Scarlatti: Sonatas

(Booklet text of the CD "Portrait Erik Reischl, Volume 5")Five hundred and fifty five! This is the impressive number of sonatas Scarlatti wrote for harpsichord. Although they are mostly short pieces of a few minutes each, it would take nearly 35 hours to play all of them.

Domenico Scarlatti was born in 1685, the same year as Handel and J.S. Bach, but there is little known about his life. At first it seemed as though Domenico would follow in the footsteps of his father, Alessandro Scarlatti who seems to have from an early age given him thorough instruction in music. As a result, between 1706 and 1719 Scarlatti took several posts as concert master in Vienna and Rome and his first compositions, mostly opera and sacred music, are from this period.

The meeting between Handel and Scarlatti is relatively certain. Apparently Cardinal Ottoboni had invited them both to his palace in Rome for a friendly competition on the organ and harpsichord. Scarlatti was nominated the winner of the harpsichord and Handel won on the organ.

In 1719, life changed for Scarlatti when he left Italy to serve as concert master at the court of the Portugese King Joao V, in Lisbon where his duties included giving lessons on the harpsichord to the King’s daughter, Maria Barbara. After her marriage to the Spanish heir to the throne in 1729, he was to follow her to Seville and four years later to the royal court in Madrid where he remained until he died in 1757.

Although Scarlatti may have already composed several sonatas for harpsichord in Italy, most however, would have been written in Portugal and Spain as studies for his exceptionally talented pupil. The dates of composition and in some cases even their authenticity are uncertain, due to the fact that not a single manuscript remains from Scarlatti’s own handwriting; only reproductions by professional copiers have been passed down.

During the composers lifetime only one collection of pieces was published under the title “Essercizi per Gravicembalo” in 1738. The preface of this publication was by Scarlatti himself and was highly amusing.

“Dear reader, whether you be Dilettante or Professor, in these Compositions do not expect any profound Learning, but rather an ingenious Jesting with Art, to accomodate you to the Mastery of the Harpsichord. Neither Considerations of Interest, not Visions of Ambition, but only Obedience moved me to publish them! Perhaps they will be agreeable to you; then all the more gladly will I obey other Commands to favor you with more simple and varied Style. Therefore show yourself more human than critical, and then your Pleasure will increase. As for the positions of the hands, let me tell you that a D means the right and an M means the left. Live Happily.”

The first complete publication was by Alessandro Longo in 1906 and not quite 50 years later there was a new and critical publication by the American harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick who attempted to sort the sonatas chronologically. Longo had put together suites according to his own taste. Unlike Longo, Kirkpatrick refrained from including indications for dynamics and articulation. Today, both the Longo and Kirkpatrick indexes are the most commonly used listings of Scarlatti’s sonatas.

The meaning of “sonata” in Barock times was used for every form of instrumental music and was the only differentiation between choral and instrumental music. It would be, therefore, incorrect to regard Scarlatti’s sonatas as precursors to the classical sonata form. Each sonata has one movement and almost all have 2 parts with a repetition; formally they resemble the Barock suite movements.

As a contrast to the relatively simple form, Scarlatti’s sonatas contain an enormous wealth of tone colours, harmonies, modulations, original motives and rhythms. Some of these harmonies and rhythms were surely influenced by Spanish folklore. In the Sonata D minor, K. 141, the repetition of the right hand is reminiscent of a guitar or mandoline, especially in combination with the sharp attack of chords in the left hand where the so-called “Acciacatura” or dissonant notes have been added. An example of a typical Spanish dance rhythm is found in the Sonata in D major, K. 492, where a “Buleria” is echoed.

Virtuosity plays an important role in the sonatas which is not surprising as they were conceived as studies. In the B flat major Sonata, K. 441 the left hand has to manage leaps over 3 octaves; the G major Sonata, K. 104 combines similar leaps with crossing of the hands. And the Sonata in A major, K. 39 is a true firework of repetition and rapid runs.

Even though four-fifths of the sonatas are in fast or very fast tempi, it is in the quieter pieces, such as K. 466, K. 380 and K. 197 where strength of expression and depth of musical feeling develop.

Amusing but questionable, is the idea that the theme of the G minor fugue, K. 30 could have been inspired by a cat walking over the keyboard. Appropriately, the fugue is today known as “The Cat's Fugue” (fuga del gatto) and even if this anecdote is not based on truth, it is a good story.

(Erik Reischl, Translation Elisabeth Ann Krüger)