Music Soothes the Manic King

Sonata in Gm   D. Scarlatti (1685-1757)

When Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) arrived in Madrid at the end of 1733 (48 years old), he might have hoped for the sort of situation appropriate to a leading musician of his age back in Italy. But it didn’t work out that way.

Everything was put awry by King Philip V’s manic depression. He decreed that each court day should start at 5pm, with dinner at 3am. His queen, Elisabetta Farnese, could not leave him on his own, in case he found a pen and tried to abdicate; and all the while she had to govern on his behalf.

At last it was arranged that Farinelli, a leading opera singer of his day, should come and sing, unseen, in an adjacent room. On hearing the voice, Philip began for the first time in months to take an interest in life.

As the performance was repeated each day, the King gradually returned to normal. Ultimately the King’s sanity depended on Farinelli singing the same four arias, every night, for the King’s remaining 10 years. (That would be over 3600 performances. Of four songs.)

Prince Ferdinand and Princess Maria Barbara sought solace from the troubles of Philip’s court in the musical evenings that Domenico Scarlatti devised for them, with the ever popular Farinelli also taking part.

After Philip’s death, the new monarchs promoted opera under the direction of Farinelli, but no opportunity went to Scarlatti to revive the theatrical career of his youth in Italy. Maybe he had no financial alternative but to focus on his sonatas, since he had gambling debts that were paid off by the new queen and Farinelli.

Ultimately Scarlatti composed some 550 sonatas during his tenure at the Spanish court. It's these sonatas, composed in the latter part of his life, in a context of navigating the impossible situation of a mad king, that have earned him his place in the pantheon of composers worth remembering.