Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti

Domenico Scarlatti
(*26 October 1685, Naples – 23 July 1757, Madrid)

A composer and harpsichord player, the sixth child of the famous composer Alessandro Scarlatti. He spent much of his life in Portugal and Spain. In Italy he is always referred to as Domenico (or familiarly Mimo) Scarlatti; in Portugal and Spain he is Domingo Escarlate (Escarlati or Escarlatti). Although, like his father, he worked in almost all the music genres of the day, today he is primarily known as the author of more than 550 sonatas.


  1. Life
    1. An eagle with wings
    2. Rome
    3. Portugal
    4. Spain
  2. Sonatas


1. Life
1.1 An eagle with wings

…suddenly a witty Saxon, a friend of the abbé, appeared in his ordinary set of clothes, accompanied by a young Neapolitan, Gasparini’s pupil, who immediately took off his mask for he was sweating profusely, and underneath a gentle, smart face appeared…

This short excerpt from The Baroque Concert by Alejo Carpentier, which takes place in Venice during the carnival, contains a riddle – can you guess who the three above-mentioned characters are? Let us add that the meeting takes place in one of the Venice taverns during the carnival sometime in the first half of the 18th century. The inconspicuous abbé, called “redhead” at another place, is none other than Antonio Vivaldi. He meets the witty Saxon – George Frideric Handel. And the person who arrives accompanied by Handel and who is described in most detail? The young Neapolitan, the sweating pupil of Gasparini? That is the Italian composer and harpsichordist Domenico Scarlatti.

Carpentier is an excellent writer, but also a musicologist so his story, although fiction, has a historical foundation. But not quite. Let us start from the beginning:

The pupil of Gasparini was born 26 October 1685 and was thus only eight years younger than the Saxon in the text, the famous George Frideric Handel. Let us add that at the end of March of the same year, a month after Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach was born. Our Italian was named Giuseppe Domenico, but he never used his first name, because people might have mistaken him for a relative who was also called Giuseppe Scarlatti and was also a musician.

Domenico was born into an extremely large family full of musicians, of which the most famous, apart from himself, was and still is Domenico’s father Alessandro, the prominent representative of the Neapolitan school of opera. It is therefore not very surprising that we do not know exactly who Domenico’s music teacher was. Whether it was one of his uncles, or his own father, or Gaetano Greco, Bernardo Pasquini or the already-mentioned Gasparini. Anyway, Domenico was talented, he had undoubtedly completed extensive music studies and his father used the weight of his fame to establish his son’s employment. He was neither the first nor the last to do that – think of Leopold Mozart.

Maybe similarly to Leopold, or in fact like any father, Alessandro on the one hand praised his son’s talent to the skies, and on the other hand, he wanted his son to listen to his advice. Even though he tried to give the opposite impression: “He is an eagle whose wings are grown. He must not remain idle in the nest and I must not hinder his flight,” wrote Alessandro to Ferdinando de’ Medici when Domenico was 20 years old. In any case, his father first procured for him the post of an organist and harpsichordist in his native Naples –Domenico was 15 at the time. Two years later, he took him to Florence and at the age of 20 Domenico left for Venice, this time on his own.

We have no record of his stay in the city of the carnival and only two stories have been preserved that are both related to the afore-mentioned George Frideric Handel. Scarlatti is said to have competed with the “Saxon” in a trial of skills on the harpsichord and the organ. Handel was judged a better player on the organ, Scarlatti as a better harpsichordist. The second story is related to the carnival. Scarlatti is said to have seen a person in a mask playing the harpsichord and after listening for a while he said that only the famous Saxon could play like that, or the devil himself. Writer Carpentier probably draws on these tales. In his story, the meeting in the pub is followed by playing music in the Venetian Ospedale della Pietà, the convent and orphanage where Antonio Vivaldi worked as a violin teacher:

Stands were arranged, the Saxon sat down at the organ manuals, the Neapolitan tried one harpsichord, the maestro stepped on the podium, took a violin, lifted the bow and with two energetic gestures unleashed the most wonderful concerto grosso centuries had ever heard.

1.2 Rome

Carpentier, like us today, saw Scarlatti primarily as a harpsichordist and a composer of music for this instrument. Scarlatti was of course a much more universal composer, as was usually the case. Besides, his father, an opera master, had little appreciation of his son’s love for the harpsichord. He arranged for Domenico to compose for Marie Casimire, the former Polish queen consort now living in exile in Rome. One of the halls of her palace held a small theatre where operas were staged which Domenico had composed for the former consort. A few years later, at the age of 29, Scarlatti became Maestro Di Cappella at St. Peter’s Basilica – this opportunity came at the right moment, for Marie Casimire had to leave Rome due to financial bankruptcy. It was naturally mainly spiritual music that he composed in this position.

It was during his appointment at St. Peter’s that Scarlatti met the Portuguese ambassador Marquess de Fontes who gave him his first commission for the Portuguese royal court. This meeting was to become one of the most important in his life – it led to his invitation to Lisbon later on.

1.3 Portugal

In a letter written three years after the almost thirty-year-old Domenico assumed his position in the Basilica, Alessandro finally declares his son’s independence of his father’s will. And great changes were about to occur soon. St. Peter’s archives tell us that two years after that Mr. Scarlatti left his position at St. Peter’s and left for London. We cannot be sure whether Scarlatti actually reached London (even though it is usually assumed he did). However, we know that even if he had stayed there for a while, he knew beforehand that it would not be his final destination. In the meantime, they were eagerly expecting him in Lisbon where he arrived on 29th November 1719. King João V appointed him the royal mestre and one of his duties was the musical education of the king’s brother Don Alfonso and the young Infanta and future Spanish queen Maria Barbara. It was for these two noble students that Scarlatti composed his short harpsichord sonatas. A close and strong relationship was formed between Scarlatti and the educated and very talented Infanta, which lasted until Scarlatti’s death.

In Lisbon, the Italian composer also met the Portuguese harpsichordist, organ player and composer Carlos Seixas. Legend has it that when Scarlatti was asked to give the then sixteen-year-old Seixas harpsichord lessons, he said that Seixas should give lessons to him instead.

Although it seems that the obligations of a maestro and a music teacher were fulfilling for Scarlatti, Lisbon, after all, was not a musical centre (there was no opera in Lisbon, for example) and the composer often returned to Italy. He probably went to Palermo, Naples and Rome several times and it was in Rome on 15 May 1728 that he married the sixteen-year-old Maria Catalina Gentili.

1.4 Spain

Less than a year later on the border of Portugal and Spain (on the river Caya so that neither of the kings would have to leave his country) another wedding took place – Infanta Maria Barbara married the future Spanish king Ferdinand VI. This meant that Scarlatti’s pupil was moving from Portugal to the Spanish kingdom, although her husband ascended the throne only 17 years later, after the death of his father. Domenico remained in the service of the Portuguese king, but on his direct command (and we can assume that to Domenico’s great joy), he followed Maria Barbara to Spain which became his second home.

In May 1739 Catalina, Scarlatti’s wife, died. Domenico, now a father of two children soon remarried and as if to confirm where he belongs he married a Spaniard, Anastasia Ximenes from Cádiz. He had four more children with her, the last of which was born when he was 64 years old. Regarding the number of children, Domenico was his father’s equal. And if there ever was a subconscious rivalry and an effort to equal the famous Alessandro (which son does not feel it?), the musical quality of the large collection of Scarlatti’s sonatas as well as their popularity and influence are a match for the oratories and operas of his father.

As we have said above, Scarlatti was probably very content with his new post. He was freed from the routine service, he lived close to the young aristocratic couple and he participated at highly cultivated musical entertainments for the elite. It was during this period that a large number of his famous sonatas were composed. Ferdinand was no less a music lover than his wife and besides Scarlatti his musical entourage included the famous Farinelli, whose voice was said to be beneficial to Ferdinand’s melancholy and depressive states. It was Farinelli too, who after the death of Ferdinand’s father Filip V persuaded the newly installed royal couple to introduce in Spain opera of high quality, which would be assured by the fame of the singer as well as by his friend, the leading opera librettist Pietro Metastasio. Nevertheless, Scarlatti did not join in the new opera life and, still supported by the royal couple, devoted the last part of his life mainly to compiling volumes of manuscripts of his compositions. Scarlatti’s contentment with life in Spain is also alluded to in Carpentier’s story, in a scene from a music shop.

The shop assistant first brought them the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. “A lively fellow,” said Filomeno, remembering that night. “I hear the rascal is in Spain, where the enamoured and generous Infanta Maria Barbara pays his gambling debts, which will continue to rise as long as there is a single deck of cards on the table in the game room.”

Carpentier alludes to the passion for gambling which Domenico Scarlatti was said to be more prone to than was advisable. On the other hand, it had ironically an essential significance for the future admirers of Scarlatti’s work.

As Carpentier writes, due to his weakness for gambling Scarlatti was often in debt, which he was unable to pay off despite his undoubtedly substantial income. And so his debts became the instrument of a strange trade, for which we are now very grateful. Maria Barbara and Farinelli are said to have offered Scarlatti money for paying off his debts in exchange for written copies of the sonatas Scarlatti had improvised in Maria’s chambers. If the story is true, a great portion of the overall number of sonatas which we know precisely from the manuscripts dedicated to Maria Barbara has been preserved thanks to the composer’s passion for gambling…

2. Sonatas

Domenico’s father would probably be very surprised that his son did not win fame by by his operas, cantatas and oratories – as he would have imagined – but by short pieces for a keyboard instrument, which probably resulted from improvisation and often had an educational character. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to take them for compositions written “by the way”, which is attested to by the evident thoroughness with which Scarlatti compiled the above-mentioned manuscripts at the end of his life.

The greatest percentage of the sonatas were composed during the period of Scarlatti’s service to Maria Barbara, but some are even older. It is nearly certain that when Scarlatti came to Lisbon he had with him religious compositions as well as around fifty short pieces for harpsichord, written before his departure from Italy. However it was only during his stay in Portugal that he began to pay more serious attention to these compositions. In 1738 a printed collection of 30 of these compositions was published, dedicated to the Portuguese king. In great contrast to the monumental eulogy on Scarlatti’s patron stands his humble note to the reader and player of his exercises (Essercizi), as he called his little compositions.

Whether you are an amateur or a professional, do not expect any profound intention in these compositions but rather a witty jesting with art which may bring the joy of freedom in playing. It was not a self-interest or ambition that led me to publish them, but respect and devotion. You may be pleased by them and in that case I shall all the more willingly listen to further commands for compositions in a simpler and more varied style.

Scarlatti’s Essecizi reached substantial popularity, however, the promised second edition never appeared. Yet perhaps, this success was – apart from the entertaining story about his gambling debts cited above – the reason for the composer’s decision to record and organise another, this time manuscript volumes of these compositions, which became the property of Maria Barbara and after her death of Farinelli and which today form the basis of the 550 plus sonatas which have been preserved and which subsequently spread throughout Europe. It is quite possible that Bach knew them, Liszt admired them and Brahms studied them very carefully – in his second piano concerto the admiration of Scarlatti is clearly audible.

The citations come from Alejo Carpentier’s Baroque Concerto