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Composer (MIDI)

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757); ITA

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Domenico Scarlatti

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Domenico Scarlatti was one of the greatest keyboard virtuosos of all time.

His father, Alessandro, was an overwhelmingly renowned opera singer and composer. There are a few reports of the brilliance of Domenico's early playing in Italy, including a contest with Handel in which he held his own on the harpsichord. But, he obviously was uncomfortable in the public eye all his life. He wrote a few unremarkable operas, and rose to become chapelmaster of the Basilica Giulia, St. Peters, Rome. Then, in 1719, he was hired by João V of Portugal as royal chapelmaster, and on the side as music teacher for the royal children. Under Scarlatti's tutelage, Princess Maria Barbara became a remarkably accomplished musician - when she married Fernando, crown prince of Spain, in 1729, she arranged that Scarlatti follow her there.

Scarlatti often wrote out brief pieces, apparently as gifts to visitors (such as K.32, K.95, K.142). In 1738, he was knighted by Portugal, and composed a formal volume of thirty pieces (including K.5 and K.27) in tribute. But it was not until 1752 that he truly set about putting his skills on paper. During the six years that remained to him, he composed an average of a new sonata each week each overflowing with musical ideas (K.150, K.206). In fact, they introduce ideas in such profusion that if conventional phrasing attention is paid to them, the music becomes totally fragmented. A different view is needed to understand them.

Although Scarlatti's training was pure Italian, Spanish dance rhythms are the foundation of most of his sonatas (K.175). These rhythms are solo accents, that build structure and power upon a sustained rhythmic foundation rather than on a phrase-oriented vocal one. Scarlatti's phrases are sequences of tone colours rather than of just notes. The tonalities of these sequences multiply in the manner of Italian toccatas, while the melodic lines continually expand into multiple voices that blend into tonality. (K.263, and K.545). Almost none of his sonatas fit a classical key signature.

The formal structure of most of the sonatas shows two pairwise symmetries: tonalities are mirrored about a central double bar, and thematic material repeats after the double bar. Portion of the manuscript of K.43 Scarlatti presented to Princess Maria Barbara in 1742 And, almost all the later sonatas are written in formal pairs, several with explicit marking that they are to be played together. There are a few folk songs (K.466), a few bird songs and bells, but almost all are pure harpsichord sounds, free of extra-musical allegories.

Scarlatti obviously enjoyed having the fastest fingers in Europe, and many of his works are centered upon the visual drama of his technique. No one, before or since, has employed such extensive and varied hand crossings as he did (K.99). He had, in fact, to invent a new way of writing music. In contrast to the C-clef notation of his time, he wrote his music on fixed treble-bass staff pairs. His notes climb all over both staves, with total indifference as to which hand they might be best played with. A harpsichordist must play with arms parallel to the keyboard, with finger action like legs walking, in order to play with hands crossed to the extent Scarlatti wrote.

There is a mystery surrounding Scarlatti's tonalities. In his time, musicians did not tune all 12 intervals of a keyboard equally, but restricted the keys they played in so that more of the musically- important intervals could be in tune. They also valued the variety of characters that differing keys have when all intervals are not equal. Modern analysis has made it evident that Scarlatti did not use the sound structure of Italian tunings of his time when composing his sonatas - he used the very different one of French tunings. The tonal structure of a tuning is too complex in its effects for a composer to pick it up and drop it at will - it has to be subsumed totally in a compositional language. Scarlatti had no known contact with France, almost none with French musicians. Where did his tonal structure come from? I can only suggest that he re-invented it himself in Spain, as he invented so much else then that was unique about his music. Portion of the manuscript of K.24 Scarlatti presented to João V of Portugal in 1738

Scarlatti had access to single and double-manual harpsichords, organs and early pianos at the Spanish court. A few of his sonatas may have been composed for piano, a few are marked for organ. But, most of his sonatas can only be played on a harpsichord, unless they are heavily adapted. The dynamics of Scarlatti's music are produced by the pluck and dissonance of pure-sounding strings, not by the volume dynamic of the pitch-blurred modern piano. His primary element of rhythm, the acciaccatura, sounds clumsy and thick on the piano, and must be translated into volume dynamic. Scarlatti's rapidly repeated notes (K.141) may be played smoothly on a harpsichord, with one finger as if they were half a trill, a technique essentially impossible on the piano.

If you would play Scarlatti on a piano, listen to Vladimir Horowitz and use the Longo edition. I am certain, however, that when you listen to the harpsichord recordings at The Classical Archives, you will appreciate the uniqueness of Scarlatti's language and place him, as I do, among the greatest keyboard composers of all time.

Further Reading: Domenico Scarlatti, Ralph Kirkpatrick, 1953.

Domenico Read biography at More
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  • Recordings:
  • Keyboard Works
    • Solo Keyboard Sonatas (K.1-555)
    • Sonatas for Keyboard and Continuo K.73, 77-78, 81, 88-91
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  • Free Play:
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    • Sonatas for Keyboard and Continuo K.73, 77-78, 81, 88-91
  • Vocal Works
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