Scarlatti, Domenico

| Scar-latt-ee |

An operatic master unmasked?

Great Composers

When the class of 1685 comes to attention for the anniversary roll-call, Scarlatti doesn’t surface after Bach and Handel simply as a matter of alphabetical protocol. Mendelssohn may have alluded to a ‘dwarf among giants’, but to criticise Domenico Scarlatti for not being a Bach or Handel is a bit like berating Satie for not measuring up to Debussy. The 250th anniversary of Scarlatti’s death, however, bypasses those classmates of ’85, allowing a picture to emerge on Scarlatti’s own terms, and as scholarship marches on apace, a bigger picture it is too – the reputation-sealing sonatas increasingly flanked by manifestly fluent works large and small, for church, stage and chamber. With Vivaldi’s operas currently nibbling at the territory so recently reconquered by Handel, can Scarlatti be far behind?


It’s not an entirely specious question – as his father’s son, Domenico was born to opera (Alessandro the lynchpin in Naples’ assault on Venice’s operatic hegemony). But with hindsight his appointment at the age of 15 as clavicembalista di camera as well as organist to the Naples Cappella Reala suggests a remarkable keyboard facility – later fired in the crucible of the play-off with Handel organised by Cardinal Ottaboni. Handel was declared victor on the organ; Scarlatti, many felt, earned the harpsichord laurels. And when Thomas Roseingrave encountered the ‘grave young man in black’, he marvelled that ‘ten hundred devils had been at the instrument’. If the keyboard was to prove Scarlatti’s destiny, there was nonetheless an obstacle: his ambitious, control-freak pater familias Alessandro who, in trying to force Domenico into a mould that worked for himself, arguably postponed his son’s creative maturity. At least Wolfgang Mozart didn’t have to resort to law (as did the 32-year-old Scarlatti) to obtain independence from a similarly domineering father.

Talk of creative maturity, however, runs the risk of falling into the trap which for so long consigned the non-keyboard works to the margins. Unjustly. Not only was Scarlatti born with enough talent to compose an eminently serviceable cantata by the age of 14, the wily Alessandro’s perambulations brought his son unparalleled first-hand experience of Italian musical life at its most vibrant: Naples with a distinctly Neapolitan opera in the ascendancy; Rome where ‘Stile Antico’ church music rubbed up against lavish musical spectacle. And then there was Venice to which city Scarlatti was despatched in 1705 when Alessandro’s famous letter to Ferdinando de’ Medici failed to bear fruit. The two had passed through Florence three years earlier, and now Alessandro declared his son ‘an eagle whose wings are grown; he must not remain idle in the nest, and I must not hinder his flight’. Given that Alessandro had ‘forcibly removed him from Naples… and am also removing him from Rome, because Rome has no shelter for music which lives here as a beggar’, the freedom of Scarlatti’s flight might have been promised – but scarcely its destination!

The Venice to which Scarlatti fetched up was a city mad about opera, and thanks to a recent appointment to the Ospedale della Piéta, Vivaldi would soon be setting Europe ablaze with the ritornello-fuelled concerto whose vivacity even reached JS Bach in Weimar. When Scarlatti returned to Rome the apprenticeship was over, and a patroness was waiting in the wings.

In 1708 Maria Casimira, Queen of Poland, had added a private theatre to her palace, and on 27 January 1710 Scarlatti’s La Silvia initiated a string of at least seven operas whose successes included Tolomeo which earned him the title of maestro di cappella to her household. (A score of all the numbers has recently turned up in Lincolnshire making it – and the similarly complete Tetide in Sciro – a candidate for revival). By 1714 Maria Casimira’s Court was buckling under the weight of her expensive tastes, and she sought respite in France, but Scarlatti’s last opera for Maria had proved such a hit that he’d now been asked to compose for Rome’s leading public opera house, the Teatro Capranica. Another piece of luck around this time meant that he also assumed the directorship of Palestrina’s old choir, the flagship Vatican Cappella Giulia. Here was security, and an important spur to composing church music – though the Vatican’s Portuguese Ambassador enjoyed Scarlatti’s secular services (with far-reaching consequences).

For the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore which had provided a prestigious stepping stone to the Cappella Giulia, Scarlatti had composed a beautifully restrained Cibavit Domini, and a four-part Missa brevis la stella – unusually ‘brevis’ since it omits the Benedictus and Dona Nobis Pacem. Cappella Giulia now received an exquisitely simple yet effective strophic setting of Iste Confessor, a Miserere to ring the Tenebrae changes in the Sistine Chapel, and a somewhat ‘proper’ Magnificat. Best known of all however is the Stabat Mater setting, a deeply-felt response whose ten sumptuously interweaving voices create a succession of musical images which evidently captured the contemporary imagination (to judge by the number of surviving copies).

Secure in the Cappella Giulia, successful at the Teatro Capricano, what Scarlatti did next is worthy of his restless father. In September 1719, a Vatican record reveals that he had resigned and left for London (whether he ever arrived is in doubt). Why? Having legally thrown off the paternal shackles was he bent on putting distance between himself and his father? Is there any truth in rumours of a frowned-upon marriage? Whatever the reason, Scarlatti had Lisbon in his sights (via Palermo), and now entered into a new, decisive and final phase in the trajectory of his career as a composer. King Joao V’s Royal Chapel (to which he was installed as ‘mestre’) was a Cappella Giulia ‘home from home’ – full of Italian musicians and ‘Antico’ ethos. But Scarlatti was also required to act as music master to the Royal household, and when his most promising harpsichord student, the Princess Maria Barbara, married the Crown Prince of Spain, his identification with the Iberian peninsular became complete.
In 1729 he followed her to Spain. In a sense it was a musical coming home. The aural landscape which now invaded his creative bloodstream would turn him into the unmistakeable Scarlatti.

He’d already composed harpsichord sonatas of course, but despite the cantatas he wrote for Maria Barbara, and the very late Salve Regina (a tender farewell to an ailing queen?), they assumed the chief focus of his activity. An activity brought to wider notice when, in 1738, 30 of the eventually 550 or so pieces were published. ‘An ingenious jesting with art’ was how Scarlatti commended them, and ingenuity would prove the hallmark of a strikingly individual body of work. The 15-year-old ‘clavicembalista’ had entered into his kingdom. To the Italian traditions of his youth, the cut and thrust of Fandango, the fiery soulfulness of Flamenco, and the melancholy of ‘cante hondo’ combine to imbue a music instinct with visceral physicality. (Only the Ligeti of ‘Continuum’ has ever given the harpsichord such a going over!). The sonatas can be amiably ‘galant’, pastoral, or felinely fugal, but one such as the D minor K141 goes to the heart of Scarlatti’s unique pungency: frenzied repeated notes, cluster-dissonances which take no hostages, trenchant octaves, attention-grabbing modulations, and driven, almost manic decorations. So often the harpsichord is on the verge of turning into a giant guitar.

Writing about 20 years after Scarlatti’s death, the diarist and man of letters Charles Burney observed that ‘nearly half a century ago Domenico Scarlatti hazarded notes of taste and effect, at which other musicians have but arrived, and to which the public ear is but lately reconciled’. In this anniversary year, ears more ‘reconciled’ than ever can still discern that ‘shock of the new’. In the conjunction of the harpsichord and Spain, Scarlatti found his true and abiding metier.


Paul Riley