Domenico Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonatas

Written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

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 star 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 appreci- ated by 19th-century pianists, including Clementi, Liszt, and Clara Schumann. But until his sonatas were collected and edited by 20th-century scholars, Scarlatti was better known by historical reputation than by performances of his 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. Indeed, he went on to become one of the most influential composers for domestic keyboard instruments—his sonatas were intended for the harpsichord, and he would also have encountered the very 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.

Scarlatti’s sonatas predate the idea of the genre as a large-scale form; they unfold in single movements each with two sections, and unlike later sonata movements, the opening doesn’t return again to end. Within this regular structure, Scarlatti creates a variety of moods and embraces a wide range of influences, from pastoral pipes (K. 9 and 159), to the flowing warmth of violin music (K. 197), to rapid-fire keyboard virtuosity (K. 27 and 455), to opera arias (K. 466).

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.