Son of Alessandro Scarlatti, who became a most prolific composer, did much to promote the technical study of the piano and is invariably classed with the great pianists because of his wonderful virtuosity as a player on the harpsichord, the precursor of the modern piano. Scarlatti is the principal representative in the development of the form of the clavier sonata, afterwards perfected by Haydn, and was in a certain sense the originator of the modern style of piano-playing, influencing to a certain degree many modern musicians, among them Mendelssohn and Liszt. He was born in Naples and was taught music chiefly by his father, Alessandro Scarlatti, and by Gasparini, the instructor of Marcello, who was both a harpsichord-player and a composer. He early gave evidence of having inherited his father's genius and was less than nineteen when he made his mark as an operatic composer. His father rejoiced in his son's success and took great delight in the thought that some day, after his death, the great name of Scarlatti would be perpetuated. In 1715 he was appointed chapelmaster at St. Peter's at Rome and remained in that position for four years. His favorite instrument was the harpsichord, and although he had composed operas that were well received, it was as a composer for his favorite instrument and s an executant upon it that he desired to shine. He did not receive in Italy the recognition that he believed his playing deserved; his bold innovations being by no means appreciated by his fellow-countrymen, so he set out for other lands. While traveling in England and Spain he was well received, and in France made the acquaintance of Handel. In 1719 he became accompanist at the Opera in London, and two years later went to the Court of Lisbon. He returned to Italy in 1725, but remained only a short time, then journeyed to Madrid, where he was appointed musicmaster to the Princess of Austria, and harpsichord teacher to the Spanish Queen. He remained at Madrid until 1754, when he returned to Naples, where he died a year later.
Scarlatti gained great fame for his feats of execution on the harpsichord. He had an instinct for the requirements of the instrument, and as one musician expressed it, gave the impression that he played upon his audience quite as much as he did upon his instrument. No musician ever had greater enthusiasm or taste for his art. He was declared to be less his father's pupil than his successor, although the general consensus of opinion is that he never equaled the genius of his father. The style of his composition was grand and majestic. Burney says: "The works of Scarlatti the younger were the wonder and delight of every hearer who had a. spark of enthusiasm about him and could feel new and bold effects intrepidly produced by the breach of almost all the old and established rules of composition." He became a complete master of the harpsichord and holds an important and prominent place in the history of harp and piano-music. He introduced into his works a change in the style of composition, which up to his time had been chiefly for the organ. His music was fresh and sparkling and full of grace and melody, and many of his works have survived to modern times.
His first successful opera was Amleto, the first musical setting of a libretto taken from one of Shakespeare's tragedies. He wrote in all about twelve operas, among them Irene; La Silvia; Ifigenia en Aulide, and others, produced from 1704 to 1718. None of them is ever heard nowadays, although many of them were most successful in their day. He wrote besides much church-music, pieces for the clavecin and harpsichord, fugues and other compositions. Most of Scarlatti's leisure time was devoted to the composition of lessons for the harpsichord, of which there are a great number in print. Some of these are quaint and original, while others are stiff and dry. His pieces for the clavecin are in two volumes, these and "his harpsichord compositions being included in the collections which appear in Terranc's Tresor des Pianistes; also his pieces for other instruments, made on the principles of the modern piano. Some of his music is in Pauer's collections; other compositions are included in the old Italian compositions of Augener's Merry Musicians and in Peters' Klaviermusik and in the collections of von Bülow and Czerny, three hundred appearing in the latter.
His best known work is the Cat Fugue, the origin of which is unique. His cat one day, so the story goes, ran across the keyboard, striking notes from whicji the composer evolved a fugue, giving sense to the notes by a clever, harmonic treatment. In the Schirmer library is his Sarabande, a stately old dance in triple time; the Burlesca; the Menuetto; Courante; Pastorale; and several cantatas and much church-music.
His relations with Handel are interesting. The two musicians met in 1708 in Venice. Later in Rome Cardinal Ottoboni arranged a competition between them to decide which showed the greater proficiency on the harpsichord and organ. Handel was the victor and ever afterward, when Scarlatti was complimented for his playing, he would solemnly cross himself and say, "Ah, but you should hear Handel." The two from that time on became fast friends, and remained together until Handel left Italy. Scarlatti was always one of Handel's staunchest admirers and the first to admit his superiority.