The keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti comes down to us in hand-copied volumes made for his patron and student, Princess Maria Bárbara of Portugal, who later became queen of Spain. Upon her death, she left them to Farinelli, the castrato, and they now rest in libraries in Venice and Parma. Some collections were published in Scarlatti’s lifetime—both in legitimate and pirated copies—and a small number of his pieces were known and appreciated by 19th-century pianists including Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. But until his sonatas were collected and edited by 20th-century scholars, Scarlatti was better known by historical reputation than for his actual body of work.
Born in 1685 (the same year as Bach and Handel), Domenico was the sixth child of Alessandro Scarlatti, who was also a renowned composer. Domenico made his early career in his native Naples, as well as in other Italian cities. One story describes him meeting Handel in Venice, where they engaged in a friendly musical contest. The audience decided that Handel was the superior organist, while Scarlatti had a slight edge on harpsichord. The story is plausible and prescient: while Handel and Bach were champions of all the keyboards, Scarlatti was more narrowly influential in the history of domestic stringed keyboard instruments. His sonatas were intended for cembalo (harpsichord) or clavichord (a smaller, softer instrument), and he was also familiar with thevery earliest pianos made by Bartolomeo Cristofori.
In 1719, Scarlatti moved to Lisbon, where he took up a royal appointment for João V of Portugal. He taught Princess Bárbara, a gifted student of music, and later followed her to Spain, where she married Ferdinand VI and became queen.
The three sonatas on today’s program come from different sources and different periods of Scarlatti’s life, though they can’t be precisely dated. The Sonatas in F Minor and C-sharp Minor are found in Bárbara’s manuscript volumes, suggesting that they were written for her and composed—or at least compiled—late in Scarlatti’s life. The Sonata in F Major, published in a collection of 30 Essercizi (exercises) dedicated to João V in 1738, is probably an earlier composition.
Scarlatti’s sonatas predate the classical idea of the sonata as a large-scale, multi-movement work. He never indicated particular groupings of pieces, perhaps suggesting that performers should curate their own. The F-minor Sonata, K. 519 has a sense of urgency—rushing forward, then settling into a gallop. The Sonata in C-sharp Minor, K. 247 is more cerebral, showing Scarlatti’s inventive wanderings and musical questioning. The F-major Sonata, K. 17 has two contrasting voices: one exuberant and feisty, the other slinky and coy.