Scarlatti, (Giuseppe) Domenico

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Scarlatti, (Giuseppe) Domenico (1685-1757): Composer and Harpsichordist.

Domenico Scarlatti was one of the most influential Baroque composers of harpsichord music. The son of the accomplished composer Alessandro Scarlatti and brother to musicians Francesco, Tommaso and Pietro Filippo, Domenico received his musical training at an early age, although little is known as to the exact means by which he received this education. In 1701 he was appointed organist and composer to the Naples royal chapel (of which Alessandro was maestro), and wrote music for two opera productions in 1703. In 1705, Domenico went with the castrato Nicolo Grimaldi through Rome and Florence toVenice, where he stayed until 1709 when he entered the service of Maria Casimira in Rome. There he composed a cantata, oratorio, and six operas. He is said to have engaged in a contest of virtuosity with Handel, George Frederick during which Handel won at the organ, Scarlatti at the harpsichord. In 1713 Scarlatti became maestro di cappella in Rome. He moved to Portugal in 1719 to claim a similar position in Lisbon. He married Maria Caterina Gentili in 1728, with whom he had five children. Following Maria’s death in 1739, Scarlatti married Anastasia Maxarti Ximenes, with whom he had four more children. In Lisbon, Scarlatti undertook the musical education of the Infanta Maria Barbara; when the Infanta moved to Seville following her marriage, Scarlatti remained in her service. In 1737 the celebrated castrato Farinelli also arrived at the Spanish court, although the specifics of his musical administrative duties (as opposed to those of Scarlatti) are not known. Scarlatti remained at the Spanish court until his death in 1757.

Despite having composed a number of operas, oratorios, cantatas, songs, and sinfonias, Scarlatti is known today primarily for his contributions to the harpsichord repertoire. This is doubtless a result of Scarlatti’s innovation and his influence on later composers, particularly those in Spain and England. Scarlatti’s keyboard works are characterized by their emphasis on virtuoso techniques such as hand-crossing and swift ornamental figurations. He is celebrated for his frequent use of the acciaccatura, a mordent effect occasionally likened to techniques of Spanish guitar-playing. His works are notable for the significance they grant to modulatory passages, rather than the fact of modulation itself, as well as for the vamp, a small section at the beginning of the second half of the binary movement which resembles an improvised accompaniment. His acquaintance with leading singers of the day doubtless encouraged him to evoke vocal virtuosity in his instrumental works. Kelway, Arne, and Albero are among the notable composers in whose works the influence of Scarlatti has been detected.

Further Reading:

R. Kirkpatrick, Domenico Scarlatti, 1968.

Irene Morra