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Meet the Composer - Domenico Scarlatti

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ur Time and Relative Dimensions in Space (TARDIS) machine has found its way to the year 1752.  We are to meet with Domenico Scarlatti, at the palace of Queen Maria Barbara, in Madrid, Spain.  Domenico is waiting for Queen Maria Barbara to arrive for her lesson, but she is running late due to demands of the Royal Court.


(Message from Gallifrey: If your sound is on, you're hearing Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata In E Major (Kirkpatrick 380, Longo 23) now. If not, you can listen to it by clicking on the title.)

Domenico Scarlatti

Domenico Scarlatti

Born 1685, died 1757


David:  We are really excited to be here, Mr. Scarlatti.  Madrid is a great place!  But I am rather confused about how it is that you happened to be living here.  I mean, after all, aren’t you Italian, and wasn’t your dad like a super hero in the music scene in Italy?   I’m confused! 

Scarlatti:  I can imagine that you are quite confused.  Well, everyone, find a seat and relax. I will send for some refreshments as this is going to take a while to explain. 

Julia:  Can I order a diet Pepsi, please? 

Danny:  Julia, think about the year we are in...... it’s only 1752.   Ask for some fruit juice or something like that.  And please don’t ask Mr. Scarlatti for a Big Mac without the pickle. 

Julia:  Oh yeah, I forgot.  O.K.- may I please have some mango juice or some other type of fruit juices. 

Scarlatti:  Not to worry, my wonderful guests!  We shall soon have a bit of a banquet table set up with fresh fruits, juices and some wonderful pastry.  Please, now, relax! 

Julia:  Oh, sure, sure thing, Mr. Scarlatti.  I’m sorry- I do tend to get kind of hyper at times.  I’ll chill out and listen to you. 

Scarlatti:  But of course, I understand.  Now to get this saga started,  I was born in 1685 and you are totally correct in stating that my father was a ‘super hero’ in music in Italy.  He was a very difficult person to be in their shadow.  He composed for everything and EVERYONE  loved his music and him. 

You have to understand that we were then, and in 1752, still totally dependent on the patronage of kings, queens, princesses, popes, bishops, anybody and everybody who is importan. We have to please.  And no matter how well we fit in with their families and friends, no matter how well they love our music, we are the hired help.  Nothing more and nothing less.  It sometimes puts us in a very precarious position.   

I still have great respect and admiration for my father.  And although I know he loved me dearly, and wanted the best for me, very often he was a bit overbearing and overwhelming.  I miss him dearly, since he passed away.  But, I am truly happy now and really enjoying composing more than at any time before in my life. 

David:   Umm......excuse me, Mr. Scarlatti, but I think we are kind of drifting from the point.  How did you get here? 

Scarlatti:  Of course, of course, thank you, David, for reminding me.   Let’s see, in 1699 my father secured a job for me in Rome with the former queen of Poland, Maria Casimira.  I composed alot of music for her and for the church while I was in service at her court.  Maria Casimira was exiled from Poland.  She was a rather difficult person to deal with, and soon people in Rome also grew tired of her attitudes.  However, while I was employed at her court, I met the Ambassador to Portugal, and we did hit it off well.  When Maria Casimira was leaving Rome, I realized that I had to quickly find another job.  Fortunately for me, I was hired to be the Maestro Di Cappela to the Portuguese Ambassador in 1714.   

It was by working for the Portuguese Ambassador that I had the honor of meeting  Princess Maria Barbara, who lived both in Italy and Portugal.  She was a princess from the Portuguese court.  I became her harpsichord teacher and, to this day, I still am teaching her.  She is a very talented student, I might add. 

Lee:  My goodness, this is like listening to one of my mom’s favorite soap’s!   Please do continue, Mr. Scarlatti. 

Scarlatti:  (looks a bit puzzled by what Lee has just said about "soap's", but continues with his story)

In 1729, my beloved student became engaged to the Prince of Spain.  I was then made the Royal Teacher to Maria Barbara and was fortunate enough to be allowed to follow her to Spain.

Another wonderful thing happened to me during the time I was teaching Maria Barbara, I met my future wife, Maria Catalina Getilit, and we were married in 1728.   A sad thing also happened while I was teaching Maria Barbara. My father passed away in 1725, when I was 40 years old.  

Lee:  Gosh, that is so much like one of my mom’s favorite soaps!    

Scarlatti:  My dear young lady, what does your mother’s favorite soaps have to do with the story of my life?  Perhaps you would like to take back with you some of my favorite soaps for your mother to sample. 

Lee:  Oh, never mind.  It will take too long to explain, but can I still take some of your favorite soap home with me.  Mom also collects soaps from the different hotels, motels and places she has traveled- then when she has enough saved up, she uses them instead of going to the store to buy them. 

Karen:  Whatever, Lee.  Mr. Scarlatti- please ignore my older sister!  And continue with your story! 

Scarlatti:  It was when I moved to Spain to be the Royal Teacher of Harpsichord to Her Highness, Maria Barbara, that I felt that I was listening to music and writing music for the first time.  It is very difficult to explain, but let me try to do so, the best that I can. 

I had never heard music before like I have heard in Spain, the castanets clicking, the guitars strumming, the pulses of the drums,  the sounds of the flamenco dance and many other dances and songs.   

Mind you, there were different forms of the flamenco. Her Highness danced a style in court that was quite different from what one would hear and see in the villages.  However, the soul of the flamenco dance was still present, no matter if danced in the courts or in the villages.  The one for the courts would just be composed and arranged for the ladies to do without messing their hair or ruining their gowns.   

 Karen:  This is Soooooooooo exciting.  I love the flamenco dance and the music of Spain.  

Scarlatti:  With Her Highness, Maria Barbara, we did not just sit at court.   We traveled alot.  As you know, I gave her harpsichord lessons and, as you probably know, harpsichords are quite easy to pack up and take on a trip.   

Lee:  I can see that !  I never saw one in person, just in pictures before we came to visit you, but I can easily see how much easier it would be to travel with a harpsichord than with my teacher’s new Steinway B piano.  The harpsichord looks to be much lighter and a lot more fragile than most pianos I know. 

Ben:  Sure, you can see the different types of harpsichords right here in the Royal Teaching Suite. Some of them sure have alot of art work all over them, and you would probably leave them home, but some of the others could easily travel.  How fun! 

Scarlatti:  Anyway, I would always travel with Her Highness, because she loved music, loved to practice and very often needed to become totally involved in music to help deal with the stresses of Court life.  During our travels I had the delight to hear even more and more wonderful types of music that I had no idea had ever existed.  It was like I was hearing music for the first time, and with different ears.

I heard for the first time, the JOTA, a whirling dizzying dance.  You could hear stamps of heels of boots, the slightly out of tune villagers' instruments, the castanets, the drumming. I heard folk songs sung by people in the villages like I have never heard before- almost lamenting or wailing, with a droning background that was haunting.  Often, while waiting for Her Highness to get ready for her lessons, I would hear the sounds of the Royal Fanfare as Her Highness and The Court approached our home. I have heard the sounds of the horses, in procession, or moving at a fast speed while everyone is out for an afternoon ride. The hunting horns as the Royal Court blasts off on their equine steeds to enjoy an afternoon of riding.  Court dances there were unlike any I have never seen before, totally different from what I had experienced in Italy. Military bands performed music that I had never experienced before.  Fireworks displays were so sensational that I wanted to put those sounds into my harpsichord pieces.  For all of these new musical treats I experienced and loved, I have found a way to put them into all of my music for Maria Barbara for her harpsichord studies with me. 

David:  I am so glad that you are talking about your music.  It is so refreshing to listen to your music.  Though, I gotta say, it is not always so refreshing to practice your stuff.  A lot of it is really, really hard.  I mean, you can’t fake your way through your Sonatas.  And they sure are different - those sonatas.  You know what, they really sound like you were really having a good time with things when you wrote them.  I mean, they are positive sounding, and just bounce with happiness.   I really can’t play them by ear, because you put alot of surprises in them.  I love them, but golly, they can sure get me into problems if I don’t practice them correctly. 

Scarlatti:  Thank you for your kind words, David.  I must admit, that I just went ahead and let my love for Spain, my love for the music that I heard, my love for being respected as a musician, and my love of the keyboard just take over when I compose.  

I truly love the keyboard, being able to experiment with the sounds that I can make with my harpsichord. It's alot of fun writing some music for specific harpsichords here at Court that sometimes seem to  have their own castanets built right into them.  Some of the harpsichords at Court have some rather peculiar personality traits, or what other people might consider ‘problems,’ but I just made the personalities part of my music.   

Danny:  I have watched my teacher play alot of your sonatas, and you know what?  Her hands seem to be dancing all over the keyboard.  Some of the leaps that your music requires must take as much luck as practice to do correctly. 

Scarlatti:  (chuckles softly to himself) 

Danny:  And with some of the other sonatas that she has played, I mean I have never heard that many repeated notes having to be done so precisely and cleanly and in perfect rhythm.  The printed music for your sonatas doesn't look all that hard until you play them. 

Scarlatti:  (with a huge smile on his face, claps his hands for joy) Well, I hope that what your teacher does with my music does not scare you away from it.  It sounds like she has a good time with all of it, but ............  you are right.   One does have to be very careful with my music.  Although I was having a good time with composing it, as Her Highness quickly discovered, one also has to practice really carefully to play my music well. 

Karen:  You know, my teacher has that same smile on her face after she finishes playing some of your music.   

Scarlatti:  Delightful!  She sounds not only like a good teacher but a good student.  Yes, as Her Royal Highness also discovered, I am very picky about alot of details and the only way my music can really be played well is with ABSOLUTE  attention and precision with the details.  I want her to be totally precise with the rhythms and phrasing in my music. Don’t use too much pedal - it will spoil alot of my surprises with sonority. Also, even though I wrote these sonatas for the keyboard, be very precise with the timbre. 

Danny:  Huh?  

Scarlatti:  Don’t confine yourself to thinking only for keyboards. Remember, what I told you inspired me to write these pieces.  Think beyond the keyboard. Try to imagine what I might have heard to inspire these pieces and create THAT sound. 

Julia:  (who has been munching away on fruits and pastries the entire afternoon) between chews she asks:  O.K.  now that does it-  my teacher  ONLY  plays the piano not the harpsichord.  The piano cannot make alot of the sounds that a harpsichord can, now what?

Scarlatti:  I think she and her teachers are on the right track, and I am thrilled that my music has lasted for so long and is still challenging and delighting students, performers and audiences.

Julia :  You know, most people in 2003  seem to think  that if you don’t ‘make it’ in the musical world by the time you are 25 years old, that you might as well quit and get another job.  Listening to you, I realized that you really didn’t get it together until you were like really what ......not until your were past 50 years old.   

Scarlatti:    If they are truly thinking that in your time, in the twenty-first century, I wish there was a way I could go there with you to discuss that ridiculous idea with those “experts.”  I feel that I did not truly wake up musically until I was 50 years old.  Life did not work out for me in the way that it seems that they are telling you that it should.  Too many things can happen down the road of life; one cannot expect  a clock or calendar to rule when a person artistically, creatively, technically or emotionally develops. Each person is different and this path we all walk down, called life, can take us places that we did not anticipate.  My own life is a perfect example of that.   

I did not write my Esseraz, until I was 53 years old.  And I didn’t even begin to write all of my sonatas (I think I am up to over 550 of them) until I was over the age of 50.  In fact, I feel that I am right now finding my musical voice.   

Lee:  Oh, wow!  I can’t wait to get home to tell my mom to turn off her favorite soaps and get back to the piano.  She will be so thrilled to hear this. So many people had told her that she was too old to take it up again, and that she was too old to follow a dream she had of composing music again.  She did alot of that when she was younger, but then all the usual stuff happened and she had to put that on the back burner........... 

Danny and David:   Come on, guys!  We gotta go!  School starts on August 6 and we have a lot of supplies left to get.  Thanks for your time and your honesty, Mr. Scarlatti.  I sure hope we can come back to talk with you again.  This was a nice way to get motivated for piano lessons and for school again.  You’re the greatest! 

Scarlatti:  It was my pleasure.  Oh Lee, here’s some of that soap for your mother.   


For a fantastic book to read about Scarlatti- get the one by Ralph Kirkpatrick, entitled Domenico Scarlatti.  It is a ‘must own’ for all music libraries, personal and public




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