Domenico Scarlatti Biography

(Italian Composer Best Known for His ‘555 Keyboard Sonatas’)

Birthday: October 26, 1685 (Scorpio)

Born In: Naples, Italy

Domenico Scarlatti was an Italian composer from the Baroque period best known for composing the 555 keyboard sonatas. Born to an esteemed musician father Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico became interested in music early on. After taking early musical lessons from his father, he went on receiving training under several musicians and by the age of 15, he began working at chapels as an organist. After working at a few chapels, he was appointed as a teacher to the Portuguese princess Maria Magdalen Barbara. When she became the queen of Spain, Domenico was hired to be in the full-time service of the court. As a musician, Domenico composed many operas in the beginning along with vocal music. However, when he realized his lack of expertise in these, he focused solely on harpsichord compositions. He thus embarked on a musical journey that established him as one of the most imaginative and well-known musicians of 17th century Europe. He is best known for 555 keyboard sonatas, which were mostly composed for harpsichord. Owing to his allegiance to the royal court, he could not publish much of his music when he was alive, but posthumously he got regarded as a master musician.

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Quick Facts

Italian Celebrities Born In October

Also Known As: Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti, Doménico Scarlatti

Died At Age: 71

Family:

Spouse/Ex-: Anastasia Maxarti Ximenes, Maria Caterina Gentili, Spaniard

father: Alessandro Scarlatti

mother: Vittoria Ansalone

siblings: Pietro Filippo

Born Country: Italy

Composers Italian Men

Died on: July 23, 1757

place of death: Madrid, Spain

City: Naples, Italy

Childhood & Early Life

Domenico Scarlatti was born on October 26, 1685, in Naples, Kingdom of Naples, which is in modern-day Italy. He was born into an affluent music family to Alessandro Scarlatti. His father was a highly influential composer known for his operas among other works. Domenico was born the sixth child in the family. He was the younger brother of Pietro Filippo, who went on to become a famous composer and organist.

After getting inspired by his father’s profession, Domenico became interested in the world of music. He took his early training in music from his father. He is also known to have been trained under esteemed musicians such as Gaetano Greco, Francesco Gasparini, and Bernardo Pasquini. His father understood Domenico’s leanings toward the harpsichord music, which was picking up a pace at that time.

Domenico learned music in a prodigious manner and by the age of 15, he was already performing in chapels.

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Career

In 1701, he was hired as the organist at the Royal Chapel in Naples. He was just 15 years old then. In the next year, he made a trip to Florence with his father.  After staying for a few months, he returned back to Naples and continued his career. In the early 18th century, he composed a few operas. One of his earliest works in this regard was Irene. It was not his original work though. It was originally an opera composed by Carlo Francesco, of which Domenico did a revision.

Domenico worked at the Chapel until 1704. Not much has been known about his life from then on, until 1708. In that year, he travelled to Venice where he met Francesco Gasparini. He was a respected musician and the famed author of a treatise on thorough-bass. It has been assumed that Domenico also took training from Francesco. But like many other documents related to his life, this event is also taken with a shadow of a doubt.

There are ample records to prove that he began working in the service of the exiled queen of Poland in 1709 in Rome. He was commissioned to play music for her. While there, he wrote a number of operas for her private theatre. It was during his trip to Rome that he had his famous meetings with contemporary composers such as Thomas Roseingrave and George Handel. He ended up forging a famous friendship with Handel.

Both Handel and Domenico were asked to perform at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni in a trial of the skills of the two famous young composers. Handel was already an established composer. When the harpsichord skills of Domenico were judged to be better than Handel’s, his popularity spread. However, when it came to playing the organ, Handel was considered far better than Domenico.

In 1714, he was hired as the chapelmaster of the Portuguese ambassador. He also served in the Vatican as a chapelmaster for the next few years. Further in 1720, he was appointed as the chapel master at Lisbon. It turned out to be one of the most important jobs of his career which led him on the path to a magnificent success as it enabled him to teach music in the royal Portuguese family.

Around that time, Domenico began teaching the Portuguese princess, Maria Magdalena Barbara. The princess was later crowned the Queen of Spain and naturally, Domenico was made the master of music in the royal household. It is well known that Domenico served the royal family from then until his death in 1757.

Despite working in the royal service, Domenico was able to produce some great music. Throughout his life, he produced 12 operas. Ten of them were completely his while he collaborated with other composers on two of his operas. In addition, he also wrote chamber cantatas, sacred music and more than 550 sonatas for harpsichord. However, most of his vocal music was composed before he moved to Spain to work for the royal family there.

While his vocal music did have a small fan following on its own, he was not best known for them. His true talent lay in writing sonatas for harpsichord, of which he is now considered a genius. The sonatas for harpsichord that he wrote were very original and varied significantly in form and style, exhibiting his versatility. However, most of the work he composed during his servitude to the royal Spanish family was only published after his demise. Hence, he did not attain the timeless glory in his life that he deserved.

Taking inspiration from Portuguese and Spanish folk music, he created music that was loved by the masses and his contemporary musicians alike. Despite difficulties, he managed to publish Essercizi, which was a collection of thirty exercises and it received widespread accolades even from esteemed musicians.

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Of all the work he has done and the techniques he mastered in his life, nothing comes closer to the 555 keyboard sonatas. While most of the sonatas were composed for a harpsichord they were still considered ahead of their time.

Due to the boundations of his royal duties to the Spanish court, Domenico could not publish them during his lifetime. However, slowly, the sonatas kept getting circulated among the musician circles of Spain. By the mid-1950s, all 555 of those sonatas had been recovered. The critical acclaim was huge and Domenico earned the attention and respect of famous musicians such as  Johannes Brahms, Béla Bartók, Frederic Chopin and Heinrich Schenker.

Like any versatile musical genius, Domenico also kept experimenting with different forms in his music. His earliest harpsichord sonatas were composed in dance forms that bore striking similarities to the toccatas written by his father. However, later in his life, he began composing pieces that are remembered to this day, which are known for sudden texture contrasts, bold dissonances and striking harmonies.

One other key feature seen in his work throughout was the fact that none of his pieces felt similar to each other. Each one of them had a distinct charm and sounded different from the rest. Due to his originality in harpsichord music, he is regarded as one of the most creative musicians the world has ever seen.

Sometime before his demise, Domenico returned to vocal music once more, through Salve Regina for strings and sopranos. It is also widely viewed as one of his last surviving vocal pieces and certainly among his best.

For his loyal services to the crown, he was awarded with the Spanish Knighthood in 1738.

Personal Life & Death

Domenico Scarlatti married Maria Catalina Gentili in 1728. He remained married to her until 1742. In the same year, he married Anastasia Ximenes after the death of his first wife. He fathered five children during his lifetime.

Domenico was close to Queen Maria Barbara, who helped him during his times of financial crisis’.

He passed away on July 23, 1757, in Madrid, Spain. He was 71 years old at the time of his death.

See the events in life of Domenico Scarlatti in Chronological Order

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