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The Solace of Noble Minds
    The Strange Employment of Domenico Scarlatti
aples in 1685 was a very loud place. Thousands of inhabitants crammed into a tight space, dwellings piled high atop each other, narrow alleys filled with the cries of street vendors, children, men rushing back and forth--a cauldron of human activity. Into this noisy environment was born one Domenico Scarlatti.

We know very little about his life. He may have been home schooled. His father, Alessandro, just happened to be one of the most celebrated opera composers in Italy, and he appears to have taken more than a passing interest in his son's development. One document that survives records an attempt when Domenico was in his thirties to achieve independence from his father. In a place and time where no coming-of-age was recognized, the elder Scarlatti was able to make his children jump when he wanted to. He once recalled another of his sons from profitable employment in a distant city to join him in Rome.

If  Scarlatti was not given all his education at home, his schooling might have been under the provenance of the conservatory at Naples, a small building in which one observer reported several harpsichord players in one room practicing at once, no two playing the same piece. The brass players had to inhabit the stairwell, the winds another room, the singers an upper story--privacy was not a option. Scarlatti was one of 10 children, and the first born into the family after they moved to Naples. Scarlatti himself relocated to Rome and to Venice to seek employment. Possible trips to Portugal and England have not been backed by hard evidence.

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.

Scarlatti's works are in some respects almost a diary: courtly pomp figures in, as do dances of all kinds, noble and popular. Cries of street vendors and children's games are represented. None of this is part of any kind of overt storyline. Instead, Scarlatti made the single-movement Sonata in two-part form the vehicle for his thoughts and moods. It was a scheme he was to employ without variation some 555 times. But within that broadly conceived form are hundreds of very different sonatas. Scarlatti modulates into the same keys over and over and over again. How he gets there is another matter.

Biographers have speculated that Scarlatti was a fiery personality, perhaps even manic. He may have written his pieces under a sudden burst of inspiration and then abandoned the harpsichord for days. We cannot be sure. His works are full of the noise and activity he must have known from his Venetian youth but thoroughly transplanted to Spain. It is the strange fate of Spain that much of its most characteristic music was written by foreigners!

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:

To the Sacred Royal Majesty of John V.... The magnanimity of Your Majesty in works of virtue, your generosity in others, your knowledge of the sciences and the arts and your munificence in rewarding them are well-known attributes of your great nature.... By universal acclamation you are known as the Just: a title which embraces all other glorious ones, since good works serve no useful purpose unless they are acts of justice to oneself and others....Music, the solace of noble minds, granted me this enviable good fortune, and made me happy in pleasing with it the most refined taste of Your Majesty....

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!


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