Baroque Music X: Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)

What was going on in the world in 1684 that produced a trio of composers the following year unrivaled in music history?  The two more celebrated composers are to come, but first up is the curious case of Domenico Scarlatti, favored son of Alessandro Scarlatti who we covered a several weeks ago.  From what we can tell, he was intended to succeed his father as a composer of opera and other vocal works.  And to a degree, he did so.  But if all that remained of Domenico’s work were his various operas, cantatas and other vocal works, he wouldn’t be more than a footnote in this or any other history of music.  No, Domenico Scarlatti’s claim to fame, rests of a remarkable set of 555 keyboard sonatas, which he began composing after his move to Spain (and away from his father) in 1719 to teach Barbara of Portugal, daughter of King John V. 

By any measure, these are remarkable works.  Setting aside the advances in technique that are required to play them, they are much more complex that the basic Baroque A-B-A form would suggest.  Buried beneath the surface are shocking dissonances, unexpected key changes, and, at least for me, the universal sense of a composer yearning to break free of an instrument (harpsichord) that is devoid of dynamic range.  While I am nearly always a universal champion of period instruments and techniques, Scarlatti is the exception that proves the rule—only when you hear his Sonatas played on the piano do they truly come to life, anticipating Beethoven and Chopin in equal measure.

Let me make my case.  Here are a few of my favorites, first on harpsichord and then on piano.

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K. 466 (harpsichord):

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K. 466 (piano):

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K. 213 (harpsichord):

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K. 213 (piano):

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K. 517 (harpsichord):

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K. 517 (piano):

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K. 141 (harpsichord):

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K. 141 (piano):

So what do these examples tell us about Scarlatti?  One, for sure, is that he was likely exposed to early fortepianos, which had been invented in Italy by Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700.  Harpsichords, as the name suggests, are plucked and, due to the way they are constructed, are incapable of playing at different volumes.  They are pretty but have zero dynamic range.  The fortepiano (in Italian, gravicembalo col piano, e forte, literally harpsichord with soft and loud) changed that by exchanging the plucking movement for the more familiar hammers and dampers used in the modern piano.  Only three of these remarkable instruments survive today (one of which is on permanent display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art). 

Pianoforte, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Did Scarlatti have access to one?  I think that is very likely, as his music seems to call for dynamics not otherwise possible.  Also, the timeline works: Scarlatti began composing his sonatas in 1719.

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