Music Domenico Scarlatti
by
Todd Decker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0203

Introduction

Domenico Scarlatti (b. 1685–d. 1757) is best known as the composer of around 550 binary-form keyboard sonatas. Scarlatti’s prowess as a keyboard player was likely well-known among European musicians before his first published sonatas—a set of thirty titled Essercizi per Gravicembalo—appeared in a lavish printing in Britain in 1738. Pirated editions and other imprints with more sonatas followed and fueled Scarlatti’s growing, Continent-wide reputation. As the 18th century progressed and into the 19th, more and more sonatas saw print, with the first so-called complete edition (Longo 1970, cited under Numbering and Editions) appearing in the first decade of the 20th century. Unlike some of his 18th-century peers, Scarlatti never required a “revival”: his keyboard sonatas, equally at home on harpsichord, fortepiano, and modern piano (and in transcription for guitar, harp, and even accordion), have never been absent from the active repertory. The sonatas—a huge body of outwardly similar, short-form solo pieces—have come down to performers and scholars primarily in two large manuscript collections: impeccable in their provenance, frustratingly opaque in basic information. None are in Scarlatti’s hand. The compositional chronology of the sonatas remains fundamentally in doubt. The question of Scarlatti’s intended or favored keyboard instrument—harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano—remains open. Given this source situation, scholarship has centered on surprisingly basic questions, struggling to situate Scarlatti’s popular and peculiar keyboard pieces, which, taken as a whole, sit stylistically at a curiously and delightfully oblique angle relative to the music of their time. Domenico’s father, Alessandro Scarlatti, was a well-known composer and took pains to launch his son’s career. Indeed, Domenico composed more than keyboard music. The early decades of his career were fairly typical for Italian-born composers of the time. Working primarily in Italy and Portugal, with frequent if difficult-to-pin-down travels elsewhere, Scarlatti composed operas, sacred music, and occasional pieces for his frequently royal patrons. These works have, however, attracted less attention than the sonatas, which are directly related to the latter half of Scarlatti’s career—several decades spent as the music master to María Bárbara, a Portuguese princess who became queen of Spain. There was, quite simply, no other position in Europe like the one Scarlatti had at the Portuguese and Spanish courts in service to María Bárbara, who must have been herself a formidable keyboard player. While scholars assume the sonatas were written for María Bárbara, when and where she played them remains unknown.

Biography

The known facts of Scarlatti’s life are few and largely formal: most are perfunctory entries in court and legal records. The details of his work at given appointments with select patrons remain only vaguely known. Only one letter in his hand survives. A few second-hand stories from 18th-century sources—all set down well after his death—offer sidelong glimpses of the man. Given this situation, scholars have either chosen to stick to the absolutely known or endeavored to fill in missing details in a more speculative effort to get closer to this elusive composer’s experiences, creative identity, and, even, psychology. The contrast between Sheveloff 1980 and Pagano in Grove Music Online—biographical articles for the Grove and New Grove dictionaries, respectively—illuminates the difficulty of accounting for Scarlatti’s life and character and the role of scholarly discipline and/or imagination in any portrait of this composer. Centered on the keyboard works, Kirkpatrick 1953 remains a scholarly monument like few others, still debated by scholars more than a half-century after its publication. Subsequent book-length biographies have treated Scarlatti’s compositional output more equitably (Boyd 1986) or attempted to place him beside his father Alessandro (Pagano 2006, Pagano 2015). The most recent developments in research into Scarlatti’s biography has centered on his decade in service to João V, king of Portugal (D’Alvarenga 2008, Doderer 2010).

  • Boyd, Malcolm. Domenico Scarlatti: Master of Music. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.

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    This narrative of Scarlatti’s life, balanced by consideration of his works, gives equal coverage to his entire career and avoids speculation about Scarlatti’s temperament, relationships, or psychology. Boyd includes concise descriptions of each of the cities and courts where Scarlatti lived and worked. Appendix II provides an English translation of Scarlatti’s will.

  • D’Alvarenga, João Pedro. “Domenico Scarlatti in the 1720s: Portugal, Travelling and the Italianization of the Portuguese Musical Scene.” In Domenico Scarlatti Adventures: Essays to Commemorate the 250th Anniversary of His Death. Edited by Massimiliano Sala and W. Dean Sutcliffe, 17–68. Bologna, Italy: Ut Orpheus Edizioni, 2008.

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    D’Alvarenga summarizes the existing evidence and offers new sources for Scarlatti’s travels in the 1720s, proposing a new timeline for this especially peripatetic period, which ended with the composer definitively based in Spain.

  • Doderer, Gerhard. “Some Remarks on Domenico Scarlatti’s Portuguese Period (1719–1729).” In Domenico Scarlatti: Musica e storia. Edited by Dinko Fabris and Paologiovanni Maione, 225–247. Naples, Italy: Turchini Edizioni, 2010.

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    Divided into three sections, this chapter summarizes biographical information in recently discovered sources; compares Scarlatti with a significant contemporary, the Portuguese keyboard composer Carlos Seixas; and surveys the instruments available at the Lisbon royal palace where Scarlatti worked.

  • Kirkpatrick, Ralph. Domenico Scarlatti. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953.

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    This early landmark of postwar American musicology centers on Scarlatti the keyboard composer. Weighted towards Scarlatti’s years in Portugal and Spain, the work presents a picturesque evocation of the world around the composer in a story that supports the author’s speculative chronology of the works.

  • Pagano, Roberto. “(Giuseppe) Domenico Scarlatti.” In Grove Music Online.

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    Pagano’s wholesale revision of Scarlatti’s biography for the New Grove includes second-hand period sources and speculation not present in Sheveloff’s earlier article for the 1980 Grove. First published in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 2nd ed., vol. 22. Edited by Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 2001), pp. 398–402.

  • Pagano, Roberto. Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti: Two Lives in One. Translated by Frederick Hammond. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon, 2006.

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    English translation of the original 1985 edition of Pagano’s book. Includes references to post-1985 scholarship, suggesting substantial revisions of the Italian original.

  • Pagano, Roberto. Alessandro e Domenico Scarlatti: Due vita in una. Rev. ed. 2 vols. Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 2015.

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    Originally published in 1985, this dual biography seeks to draw direct parallels between Scarlatti and his father Alessandro. Pagano states his intention to bring a “Southern” or Sicilian approach to the psychology of the pair. Pagano’s 2015 revised text and the book’s bibliography and index published in a separate volume.

  • Sheveloff, Joel. “(Giuseppe) Domenico Scarlatti.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 16. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 568–578. London: Macmillan, 1980.

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    Sheveloff brings an extreme skepticism to his narrative of Scarlatti’s life. He rejects Kirkpatrick’s chronology, leaves out second-hand reports from the period, and resolutely resists any conjectures as to Scarlatti the man.

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