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Michael Hammer, piano
in D, k.492
Sonata in f minor, k.519
Sonata in G, k.494
Music by Scarlatti's famous contemporaries:
Georg Frideric Handel
Johann Sebastian Bach
more Bach music
The Solace of Noble Minds
The Strange Employment of Domenico Scarlatti
He spent most of his life in the service of royalty. Being a musician--even a musical genius--then as now did not mean an easy living. Two of Scarlatti's great contemporaries illustrated different solutions to the problem, and their respective perils. George Frederic Handel, a German in the service of the King of Hanover, left for England to make his fortune in Italian opera. The strategy worked until the public got tired of Italian Opera. Handel then pinned his hopes on Oratorio, but his financial status was frequently precarious. Another German, Johann Sebastian Bach, spent much of his life in service to the church. An institution that was often slow to pay salaries and that often paid them in foodstuffs, Bach was once famously to complain that his pocketbook was getting unfortunately small because few parishioners were dying and he depended on the extra remuneration from the funerals. Both men also spent some time in the employ of persons of the nobility, whose members' patronage was largely responsible for a musician's livelihood in the days when public concerts were a rare thing.
Scarlatti found an interesting solution indeed. He had written operas, he had written for the church, he was the typically Baroque jack-of-all-trades. But he was to spend the rest of his life immersed in the most neglected and least profitable of musical enterprises at that time: keyboard works. He became a music teacher with only one pupil that we know of: the princess Maria Barbara, soon to become the Queen of Spain.
What his duties at the court may have included we don't know. Aside from contemporary reports that he had a gambling problem, one friendly letter and the dedicatory preface to the single volume he published in life, we know nothing of his personality, what he thought of his situation, or what was expected of him. What we do have are over 500 harpsichord sonatas of widely varying character, unusual originality, impossible technical demands, and thoroughly Spanish flavor.
Scarlatti soon had to relocate to Madrid, though the King and Queen spent only a scant portion of the year there as they traveled to other palaces with clocklike regularity. His activity may have been largely restricted to the palace; in any case, scholars have to confront the problem of a complete absence of manuscripts in the composer's own hand, as well as an astonishing lack of contemporary copies of the sonatas in Spain or of any references among musicians of the day, and are left to conclude that the Queen may have required a monopoly on his talents.
We know more about one of Scarlatti's colleagues at the Spanish court. This was a castrati singer named Farinelli. Reputed to be the greatest singer of his time, the man was engaged to sing the same four pieces nightly to help the king's depression. Scarlatti may have accompanied him at the harpsichord on such occasions. As a condition of his employment, Farinelli was not allowed to offer his services outside of the palace. It is odd that this restrictive gig did not bother the genial singer, but his services to Scarlatti's legacy are massive: on the death of the king, his heir terminated Farinelli's employment, and Farinelli took with him the only two copies in existence of the (perhaps) complete sonatas of Scarlatti, which have since come to light in two cities in Italy. Until the later 20th century, these were our only authentic sources for Scarlatti's pieces.
The Queen was apparently impressed with her music teacher. Before becoming Queen she actually hired him on two separate occasions. And Scarlatti served at the Spanish court for over twenty years, until his death in 1757. His Sonatas must have given her quite a challenge if she played them. His notorious hand-crossings and reckless leaps make for a real technical challenge even in our own day. This is music of a virtuoso risk-taker. But his Sonatas also explore all manner of strange harmonic possibilities with sudden dissonance and unpredictable changes of texture. It was probably for this reason that an observer referred to his pieces as "happy freaks" and their strange modernisms may be what has kept them tucked away in a neglected corner of the repertory for so long.
Scarlatti himself could certainly play them. One witness told how when Scarlatti began to play it sounded "as if ten thousand devils" were animating the instrument. At Scarlatti's disposal in the palace were several instruments, some of which had ranges wider than that of Mozart's and Beethoven's pianos. There was an early piano there as well; evidently Scarlatti was so impressed with it he had it converted to a harpsichord!
He must have had a limited audience. The queen may have had a musical ear, but the king did not care for music, at least until Farinelli arrived to awaken him, as the story goes, from one of his frequent bouts of melancholy. The king represented the second generation of not very mentally stable kings in Spain; both of their queens really ruled the realm. How intrigued he might have been by Scarlatti's "happy freaks" and strange inventions we'll never know, but, given his predilection for listening to the same four arias night after night, it is more than likely that Scarlatti's greatest inventions were only appreciated by half his potential audience.
Scarlatti was genial when it mattered: knowing the difficulties of a musician's life and the plumb arrangement he had with his royal patron, who allowed him time and circumstance to develop his flights of genius, he took the occasion on publishing some of his sonatas (here called "exercises") to flatter the king in the manner of the times. Some of it must have been genuine:
For whatever reasons no further publications were forthcoming despite Scarlatti's introductory promise to make the contents of the next volume simpler for the amateur. With typically Baroque false modesty the composer claimed to explore no profound depths in these pieces, only an "ingenious jesting with art." For the rest of his life he would follow the royal procession in its rounds, making the palace walls ring with the sound of his harpsichord. Oh to be a fly on the wall!