The Sonatas of

Domenico Scarlatti

      Domenico Scarlatti was born in Italy in 1685, the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Frideric Handel. He moved to Portugal in 1719 to become music master to the young Princess Maria Barbara; when she became Queen of Spain in 1729, he followed her there. Respected as an extemporizer on the harpsichord, and for his dazzling technique, he did not begin to formally write his keyboard music down until 1738, when he was knighted by Portugal and composed a volume for presentation. A few years later, he collected a number of his older pieces into two more volumes. But then, ill health and gambling debts galvanised him into finding his voice. During his last 6 years 1752-7, he transferred his keyboard skill to paper in the form of some two hundred suites which he called sonatas. They combine pure joyous harpsichord sounds with the taut rhythms of Spanish dance and the harmonic brilliance of his Italian heritage to a degree that places him among the greatest musicians of all time.

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Notes on the Music

For a performer, there is always a conflict between saying as much as one can with each individual piece, and being faithful to the lifetime-built philosophy of the composer. Intellect produces complexity, but feeling demands simplicity. (Early on, I played a Rameau piece for Kenneth Gilbert. There was a pause while he searched for something polite to say, then he commented that "I suppose it is a complex piece of music"! Teachers like that are pure gold.) Most performers, on encountering the range and quantity of Scarlatti's music, quickly choose a few pieces and interpret him as a capricious mannerist (or, worse in my opinion, as a romantic). This tendency is exacerbated by the characteristics of the piano, to which Scarlatti's sounds do not transfer well. (His at-times breathtaking technique does transfer, as Vladimir Horowitz amply demonstrated. He and Scarlatti would have had a ball together!) Here, I attempt the opposite - to present the cumulative achievement of a great musical colourist on the instrument which was his canvas.

My recording follows the numbering of Kirkpatrick, whose study of Scarlatti is the base from which a modern player must build ("Domenico Scarlatti", Ralph Kirkpatrick, Princeton, 1953). To start, there are the 30 "exercises", as Scarlatti called them, of 1738. Sonatas 31-93 were presented to the Queen in 1742, and 94-147 in 1749 - some of these almost certainly predate 1738. (They include some works for violin and continuo, which I have not recorded.) Then, with number 148, we begin the Sonatas proper, the pieces that were presented to the Queen as they were composed, between 1752 and 1757. The Queen's copy of the music, in the original 16 volume binding, is preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, Italy. 545 of the sonatas were transcribed for piano by Alessandro Longo in 1906, and are still available from Ricordi (Italy) and Kalmus (USA). I thank Mark Newbold for generously making Ralph Kirkpatrick's facsimile of the sonatas not published by Longo available to me.

It was usual in Scarlatti's time to mark off thematic sections of music with repeat signs. The commonest interpretation of this marking at that time was to repeat the section with ad-lib variations by the performer, who was expected to be as able a musician as the composer. Scarlatti's carefully crafted sounds admit of little casual variation, but much of his music is written with slight pauses in one hand or the other that permit variations in hand crossings - right over or under left, left over or under right, even intermixed. From the consistency of these pauses throughout his music, I am convinced that this was the major variational technique that he used. I'm currently working on these variations and am producing a complete edition of his music as he might have played it. It will be distributed on the Internet under the GNU GPL (i.e. free) in LilyPond and PostScript formats.

Most of the sonatas are built of hierarchical pair patterns - pairs of sounds paired in turn with other pairs, which in turn can be paired with other pair sets in French rondeau fashion. The primary formal structure of almost all of the sonatas follows two pairwise symmetries: tonalities are mirrored about a central double bar, and thematic material repeats after the double bar (although not always in exactly the same order). For example, K1 begins in D minor, progresses to A major at the double bar 14, and ends in D minor bar 31; thematically, bar 1 matches bar 14; 2-5, 22-25; 7, 17; 9, 18; 13, 31. In addition, almost all the later sonatas are written in formal pairs, several with explicit marking that they are to be played together. I have included silences at the end of each sonata such that, if the sonatas are played in numeric order, this pairwise arrangement on which Scarlatti obviously placed considerable importance will be heard. Since this recording is an exploration of sounds, I have omitted repeats other than in a few exceptionally short pieces.

Harpsichord actions have a tiny inertia compared to that of modern pianos - a well-voiced harpsichord can be played appreciably faster. Scarlatti obviously enjoyed having the fastest fingers in Europe, and explicitly noted some passages even faster than I can play them. (Burney quotes Thomas Roseingrave, no mean keyboardist himself, on a Scarlatti performance in 1714 as "ten hundred devils at the instrument - he had never heard such passages of execution and effect before".) Nevertheless, modern players unfamiliar with old instruments and old performance surroundings often play harpsichord music faster than it would have been played at the time. Although harpsichords have no sustaining pedal, playing any note on good Italian instruments, such as Scarlatti played on, re-excites into sound all other undamped strings, thus sustaining a tonality for as long as one has fingers available to hold down the relevant keys. The Spanish royal quarters were veritable echo chambers compared to today's concert halls. Scarlatti did not mark precise tempos, but just noted a word or two concerning the way the piece was to feel (mostly Allegro, "get going"). These recordings are an attempt to produce on modern wavetable cards sounds of the musical character of which Scarlatti was a master - those of a powerful Italian instrument in rooms typical of the Spanish court. I have strictly restricted the techniques I use to those that were available to Scarlatti on his instruments.

Many of Scarlatti's works are centered upon the visual drama of his technique, which must be absent from a recording. Nevertheless, these recordings still display, I hope, some of his brilliance. First, there is the consistency of Spanish dance rhythms as the foundation of his sound. To me, these rhythms are not polyphonic, but elaborated percussive solo accents, and as such are entirely consistent with the precision striven for by most recording musicians of today. And, when Scarlatti's phrases are repeated with no variations of sound, as he mostly explicitly wrote them, they build structure and power upon a sustained rhythmic foundation, rather than on a phrase-oriented vocal one. I have therefore eschewed melodic inflections and rubato for the most part (probably to a degree that overcompensates for the tendency of most performers to take the opposite approach).

Scarlatti introduces musical ideas in such profusion that, in most cases, if conventional phrasing attention is paid to them, the music becomes totally fragmented. The rarity with which Scarlatti actually notes pauses or breaks between apparently-disjoint phrases becomes justified when his work is studied overall - the silences he marks explicitly become more effective, and the phrases take their place as his development of melodic sequences, using sounds rather than just notes. The harmonies of these sequences are based on tonalities, and multiply in the manner of Italian toccatas (as, in fact, Scarlatti labelled some of his early pieces), while the melodic lines proper continually expand into multiple voices that blend into harmony. In the Italian style of his training, it is pure sounds, free of extra- musical allegories.

A twelve-note scale can not have all intervals in tune at the same time. MIDI systems default to equal tempering, where only octaves are really in tune. This tuning was not musically acceptable to keyboard musicians of Scarlatti's time, who 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. I used a technique of consonance analysis to aid me in finding the tuning that Scarlatti used most commonly, since no records of this survive other than the music itself. These recordings use the best tuning I have found, one published by d'Alembert in 1752. With it, Scarlatti displays a harmonic sureness that is, to my ears at least, lacking with Italian tunings of the period, which historically one would expect him to have used.

What would I do differently with the sonatas if I were to start over? 546 things different! I'll always keep my focus on tonality and tone colours - it's so special to Scarlatti. I want my sound to be clear, powerful, and legato - I'll keep everything that contributes to that. So, I'll always keep a bit of MIDI quantizing active to attain that clarity that my old fingers so seldom can deliver now. You play very differently in a living room than in a large concert hall - you have to play differently yet again in cyberspace, the world of pure disembodied information. You have to recast the whole way you approach music, compared to live performance - your appearance counts zero (no reviving listeners with spectacular hand crossing variations), audience interaction is gone (no coughing is great, but no breathing isn't), suspense, surprise and other excitement pale by the third playing.... (Listen a few times to K.164, where I have left in one 'surprise' pause, for an example.) There's an old saying, "friends die off but enemies accumulate" - if you are going to record music, you'd better believe it.

But mostly, I'll keep trying to grow, keep exploring the fascinating beauty of sound. All kinds of little details will change - that's life. And to me, music is the instinctive and total struggle of life against non-life.

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John Sankey
Harpsichordist to the Internet