Chapter 15

Chapter 15: The Early Classic Period: Instrumental Music

Composer Biographies

Domenico Scarlatti

Domenico ScarlattiBorn: October 26, 1685, Naples, Italy

Died: July 23, 1757, Madrid, Spain

Italian composer and harpsichordist, active for much of his career in Portugal and Spain. Although he wrote music in all genres, he is remembered best for his more than 500 keyboard sonatas.

Composers of the past wrote music to meet the needs and desires of their employers. Because of this, the kinds of pieces they wrote often changed over the course of their careers. J. S. Bach, for example, wrote most of his cantatas after he began his work at St. Thomas in Leipzig. In some cases, the needs of an employer or patron had a decisive effect on the nature of a composer's work. Few cases illustrate this as well as that of Domenico Scarlatti.

Domenico Scarlatti is best know for his keyboard music. The son of a leading operatic composer in Naples, Scarlatti's education seems to have come from members of his family. By the age of fifteen, he was apprenticed as an organist and composer at the Royal Chapel in Naples, where he was also named "clavicembalista di camera"—a hint of things to come. At the age of twenty, he went to Venice (at the behest of his father) to try to establish himself as a composer. Here he met Handel, and the two composers' public competition showed Scarlatti to be a musician to be reckoned with (especially on the harpsichord). By 1709, he had moved to Rome where he succeeded his father as maestro di cappella for the exiled queen of Poland. In 1713, he began service in the Cappella Giulia in St. Peter's, first as an assistant and later as maestro. During this period, the majority of his music was vocal: operas, cantatas, and sacred choral music. His success was mixed, and little of this music is performed today.

But Scarlatti's fortunes, and his career track, were soon to change. In the same year that he took leadership of the papal chapel, he began composing works for the Portuguese ambassador in Rome, leading five years later to invitation to direct the Portuguese Royal Chapel in Lisbon. After his arrival in Lisbon in 1719, he also began teaching harpsichord, with the king's brother as his first student. But his most important student was to be Princess Maria Bárbara de Bragan¬ća (1711-1758), who would become Scarlatti's most generous patron. In 1729, Maria Barbara was wed to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Spain, and Scarlatti, also recently married, moved to Spain to follow his patron—first living in Seville and then in Madrid. Ferdinand and Maria ascended to the Spanish throne in 1746.

Scarlatti's time in Spain occasioned an explosion in composition—almost entirely sonatas for the harpsichord. In 1738, his first collection of sonatas was published, bringing them to a wider European audience. But the bulk of his pieces exist in carefully organized manuscripts—apparently for the use of Maria Bárbara. It is an extraordinary body of music that explores the limits of keyboard technique, while at the same time incorporating myriad elements of native Spanish music. The noted Scarlatti scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick has said that no Spanish composer "has expressed the essence of his native land as completely as did the foreigner Scarlatti. He has captured the click of castanets, the strumming of guitars, the thud of muffled drums, the harsh bitter wail of gypsy lament." Ironically, this music, existing mostly in manuscript, had little effect on later keyboard composers, and was little known to the musical world until the twentieth century.


  • Vocal works, including 13 operas, oratorios, and cantatas
  • Church music, including masses and motets
  • Orchestral sinfonias
  • Over 550 solo keyboard sonatas (some called Essercizi)

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Musical Examples

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