Although music scholars regard Domenico Alberti as one of the most important figures in the transition of music style from the Baroque to the Classical period, few historical facts about his life are known. And, of his work, only fourteen keyboard sonatas, two operas, and few vocal compositions survive.
Domenico Alberti was born in Venice about 1710 and died in Rome in 1740. He studied music with Antonio Lotti and in 1736 served as Venetian ambassador to Spain. In his own lifetime, Alberti was known mostly as an extraordinary singer. Indeed the famous 18th century castrato singer, Farinelli, once claimed that he would have been out of business if Alberti had decided to compete against him.
Today, Alberti’s name is best known among music teachers and piano students as the major proponent of the Alberti Bass, a particular form of bass accompaniment in which the bass chord is played as a series of separate notes in the same order: low note, high note, middle note, high note. Students forced to practice the Alberti Bass as part of their piano exercises probably learned Alberti’s name even before Mozart’s or Beethoven’s. And though the accompaniment was most often used in pieces from the Classical era where it creates a smooth, flowing sound around the basic harmonic tone, it continues to attract even modern composers.
The Alberti Bass was not, however, Alberti’s only contribution to music. He was probably the first composer to use the ternary rather than the binary form in sonatas. His sonatas also reflected a new aesthetic conception which would dominate the second part of 18th century: instrumental sonata as a reflection of the music drama form. The first movements of most of his sonatas (Op. 1) are reminiscent of that form with alternating recitative-like and song-like episodes.
Alberti also anticipated the “singing-allegro” style of Mozart (tipiche italiane! – said Carlo Zecchi). He developed this style by employing the vocal type of melodies for the right hand in fast sonata movements rather than the abstract melodies (combined broken chords and scale fragments) that were more popular at the time. This innovation probably reflected his performing experience—not just as a concert singer but as one of the few Italian “singer-cembalists,” singers who accompanied themselves on the clavier.
Alberti was both influential and popular in the late 18th century. In the 1760s, Leopold Mozart gave his son an album of Alberti’s sonatas as a primer to the art of composition. Young Wolfgang learned well. His first violin sonatas are directly modeled on Alberti. And even in his later compositions like Sonata K.545 or Variations K.264, we can hear the influence of Alberti. In the 1760s and 1770s, according to Diderot, Alberti’s compositions were much admired in Parisian society.
Although Alberti paved the way for the high classical style, his own compositions have been obscured for more than two centuries by the greater works of his successors—Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. They absorbed Alberti’s ideas, but then improved and extended them in more effective ways. Until recently, only the Alberti Bass has continued to be directly influential in succeeding centuries.
During the 20th century, however, a revival of Alberti’s name and compositions has begun. Two of his sonatas have appeared in Italy (Carish, 1932, 1971) and have been included in some musical-historical anthologies published in other countries (e.g. North Carolina University Press, USA, 1972). In 2008, the American Concert Alliance in New York published an album of Eight Sonatas Op.1, the first edition since the 1760s. The same edition was re-published in Russia in 2009.
Today pianists are rediscovering the charm and grace of Alberti’s sonatas. His music is being performed and recorded more and more often around the world. A special prize named after Alberti was established within the prestigious International Piano Competition “Rome” (Italy) for the best performance of 18th century Italian music. And International Piano Competitions have been founded in the United States, Russia, and Indonesia in his honor. Students who wish to recapture the peculiar beauty of Alberti’s music should remember the advice provided by one of his contemporaries. Alberti’s music should be played with “delicacy and good taste.”