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Domenico Scarlatti
Domenico Scarlatti


Five hundred and fifty five keyboard sonatas have secured the reputation of Domenico Scarlatti. Italian by birth, he worked mainly in Spain and Portugal, drawing on the folk music there to bring colour and vitality to his work. His music anticipated the Classical style in its structure and brilliance, and provided an important model for the great keyboard composers of the late eighteenth century. Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples, where his father Alessandro was Maestro di cappella. In 1701, at the age of only 15, he was appointed organist and composer to the royal court. After two years in Venice, Scarlatti moved to Rome in 1708, and entered the service of the exiled Polish queen, Maria Casimira. From 1714 he was Maestro of the Cappella Giulia in the Vatican, holding the position until 1719, when he began a five year appointment in Sicily. Though Scarlatti’s career was largely played out in Southern Europe, he may have visited London in 1720 for the staging of his opera Amor d’un ombra e gelosia d’un’aura. Four years later, he accepted his first Iberian appointment, as Mestre de capela to the Portuguese court in Lisbon. He taught music to the king’s daughter, Maria Barbara, and to Don Antonio, the king’s younger brother. During a visit to Rome in 1728 he married Maria Catalina Gentili by whom he had five children. She died in 1739 and within three years Scarlatti was married again. When the Portuguese princess married Crown Prince Fernando of Spain in 1729 she left Lisbon for Seville, taking Scarlatti with her. As Maestro di musica he served her for the remainder of his life, moving with the court to Madrid in 1733. Scarlatti later befriended the Italian castrato Farinelli, who was appointed to the Spanish court in 1737. Music at the court was greatly enlivened with Farinelli as director of royal operas. He was given generous resources, enabling him to engage some of the finest Italian singers and librettists. Against this background Scarlatti continued as composer, harpsichordist and teacher, numbering among his pupils the gifted composer Antonio Soler (1729–83). Now freed from the difficulty of following in his father’s footsteps, Scarlatti was able to develop his own brilliant and individual keyboard style. Despite their huge number, Scarlatti’s sonatas are always full of surprises. Harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, who lent his initial to the ‘K’ numbers by which Scarlatti’s works are catalogued, has observed that none of the sonatas is typical. We know little of their chronology and can only speculate as to exactly how and by whom they were performed. Each is in a single movement, and Kirkpatrick has suggested that they were intended to be performed in pairs, or occasionally in groups of three. Distinguishing features of the sonatas include cascading arpeggios, florid runs, daring hand-crossing, imitative writing, syncopation, dissonance, chromaticism and a splendid arsenal of percussive effects. Through his resourceful use of these ideas, Scarlatti achieves effects ranging from the elegiac (K87) to the irrepressibly exuberant (K492). He also gives us local Spanish colour, through rustic bagpipe drones (K513) and the ceremonial formality of simulated trumpet fanfares (K491). The Sonatas sidestep the mainstream of Baroque musical development, but provide an irresistible challenge to performers and continual variety and interest for listeners. In 1738 Scarlatti became a Knight of the Order of Santiago. He was painted in the full regalia of the order by Domingo Antonio de Velasco around 1740, a noble and richly coloured portrait of an Italian who found his home in Spain.

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