Pietro Alessandro Gaspare Scarlatti is one of the most influential composers of the Italian Baroque period. Scarlatti wrote extensively for the musical theatres of his day: cantatas, serenatas, and of course dozens of full length operas, the genre in which his influence is most recognized. Church music also makes up a good portion of his works, in the form of oratorios and masses. Later in his life, Scarlatti touched on instrumental music, although little survives, and seems to be merely diversionary rather than a primary focus. He left this type of composition to his famous son Domenico. Spending his life rotating between several major Italian cities—Rome, Venice and Naples—and patronized by such kingpins as the Medici family, Scarlatti was able to spread his influence through many outlets and raise the bar for both opera specifically and general compositional practice for the rest of the world.
Scarlatti was born in 1660, in the heart of the Baroque period, to a family already primed to produce great musicians. His father Pietro was a singer, and four of his six siblings were also professional musicians. Scarlatti would go on to continue the tradition, with the composer Domenico Scarlatti as his most famous son, as well as two other children earning their own respect as performers. His family moved to Rome when he was 12, and he married into high society in 1678. Nothing is known of his early musical training, but such training obviously took place, for his first opera, Gli equivovi nel sembiante, was produced shortly before his 19th birthday. There is some speculation that Scarlatti may have trained under Roman composer Carissimi, who passed away when Scarlatti was in his teens. This speculation is mostly based on the strong influence of Carissimi’s style seen in Scarlatti’s early work.
The success of this first opera threw Scarlatti into the notice of many of the aristocracy of Rome as well as the fairly international audience of Roman courts and ambassadors. Before long, he was appointed maestro di capella, or choirmaster, for the court of the mysterious Queen Christina of Sweden, a noblewoman estranged from her home country upon conversion to Catholicism. She supported Scarlatti in his work as he continued to write and produce operas. He was in some disfavor with the Church at this point for two reasons. First, opera was a controversial subject at the time, with edicts from as high up as the Vatican condemning it as indecent and liberal. There was also some outcry when Scarlatti’s secular musicians were brought in for church performances. The second reason was that Scarlatti’s sister Anna, a popular singer, was accused of inappropriate behavior with more than one church official. Despite these issues, at least two cardinals commissioned oratorios from Scarlatti for Lenten services.
Fame did not keep Scarlatti in Rome for very long, however. Shortly after he produced his wildly popular opera, Il Pompeo, he moved his family to Naples, the city which would become his favorite and eventually the home of his old age. The next 18 years were spent here, writing operas and oratorios, as well as sacred works and chamber cantatas for private performance. It was during this period that Scarlatti began to develop his own unique opera style which in turn would become the prescription for other composers of the genre to follow. Characteristics of Scarlatti’s operas include arias in ternary form, very little music independent of the texts, and the lowered importance of the chorus. Although operas such as La Rosaura and Pirro e Demetrio received most acclaim, some modern scholars feel that his chamber cantatas were the outlet for “the most profound of his musical ideas.”
It was also in Naples that Scarlatti received the patronage of Ferdinando de Medici, and celebrated the birth of several of his children, including Domenico. He even wrote and directed a serenata for the visit of King Phillip V of Spain, a celebration in which his rival, Corelli, also participated but received less than favorable reviews. The serenta, Venere, Adone, et Amore, was composed near the end of his time in Naples, in 1696. The occasion was an annual summertime festival in Naples with the guest of honor being a newly appointed Spanish viceroy, well known to be a patron of the arts. Scarlatti turned out at least two other popular serenatas this same year, working with the poet Francesco Paglia.
In 1702, he visited the Medici family in Florence, but did not find the success he was looking for, and returned to Rome. For the next 20 years, Scarlatti, along with his son Domenico, moved from city to city, searching for the elusive position which would provide both artistic satisfaction and financial stability. While this period was in general a very disappointing era of Scarlatti’s life, there were a few high points. In 1706, he was inducted into the Arcadian Academy, a sort of literary honor society originally formed by Scarlatti’s old patron, Queen Christina. The year after, Il Mitridate Eupatore, one of his most acclaimed operas, was performed in Venice.
In 1722, Scarlatti left Domenico, who was now earning respect as a composer in his own right, in Rome and retired to Naples to live in relative poverty until his death in 1725. Although his later years brought him fewer public accolades than his early successes, there were still those who appreciated his genius. One Neapolitan newspaper stated that “as [Scarlatti] increases in age, so all the more does he acquire new and sublime ideas in his compositions.” His tombstone, with an epitaph written by Cardinal Ottoboni, longtime collaborator with Scarlatti, sums it all up with the title of Musices Instaurator Maximus, or, Supreme Musical Innovator.