican, the Marquis de Fontes. This latter one was key.

Finally, Scarlatti obtained legal independence from his father in 1717, when he was maestro di cappella at the Cappella Giulia at St. Peter’s. Pretty soon he left Italy, and didn’t go back very often.

After a short and not overwhelmingly successful stop in London, Scarlatti went to Lisbon, where thanks to his contact the Marquis de Fontes, he was appointed as harpsichordist to the royal Portuguese court. He was also responsible for teaching music to King John [or João] V’s children. His work earned him a knighthood, and in accepting the honor he dedicated Essercizi per gravicembalo (Scarlatti affably referred to his sonatas as “exercises”) to the king. It was his only music published during his lifetime.

In 1729, King John V’s daughter, Princess Maria Barbara, his former pupil, married the crown prince Ferdinand VI of Spain, and subsequently invited him to the royal Spanish court. He accepted and spent the rest of his life in Spain, mostly in Madrid. It was there that he wrote the keyboard sonatas -- over 500 of them -- which make him truly great. Throughout his life, he wrote many operas, sinfonie, at least one harpsichord concerto, and lots of church music and secular cantatas, all quality music, but which pale in comparison to these keyboard sonatas.

His keyboard sonatas are much less stodgily scientific than Bach’s, because of the influences of Spanish folk and dance music of the day -- they’re often called “Iberian Baroque”. Most are marked “allegro”; Scarlatti didn’t list precise tempos. A bit of useless trivia is that the key in top spot is D Major.

To listen to or download them online, or to buy them, it helps to know that there’s a numbering system in use that was devised by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953. Each sonata is given a Kirkpatrick number, from K.1 to K.555.

Scarlatti married twice and had nine children, none of whom became musicians. This might be considered unusual given that one of Scarlatti’s jobs was to teach kids music. But before you label them ungrateful cake eaters, remember that his awful relationship with his own musical father may have enticed him to encourage his children to pursue other interests.

Scarlatti died in Madrid on July 23, 1757.

Michael Sartorius. “Domenico Scarlatti”. Baroque Composers and Musicians. . November 29, 2002.
“The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti”. Classical Net. December 17, 2002.
Matt Boynick. “Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)”. Classical Music Pages. December 17, 2002.
John Sankey. “The Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti”. MIDI World. December 17, 2002.

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