Piano History – Domenico Scarlatti

05/28/2014 8:57 am


Domenico Scarlatti

I have always enjoyed Scarlatti’s music and have played a few of his Sonatas back in college. I found his music tremendously enjoyable to be played and highly recommend learning a few of his pieces. Below this post, I have included a link to a few of his pieces.

Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti (26 October 1685 – 23 July 1757) was an Italian composer who spent much of his life in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish royal families. He is classified as a Baroque composer chronologically, although his music was influential in the development of the Classical style. Like his renowned father Alessandro Scarlatti he composed in a variety of musical forms, although today he is known mainly for his 555 keyboard sonatas.

Life and career

Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples, Kingdom of Naples, in 1685, the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel. He was the sixth of ten children of the composer and teacher Alessandro Scarlatti. Domenico’s older brother Pietro Filippo was also a musician.

He probably first studied music under his father. Other composers who may have been his early teachers include Gaetano Greco, Francesco Gasparini, and Bernardo Pasquini, all of whom may have influenced his musical style. He was appointed a composer and organist at the royal chapel in Naples in 1701. In 1704, he revised Carlo Francesco Pollarolo’s opera Irene for performance at Naples. Soon afterwards, his father sent him to Venice. After this, nothing is known of Scarlatti’s life until 1709, when he went to Rome in the service of the exiled Polish queen Marie Casimire. He met Thomas Roseingrave there. Scarlatti was already an eminent harpsichordist: there is a story of a trial of skill with George Frideric Handel at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome where he was judged possibly superior to Handel on that instrument, although inferior on the organ. Later in life, he was known to cross himself in veneration when speaking of Handel’s skill. In Rome, Scarlatti composed several operas for Queen Casimira’s private theater. He was Maestro Di Cappella at St. Peter’s from 1715 to 1719. In 1719 he traveled to London to direct his opera Narciso at the King’s Theater.

According to Vicente Bicchi (Papal Nuncio at the time), Domenico Scarlatti arrived in Lisbon on 29 November 1719. There he taught music to the Portuguese princess Maria Magdalena Barbara. He left Lisbon on 28 January 1727 for Rome, where he married Maria Caterina Gentili on 6 May 1728. In 1729 he moved to Seville, staying for four years and gaining a knowledge of flamenco. In 1733 he went to Madrid as music master to Princess Maria Barbara, who had married into the Spanish royal house. The Princess later became Queen of Spain. Scarlatti remained in the country for the remaining twenty-five years of his life, and had five children there. After the death of his first wife in 1742, he married a Spaniard, Anastasia Maxarti Ximenes. Among his compositions during his time in Madrid were a number of the 555 keyboard sonatas for which he is best known.

Scarlatti befriended the castrato singer Farinelli, a fellow Neapolitan also enjoying royal patronage in Madrid. The musicologist Ralph Kirkpatrick commented that Farinelli’s correspondence provides “most of the direct information about Scarlatti that has transmitted itself to our day.” Domenico Scarlatti died in Madrid, at the age of 71. His residence on Calle Leganitos is designated with a historical plaque, and his descendants still live in Madrid. He was buried at a convent there, in Madrid, but his grave no longer exists.


Only a small fraction of Scarlatti’s compositions were published during his lifetime; Scarlatti himself seems to have overseen the publication in 1738 of the most famous collection, his 30 Essercizi (“Exercises”). These were well received throughout Europe, and were championed by the foremost English writer on music of the eighteenth century, Charles Burney.

The many sonatas which were unpublished during Scarlatti’s lifetime have appeared in print irregularly in the two and a half centuries since. Scarlatti has attracted notable admirers, including Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Heinrich Schenker, Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Marc-André Hamelin.

Scarlatti’s 555 keyboard sonatas are single movements, mostly in binary form, and mostly written for the harpsichord or the earliest pianofortes. (There are four for organ, and a few for small instrumental group). Some of them display harmonic audacity in their use of discords, and also unconventional modulations to remote keys.

Other distinctive attributes of Scarlatti’s style are the following:

  • The influence of Iberian (Portuguese and Spanish) folk music. An example is Scarlatti’s use of the Phrygian mode and other tonal inflections more or less alien to European art music. Many of Scarlatti’s figurations and dissonances are suggestive of the guitar.
  • A formal device in which each half of a sonata leads to a pivotal point, which the Scarlatti scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick termed “the crux”, and which is sometimes underlined by a pause or fermata. Before the crux, Scarlatti sonatas often contain their main thematic variety, and after the crux the music makes more use of repetitive figurations as it modulates away from the home key (in the first half) or back to the home key (in the second half).

Click here to print and play some Domenico Scarlatti pieces.