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.   

Interlude: Symphonies by Numbers

I spent the other day listening to some of the greatest symphonies ever recorded, courtesy of Medici.TV. In the middle of Mahler’s Second, I thought about how you would go about drafting symphonies by number, assuming that you could pick a composer only once. Here is what I came up with for 1-9.

Symphony No. 1: Only one choice here. Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique. Has a first symphony ever made such an impact? Here, in 1830, Berlioz introduces the first real Romantic symphony and plants the flag for Paris as the new capitol of music.

Symphony No. 2: A bit more competition here, but the easy choice is Mahler. His Resurrection might just be my favorite symphony of all time.

Symphony No. 3: Here’s where the competition really starts. But the answer has to be Beethoven. His Eroica might not just be his best, but also the best symphony ever composed.

Symphony No. 4: Brahms. It’s his best, I think. And the competition isn’t so fierce here.

Symphony No. 5: With Beethoven off the board, that clears the path for Shostakovich, whose Fifth Symphony ranks among the most complex thematically of his massive symphonic output.

Symphony No. 6: An easy choice again. Tchaikovsky, whose Pathetique proved to be his final symphonic work.

Symphony No. 7: There is something about seventh symphonies. So many great ones to choose from. This was frankly the closest call on the list and it goes to a dark horse: Sibelius. Such a haunting work, narrowly edging out Dvorak.

Symphony No. 8: An easy choice with Mahler off the board. Has to be Bruckner, whose Eighth Symphony is easily his best.

Symphony No. 9: The cursed symphony, which proved to be the finale for so many composers after Beethoven. While Dvorak’s From the New World holds some appeal here, for me it can be only Schubert. On the merits, my favorite Ninth Symphony of all. The Great ranks among my favorite music ever.

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.

Interlude: The Power of Great Art

Playwright, lyricist, theatre critic and all-round Renaissance guy David Cote asked his many followers the other day to identify “a work of art that had an actual, direct, political consequence . . . [a] work of art that led to political change.” Perhaps such a work exists, but the power of great art, in my opinion, lies in the power to change the individual. Exposing your soul to great art is risky–you can feel it in the anticipation, in the experience itself. The pulse quickens, the brain excites, and the world, for better or worse, will never be the same to you–the audience member–ever again. Such are the perils of engaging in The Conversation with a great artist. They change you. Truly great art–something that makes a profound connection with you–is both personal and rare. It was therefore purely by coincidence that days after reading David’s question, I found myself seated in the legendary Studio 54 for Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change.

More than a generation ago, and several blocks to the south, Kushner’s 7-hour, two episode, masterwork, Angels in America, had wrough an indelible mark on my person. It is safe to say that I never experienced the world quite the same way afterwards. But Caroline was something different–a musical. Could American musical theatre accomplish the same transformative effect? Could it rise to truly great art?

In a word: hell yes. I am not the only one to think so. TimeOut’s insightful critic, Adam Feldman, wrote in his review: “[Caroline] has affected the way I interact with people–in a positive way, on a daily basis–ever since.” And that might just be an understatement.

I don’t think that anything can truly prepare you for experiecing Caroline in person. I missed the original production back in 2003 when I was living abroad, but was determined not to miss this one. I barely made it: The production closes tonight. Two days later, I am still dealing with its after effects.

Much of the credit goes to Sharon D. Clarke, who gives a performance for the ages. Caroline is a harrowing role. A single mother raising three kids while working as a maid for a Jewish family in 1963’s Louisiana, beaten down by a broken heart, poverty, and the drudgery of her work. She is no Violetta or Mimi, who at least get to live, live, live, before they die at the end. Caroline never had a chance, but can she change with the times? Her friend and fellow maid Dotty is going back to college. Her eldest daughter has been swept up by the civil rights movement. Or is Caroline simply that proverbial rock, against which all change breaks?

Caroline shares top billing with Change, which is as much an omnipresent force in the play as the titular character. Change at first references the loose change left in an 8-year old boy’s (Noah’s) pockets. That pocket change is the representation of Noah’s rejection of the material world, having recently lost his mother to lung cancer. For his new stepmother, it is also a rejection of her–Noah prefers Caroline as a substitute mother, drawn naturally to her spiritual and physical strength. She will not abandon him as his mother did; she is his rock. The stepmother instructs Caroline to keep the change–a dollar here, a dollar there would be meaningful to someone she pays only $30 a week. Yet Caroline struggles with that instruction even as she struggles to accept the change that is winding its way through 1963 American society. Money, that corosive element of capitalism, begins to erode the social fabric of the Gellman home.

Naturally, the plan backfires at first: Noah sees this as an opportunity for him to initiate change in Caroline’s family. He starts purposefully leaving more change in his pocket, once he realizes that Caroline is taking it home to her kids. But while he imagines himself to be a hero to Caroline’s family, the truth is that they barely acknowledge his existence or that he is the source of the extra money.

The boiling point comes when Noah’s grandfather, a good Marxist from the Upper West Side, comes down to Louisana for Hahnukkah. During the dinner, he presents Noah with gelt: A twenty dollar bill.

What means this money, Noah Boychick?

You won’t learn this in artithmetic!

Money follows certain law,

It’s worth how much its worth becuase

Somewhere, something’s valued less;

It’s how our blessings come, I guess.

Golden, shiny, but never pure.

Think from whence your riches stem.

Think of someone who is poor.

And know you stole this gold from them.

Especially here in the Devil’s South!

You rip your gold from a starving man’s mouth!

Mr. Stopnick

Noah fails the appreciate the message and, predictably, he accidentally leaves the money in his pocket. Realizing this in school, he panics: Caroline will find the money and keep it. Change is one thing, but this is twenty dollars! He runs home, but it is too late. Caroline has found the money and taken in. A fight ensues and both say unforgivable things to the other. Money and class have risen their ugly heads, dividing Noah from his mother of choice.

Caroline faces a crisis of conscience:

Sixteen feet below sea level.

Caught tween the Devil and the muddy brown sea.

That money . . .

That money . . .

That money reach in and spin me about.

My hate rise up, rip my insides out.

My madness rise up in a fury so wild and I let myself go.

Spoke my hate to a child.

Pennies done that. Pennies done that

Pocket change . . .

Caroline

Which leads to this, one of the great arias in the history of musical theatre.

Caroline may not change. She changes you.

For those interested, here is the Spotify link to the cast recording.

Rameau’s Harmony

Rameau’s importance to the development of opera notwithstanding, his claim to fame lies in his music theory. Rameau’s harmonic innovations, and especially his development of a fundamental bass, form the basis of modern theories of tonality. Rameau’s 1722 Treatise on Harmony (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traité_de_l%27harmonie_réduite_à_ses_principes_naturels) more or less governed musical composition until Debussy more or less threw it out the window over 150 years later.

The Treatise is divided into four parts: Book 1 (the relationship between harmonic ratios and proportions); Book 2 (the nature and properties of chords); Book 3 (Principles of composition); Book 4 (Principles of Accompaniment). Rameau’s revolutionary text proposed a comprehensive system that covered all aspects of composition: Rameau describes how keys or tonalities are developed and why certain harmonic progressions work, while others do not. His basic terminology for describing fundamental principles of music—chord inversion, tonic, dominant—are still used today. Here is a great article that describes the math and science behind Rameau’s Treatise in greater detail: https://www.reddit.com/r/classicalmusic/comments/31v6nz/til_jeanphilippe_rameaus_treatise_on_harmony_1722/

In his Treatise, Rameau sought to establish, much as Pythagoras had done at the dawn of Western music, that the rules of harmony were derived from nature.  Using mathematical proofs, Rameau presents an analysis of overtones by pitch, finding that the natural harmony of any individual note is a major triad: the octave; the fifth; and the third.  Rameau subsequently broke down these triads into smaller intervals, major and minor thirds.  A chord is either major or minor, diminished or augmented.  In Rameau’s view, the quality of a chord is determined by the relationship of the thirds that are used to construct it.  Those rock songs that are based on three chords?  That’s Rameau all over again.

And yet that’s arguably not even Rameau’s greatest contribution to the development of Western Music. That would be his groundbreaking argument that the figured bass is the prime generator of harmony and harmonic progression, an innovation that pushed music forward in a way not seen since Monteverdi’s Seconda Practica. Rameau’s view, that harmony is produced through functional chord progression grounded by the bass line, endured; the German School’s emphasis on harmony through counterpoint did not. Rameau’s harmony is the foundational rock upon which Western music was ultimately built. For those seeking a more in-depth analysis of Rameau’s music theory, this is a great starting point: https://symposium.music.org/index.php/24/item/1970-composition-before-rameau-harmony-figured-bass-and-style-in-the-baroque.

We close with three instrumental works: one of Rameau’s “concerts”, best described as a harpsichord concerto, followed by one of the more recognizable of his works for harpsichord (the pieces de clavecin are often cited as one of the high points of Baroque composition), before ending with his Le Dauphine for solo harpsichord. 

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Six concerts transcrits en sextuor, I. Premier concert, Le Coulicam:

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Pieces de clavecin, Suite in E Minor, No. 8, Tambourin:

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Le Dauphine: (with some bonus material for Gert.  Le Dauphine is the first piece).

Why so much harpsichord? Partially because Gert requested it. But also because of the wonderful quote about Rameau, who loved the harpsichord above all others: “His heart and soul were in his harpsichord; once he had shut its lid, there was no one home.”

Rameau’s controversial compositions notwithstanding, he died in great popular esteem—200 musicians performed at his funeral to a crowd of over 1000.  At the close of his funeral, the harpsichord lid was shut and the great man laid to rest.

Lists for the New Year

Two quick hits for New Years’ Eve. First, a playlist. Nothing too fancy about this one—just those songs I want to hear tonight. Something old, with a bit of swing and nostalgia. Only one of these songs will feature on this blog properly. But who said music can’t be simple and fun?

Finally, because people have asked, here are my Top 20 Composers. An exceedingly difficult task and present in rough order. I expect this list to change as this blog evolves, but it’s nice to put a marker down at this stage.

  1. Bach
  2. Debussy
  3. Monteverdi
  4. Beethoven
  5. Wagner
  6. Liszt
  7. Palestrina
  8. Ligeti
  9. Stravinsky
  10. Bartok
  11. Mahler
  12. Mozart
  13. Berg
  14. Britten
  15. Messiaen
  16. Shostakovich
  17. Berlioz
  18. Chopin
  19. Glass
  20. Josquin

Interlude: A bit of fun

Several weeks ago, I linked to a great album from the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson, which contrasts the music of Rameau with Debussy. That Conversation is well-known, since Debussy composed a work entitled Hommage a Rameau. It is an ironic Conversation, since Debussy, more than any other composer, was responsible for undermining Rameau’s theory of harmony (which will be covered next week here).

On a much, much lighter note, the Turkish pianist Aysedeniz Gokcin has been exploring the Conversation across several albums, as well as her pandemic virtual concerts. One of her many 2020 albums, Hey World, looks at the sprawling influence of Debussy and other classical composers on popular music of our era. It’s a bit of fun, whcih reminds me of a NYC piano bar or The Professor’s own piano jams, for which he is rightly renowned among our band of brothers.

A bit of fun for this grey December day:

Baroque Music IX: Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)

Of that generation of composers who were born in the decade between 1675 and 1685, there is a good argument to be made that Jean-Philippe Rameau had the greatest influence.  Not Bach.  Not Handel.  Not Vivaldi.  In fact, the term “baroque” was derived from a pejorative comment made about Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie: Jean-Baptiste Rousseau dismissed Rameau as a “distiller[] of baroque chords of which so many idiots are enamoured.”  Other critics complained that Rameau’s “misshaped composition lacked coherent melody, was overly dissonant and changed key and metre too much.” 

Rameau was savagely attacked during his lifetime by traditionalists who braced at his harmonic innovations.  And yet Rameau held on to his exalted position as court composer, much to the dismay of the so-called “Lullyists” who championed the cause and aesthetics of his predecessor.  Perhaps it is hard to hear today what caused passions to run so hot in Paris during the 1750s—but it is fair to say that Rameau’s opera subverted Lully’s conception of French opera completely—driving the entire composition through harmonic progression and changing overnight what French society deemed to have been unchangeable.  To find a parallel to the storm of controversy created by Rameau’s Hippolyte, we need to look to 20th century Paris and the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.  And that guy drank with The Rolling Stones.

So let’s listen to this revolutionary work.  In the Act IV conclusion to his controversial Hippolyte, we see opera take on a bigger, grander sound—perhaps even more so than Handel ever composed.  The discordant tones that so enraged the Lullyists back in the day are clearly discernable, even if their shock value has diminished over the centuries. 

Jean-Philippe Rameau, Hippolyte et Aricie, Act IV conclusion:

For my money, Rameau’s best opera is Les Indes Galantes, which I doubt will ever be performed again given the subject matter.  Rameau is often derided for lack of melody.  This selection puts that debate to rest.  

Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Indes Galantes, Tendre Amour:

Rameau is the first true modern opera composer, laying down the maxim that has guided the art form to this day: “I conceal art with art,” he said, signaling his intent to unite all of the arts (music, fine art, architecture, decorative arts, dance, poetry, etc.) in opera itself.  Rameau was the originator; Wagner was its realization a century later. 

Personal note:  As some may know, my other passion lies in antitrust law and economic theory.  It is therefore unsurprising that Rameau is a personal favorite of mine, not only because of his music, but because he came to so dominate the French opera scene that a petition was circulated in 1740 seeking a royal order to limit his output in any given year.  Who doesn’t love output restraints in Baroque opera?

Christmas and the Baroque Oratorio

As I said, I love Christmas music. And while I love all forms of Christmas music (see yesterday’s playlist), it is no coincidence that my favorite form of music–Baroque oratorio–features prominently in the genre. The first half of the 1700s were awash in Christmas music, likely ignited by Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. Vivaldi followed suit with his own Christmas concerto. Bach composed several works for the holiday, including an oratorio of his own. And yet, during Christmastime, the nearly every orchestra and concert hall in the world programs the same work–Handel’s titanic oratorio, the Messiah. Well, not to throw coal in the stockings of classical music programmers across the world, but Handel’s oratorio was actually composed for Easter, hence the emphasis of the narrative on the Resurrection. I chose one part of that undeniably great oratorio for the Christmas playlist as a nod to tradition (and chose the chorus that celebrates Jesus’ birth), but it is not strictly Christmas music. Handel will get his nod in due course in this blog, but today I’ve chosen a different oratorio (and one that is decidedly shorter than the 2+ hours running time for the Messiah). It is not strictly Christmas music either, but at least for me, it sounds like Christmas. In any event, this is what I will be listening today–a candidate for the greatest oratorio ever composed, regardless of genre or period.

Now that the man in the red suit has completed his duties, let’s allow the Red Priest to take the baton.

Antonio Vivaldi, Gloria:

For those looking for the full version, here is a Spotify link:

And for those traditionalists, here is my favorite recording of the Messiah:

A Gertus History of Christmas Music

I love Christmas music; for me, it is the best thing about the holiday season. Unsurprisingly, composers love Christmas music too and have been churning out carols, oratorios, motets, quartets, and nearly every other form of music to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In that spirit, I have compiled a playlist, starting (as this blog did) with the 11th century composer Hildegard von Bingen and closes with contemporary composer Arvo Part, with plenty of the familiar and unfamiliar along the way (with one cheat to be discussed in Saturday’s entry). All tracks are presented in chronological order. Each one a masterpiece, but I cannot help be struck by Arnold Schoenberg’s contribution to this list. Stripped away is the severe image of the composer most credited with destroying “classical” music through his slavish adherence to unpopular atonal compositions: In the soft light of Christmas, Schoenberg finds in his heart, not to mention some modidcum of classical tonality, as he riffs on the classic carol Silent Night. Truly the magical season.

Here is a full track list:

Hildegard von Bingen, O nobilissima viriditas

Josquin des Prez, Ave Maria

Thomas Tallis, Gloria (from his Christmas mass, Missa Puer natus est)

William Byrd, O magnum mysterium

Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Noels sur Les Instruments (excerpt)

Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 No. 8 in G “fatto per la notte di natale” (excerpt)

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in E Major, RV 270 “Il Riposo . . . per il natale” I. Allegro.

George Frideric Handel, Messiah, 12. For Unto Us a Child Is Born

Johan Sebastian Bach, Gloria in exelsis Deo, BWV 191, (excerpt)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Three German Dances K. 605, No. 3 in C Major “Die Schlittenfahrt

Franz Schubert, Ave Maria

Felix Mendelssohn, Festgesang, No. 2

Hector Berlioz, L’enfance du Christ, Op. 25: L’adieu des Bergers a la Sainte Famille

Camille Saint-Saens, Oratorio de Noel, Op. 12 (excerpt)

Franz Liszt, Weihnactsbaum, S. 185a: No. 3, Die Hirten an der Krippe

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker, Op. 71, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

Gustav Holst, In The Bleak Mid Winter

Arnold Schoenberg, Weihnactsmusik (excerpt)

Sergei Prokofiev, Lieutenant Kije, Op. 60: Troika

Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Wolcum Yole!

Francis Poulenc, Quatre motets pourle temps de Noel, IV. Hodie Chrisus natus est

Arvo Part, Bogoroditse Devo