About this Recording
8.570718 - CIMAROSA, D.: Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. 1 (Sangiorgio) - R. 1-18

Domenico Cimarosa (1749–1801)
Keyboard Sonatas • 1


Domenico Cimarosa was by far the best-known Italian composer of the late eighteenth century. He was first and foremost a composer of operas. His works were performed all over Europe, both in Italian and in translation, and some of them, including his most famous work, Il matrimonio segreto (1792), remain in the repertory to this day. Cimarosa also composed in other genres but his non-operatic output is understandably small. Between 1772 and 1801 he composed over sixty operas. The time required to do this and to prepare the works for production left little time for anything else, particularly as new productions of his earlier works also required additional material from time to time. The existence then of a substantial body of keyboard music attributed to Cimarosa comes as a surprise. Certainly he was no stranger to keyboard instruments—he played the organ professionally and directed his operas from the harpsichord or fortepiano—but he did not derive his principal income from them either as a performer or teacher. His motivation for composing these works is unknown and adds considerably to their problematic position in his oeuvre.

The first Cimarosa solo keyboard music came to light quite mysteriously in the early part of 1924. Felice Boghen, who served the Istituto Musicale ‘Luigi Cherubini’ in Florence as both a piano teacher and librarian, writes:

I [was] lucky enough to discover by chance a rarity of undoubted historical and artistic importance. The book in question is unknown and unpublished and is made up of two groups of pages entitled: Raccolta di varie Sonate / per il fortepiano / composte dal Signor Cimarosa, a composer whose activity in this field was up till now unsuspected. To persuade myself of the validity of my discovery I have searched through the main European libraries, and in none of them have I found the collection in question. The volume is not an autograph; it is a copy, full of mistakes but quite clearly written, bound in leather and containing, in its first book, 50 pieces, in its second, 31.

Upon his discovery Boghen agreed to send the French publishing house Editions Max Eschig 32 of these 81 single movement ‘sonate per il fortepiano’ for immediate publication. While correcting some of the many mistakes of the eighteenth-century copyist, Eschig’s editor committed a few serious errors of his own in addition to editing the works heavily and inappropriately: bars of music were inadvertently dropped; phrases clearly marked in the manuscript ‘staccato’ were changed to ‘legato’; numerous dynamic markings were added, and, strangest of all, a sonata in 3/4 was changed to 4/4 metre. The edition failed to identify the source of the sonatas or their sequence in the original manuscript.

Since that first publication, a number of other editions of Cimarosa’s keyboard sonatas have appeared although none includes all 81 movements. In recent years five further keyboard works attributed to Cimarosa have been discovered in Milan: four single-movement sonatas and one two-movement (Maestoso / Rondo) work are preserved in a collection titled Sonate per Cembalo. These new discoveries bring the total number of movements to 87 although their authenticity remains unproven. That being said, most if not all of the sonatas are in much the same position and can only be accepted as authentic with some reservation. The circumstantial evidence surrounding their composition is weak or non-existent; the bibliographical evidence is negative (since none of the works is preserved in autograph which is highly unusual in Cimarosa’s case); and the stylistic evidence is inconclusive. Nonetheless, as no contra-attributions have been discovered and our knowledge of Cimarosa’s activities must always remain incomplete, it would be somewhat pedantic to deprive him of the credit of having composed these sparkling little sonatas.

There are several reasons for justifying the grouping of these short movements into two- and three-movement sonatas, the most important of which is the preservation in the British Library of a three-movement sonata in manuscript entitled Sonata/per Fortepiano whose individual movements appear as single-movement sonatas in the Florentine manuscript. Further support for the idea that certain movements are meant to follow one another uninterrupted is to be found in directions such as ‘segue Andante’, ‘segue Allegro and ‘segue Menuè’ which appear in the Florentine manuscript. The final argument for grouping the movements into cycles is that in the second book of the Florentine manuscript most of the pieces fall naturally into movement sequences in tonal terms. There seems little doubt that Cimarosa intended these pieces to be performed in groups of more than one movement. The reasons for breaking up the sets is unclear but it is possible that at some stage an attempt was made to present the works as single-movement sonatas in the manner of Domenico Scarlatti’s works (which, one might add, were also conceived as two-movement works similar to the keyboard sonatas of his Italian contemporaries Alberti and Durane).

The arrangement of the sonatas in this recording follows that first proposed by Jennifer Johnson in 1976. Some of these groupings were of her own choosing but in other cases the sequences follow the numbering and complementary tonalities of movements in the Florentine manuscript.

Although we can be reasonably certain that Cimarosa composed his keyboard sonatas for fortepiano, it is equally clear that much of the keyboard-writing was intended to be suitable for performance on the harpsichord. On the evidence of the extant sources there is little to suggest that Cimarosa was interested in exploring the novel expressive potential of the instrument. Indeed, one can go through the first sixteen sonatas before encountering a single dynamic marking; in Sonata R.17 there are alternating p and f markings on the first and second beats in two successive bars. Even when he uses such conventional dynamic markings they remain isolated instances. For example, he writes a solitary f in the middle of the Andantino grazioso of Sonata R.22 and a single, isolated f in the middle of the opening Allegro of Sonata R.23. If one compares this lack of detail—and it applies equally to articulation markings—with the carefully calculated keyboard writing of Cimarosa’s Viennese contemporaries, it comes as something of a surprise. To draw any firm conclusions, however, is risky given the uncertain provenance of the sonatas.

Cimarosa’s sonatas are small-scale works and structurally unsophisticated in comparison with the mature sonatas of Haydn and Mozart. They belong to a very different tradition, however, and direct comparisons between them are both misleading and pointless. Form and function are so closely interrelated in eighteenth-century music that unless one has a thorough understanding of the circumstances for which a work or group of works was written it is unwise to draw larger conclusions about the relative merits of the composer in that particular genre. In the absence of such information in this case, there is little option but to confine general observations to the works themselves and to speculate that some of the sonatas may have been composed for pupils (about whom we know nothing) or as gifts. If Cimarosa did write these works he certainly did not seek a wider market for them. While the style and structure of the works suggest that many of them were probably written early in Cimarosa’s career, they are accomplished compositions. The larger musical structures of the sonatas are not overly complex but their musical organization on the lower level is generally very good and the music itself highly coherent. Cimarosa invests the works with great variety and musical interest. The most important musical characteristic of these sonatas is their clarity. There is a well-defined polarity between melody and accompaniment and the crystalline brilliance of many of the fast outer movements is very appealing. The slow movements are perhaps less successful but the best of them, especially those in minor keys, are not without expressive depth. The sonatas share little in common with Cimarosa’s operas although one sonata (R.22) takes as its central movement the slow movement from the overture to Il fantico per gli antichi romani (1777).


Allan Badley & Nick Rossi

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