The Scarlatti Conversations

Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas seem curiously out of time. But did they influence subsequent composers? Although some are quick to dismiss Scarlatti as a historical aberration, the facts are quite to the contrary. A collection of the first 30 sonatas were compiled and published in London as Essercizi per gravicembalo. Handel, who Scarlatti had met when the composers were both living in Venice, was a decade plus into his time in London and surely would have been aware of their publication. But their influence on Handel is hard to discern. For example, some claim to hear Scarlatti in Handel’s Concerto Grosso No. 5 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJLbRM9AtXE), noting that the opening is especially based on Scarlatti’s Sonata 23 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6Jus7VcKqQ). I do not. The timeline fits, but if there is an influence here, my ears do not hear it.

But who else might have might have have been influenced by Scarlatti? Here is an entirely hypothetical Conversation:

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K. 492:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 330, I. Allegro:

There is no evidence that Mozart studied Scarlatti’s music, but Scarlatti seems to anticipate Mozart, at the very least. We do, however, know that Frederic Chopin was a big Scarlatti fan, proclaiming that Scarlatti’s music would one day be regularly performed in the concert hall. Returning to Scarlatti’s K.466, here it is paired with Chopin’s first Nocturne. The influence, I think, is hard to deny.

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K.466:

Frederic Chopin, Nocturnes, Op. 9 No. 1:

But the real question, however, is Bach. In addition to being one of the greatest composers in history, Bach was also one of history’s most important musicologists. Bach’s library and his many transcriptions continue to inform much of what we understand about earlier periods of music. Yet Bach did not transcribe Scarlatti. And no Scarlatti scores are to be found in his collection. For such a voracious collector, Scarlatti’s omission seems strange. In the end, the Bach connection comes down to what might be simply coincidence: One year after Scarlatti published his 30 Essercizi, Bach published his own Goldberg Variations—also 30 works for solo keyboard. Coincidence? Maybe. And, maybe, the influence went in the other direction. Here is a Bach composition from 1720 that sounds a lot like Scarlatti.

J.S. Bach, Fantasy in C Minor, BVW 906:

Scarlatti remains a curious figure, a composer whose work was admired by many 19th century composers and which form an indelible part of the standard repertoire in the 20th century, but whose influence during his lifetime seems to be as fleeting is a wisp of smoke.   

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