Domenico Scarlatti

We may owe our knowledge of Domenico Scarlatti, one of the greatest keyboard composers of the Baroque era, to a gambling problem.  One story has it that Scarlatti needed help from his patroness, the Queen of Spain, to pay off his gambling debts.  In return, she asked the composer to write down his improvised keyboard music.  The manuscripts containing the keyboard sonatas were given first to the queen and then, when the queen died in 1758, to the great singer Farinelli.  Soon thereafter, Scarlatti’s sonatas became known and loved across Europe.

Childhood and Education in Naples

Domenico Scarlatti, the sixth child of composer Alessandro Scarlatti and his wife Antonia Anzaloni, was born in Naples on October 26, 1685.  He presumably began studying music with his father, who was then maestro di cappella (director of music) at the royal chapel, or other musicians in the family, such as his uncle Francesco Scarlatti or older brother Pietro Scarlatti.

Domenico was already an excellent musician by the time he was fifteen years old.  With his father’s help he became an organist at the royal chapel in Naples.  In 1702, Alessandro went to Florence, partly to advance his own career but also to bring Domenico to the notice of Ferdinando de’ Medici, heir to the Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Neither goal met with any success.

Alessandro decided not to go back to Naples but to have Domenico return there alone, to continue in his position as organist and possibly even take over Alessandro’s own position.  This too did not work out as Alessandro had planned, but Domenico was at least able to continue as organist until 1704, when he went to join his father in Rome.

Further Training in Venice

In 1705, Alessandro sent his son to Venice while he himself stayed in Rome.  As Alessandro described it to Ferdinando de’ Medici in a letter: “I have forcibly removed [Domenico] from Naples….I am removing him also from Rome, because Rome has no shelter for music, which lives here as a beggar.”  Probably hoping (again) to find Domenico a position with the Medici family, Alessandro described Domenico as “an eagle whose wings are grown; he must not remain idle in the nest, and I must not hinder his flight.”  Ferdinando did not take the bait but did offer to recommend Domenico to a Venetian nobleman of his acquaintance.

Little is known about Domenico’s activities in Venice.  He probably studied with Francesco Gasparini and may have engaged in a keyboard competition with Handel.  Supposedly, although Handel was acknowledged the better organist, the two were considered equally skilled at the harpsichord.  The two musicians, born in the same year, had great respect for each other ever after.
In 1707, Alessandro arrived in Venice, intent on proving himself as an opera composer in the center of the operatic world.  His two operas for Venice were unsuccessful, however, and the elder Scarlatti soon left.

Early Successes in Rome

Domenico followed his father to Rome, but he remained there even after Alessandro returned to Naples to take up his former position at the royal chapel.  As his father had done in his youth, Domenico became maestro di cappella to an exiled queen (in his case, Maria Casimira of Poland; in his father’s, the better-known Christina of Sweden).  His duties for the queen included composing operas and serenatas. 

In 1713, Scarlatti also became an assistant to the maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia.  The head of the chapel, Tommaso Baj, died soon thereafter, on December 22, 1714.  Scarlatti was then appointed to the position himself.  This was a lucky break for Scarlatti, as Maria Casimira had just left for France.

In the same year, Scarlatti began a connection with Portugal that was to prove a turning point in his career.  For the Portuguese ambassador, the Marquis de Fontes, he composed a piece (Applauso genetliaco) in honor of a newborn member of the Portuguese royal family. 

Scarlatti’s next trip, however, may not have been to Portugal but rather to England.  According to the Vatican records for September 3, 1719, Scarlatti had departed for England and resigned his post at the Cappella Giulia.  No evidence shows whether Scarlatti actually went to London.  It is noteworthy, however, that his uncle Francesco had been in England since April; Handel’s presence might also have given Scarlatti an incentive to visit.

In the Service of the Portuguese Court

The documents in the Vatican archives notwithstanding, Scarlatti must have been planning to go to Lisbon all along, even if he did stop briefly in England.  His new position was as mestre de capela (head of the chapel) for the Portuguese royal court under King Joao V.  In addition, Scarlatti’s duties included teaching music to various members of the royal family.  Thus, his output in Portugal is comprised almost entirely of sacred works, serenatas for royal festivities, and keyboard music for teaching purposes.  There was no opera in Lisbon.

His royal pupils included Princess Maria Barbara, a talented musician who was to be Scarlatti’s patroness for the rest of his life.  He also knew Carlos Seixas, who later became a composer himself.  Although Seixas was probably only sixteen when he and Scarlatti met, he is sometimes credited with introducing Scarlatti to the Portuguese and Spanish folk music that was to influence the older composer’s keyboard works. 

Despite his obligations in Lisbon, Scarlatti seems to have been allowed to travel frequently.  He was probably in Palermo (the town where his father was born) in both 1720 and 1722.  He also visited Italy three more times between 1724 and 1727, with the last trip being partly for reasons of poor health.

On January 11, 1728, Scarlatti’s star pupil Maria Barbara was engaged to Ferdinand, the heir to the Spanish throne.  The two married on January 19 of the next year, on a pavilion built on the Caya River (the border between Spain and Portugal).  This setting allowed both fathers, João V and Philip V of Spain, to avoid setting foot on foreign soil. 

Eight months before the royal wedding, on May 15, 1728, Scarlatti himself got married to Maria Catalina Gentili (who was only sixteen years old at the time).  The wedding took place in Rome, and no one knows for sure whether Scarlatti returned from Italy in time for Maria Barbara’s wedding.  In any case, he was granted permission to accompany his pupil to her new home in Spain.

Last Years in Spain

Scarlatti continued to receive his salary as musical director for the Portuguese royal chapel, but he now served simply as the musician responsible for private concerts for Ferdinand and Maria Barbara.  King Philip V’s second wife, Elisabetta Farnese, had brought another remarkable musician to Spain: the castrato Farinelli.  He too participated in the concerts, and some of Scarlatti’s cantatas may have been written for him.
On May 6, 1739, after giving her husband six children, Maria Catalina Scarlatti died.  Scarlatti remarried that same year, this time to Anastasia Ximenes of Cádiz.  The couple had four more children together.
In 1746, Ferdinand’s father Philip V died, making Ferdinand King of Spain.  The royal couple and Farinelli tried to bring opera to Madrid, but Scarlatti did not compose any operas for them.  Instead, he spent his final years putting together a compilation of his keyboard music, arranged in volumes of thirty sonatas each.  Scarlatti’s only other attempt at circulating work had come in 1738, when he published his 30 Essercizi (Exercises).  His vocal works were forgotten soon after he died on July 23, 1757, but the pieces in these manuscripts ensured that Scarlatti would be not be neglected by posterity.

Boyd, Malcolm, and Gordana Lazarevich: ‘(Giuseppe) Domenico Scarlatti,’ Grove Music
Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 24 April 2006), <>

Kirkpatrick, Ralph.  Domenico Scarlatti.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,

Sutcliffe, W. Dean.  The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-
Century Musical Style.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.