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9.70008 - SCARLATTI, D.: Keyboard Sonatas (Selections) (Wilson)

Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)
Keyboard Sonatas


Today Domenico Scarlatti is remembered, if at all, as a composer of hispanified keyboard sonatas, but before he had left his native Italy (probably in part to escape from a domineering father, the operatic powerhouse Alessandro), he had ascended to the pinnacle of his profession in Rome as a successful opera composer and maestro di capella of St Peter’s. At the Dantean halfway point of his life, he took up a post in distant Lisbon as master of music to the Portuguese court, and teacher to the king’s talented daughter Maria Barbara (granddaughter of the distinguished composer Leopold I of Austria). This was the beginning of a relationship that lasted to the end of Scarlatti’s life, one which seems to have been marked by extraordinary mutual respect and friendship. When Maria Barbara was betrothed to the Crown Prince of Spain, Scarlatti went along with her, “almost as part of her dowry”, as his biographer Ralph Kirkpatrick puts it. For four years the Prince and Princess of the Asturias resided in the Alcazar of Seville, attending the insane King Felipe V, with their harpsichordist at their beck and call. These years in Andalusia were a musical turning point, an infusion of folk-music as fertilising to Scarlatti’s art as that of Hungary and Rumania was to Bartók’s; he “imitated the melody of tunes sung by carriers, muleteers and common people”, says Charles Burney, who forgot to mention the crucial contribution of the flamencos.

We can form an idea of the progress of Scarlatti’s harpsichord style before the encounter with Spain by studying his 30 Essercizi, which he published in 1738 in gratitude for a knighthood received in 1738 from his former master King João V, under the motto Curarum Levamen (Relief from Care). Scarlatti says they were produced under the King’s aegis, (so presumably before 1729), and modestly calls them scherzi ingeniosi suitable for acquiring mastery of the harpsichord. They are the most brilliant and difficult of Italianate harpsichord sonatas. Together with his magnificent portrait by Velasco, where the star of the order of Santiago is perched upon his swelling paunch, they mark the apogee of Scarlatti’s public career. He would, however, be little more than a footnote in music history if that had been his whole legacy; before he began editing the Essercizi, he was already composing the Andalusian sonatas, and these were quite unsuitable for publication. They packed too much of a wallop. To quote Burney (1775) again: “Domenico Scarlatti, half a century ago, hazarded notes of taste and effect, at which other musicians have but just arrived, and to which the public ear is but lately reconciled.” One would be interested to know who these “other musicians” were.

In 1737 the Italian superstar castrato Farinelli came to the Spanish court and stayed until two years after Scarlatti’s death. From that point Scarlatti, always introverted almost to the point of historical invisibility, recedes completely into the shadows. He faithfully followed his princess, later Queen to Ferdinand VI, on the court’s annual round of the Spanish palaces. Some of his sonatas were published in France, and England experienced something of a Scarlatti cult, but the process of stylistic maturation and accumulation of sonatas to a number well over 500 was very much a private matter between Scarlatti and Maria Barbara. They were gathered together by a court copyist with increasing urgency towards the end of the composer’s life, in an order very roughly chronological, many of them paired according to key in a way that seems a delayed and haphazard response to the new fashion for sonatas of more than one movement. The later sonatas increasingly do away with hand-crossings and technical fireworks in order to concentrate on musical content: elegance, concision, unflagging inventiveness, formal perfection, and a kaleidoscope of affects from deepest melancholy to boisterous humour—truly, a relief from care for anyone with ears to hear.

Scarlatti may have suffered more than any other major composer from misunderstanding by performers; pianists coyly miniaturise him, harpsichordists rattle him off as fast as possible with no articulation, or subject him to rhythmic distortions that would leave any Spaniard shaking his head in incomprehension. This is music of a tremendous, earthy power, which needs the bite and crackle of the big Italian-style harpsichords listed in a royal inventory, the only ones with the range for many of the sonatas.

Scarlatti ended his preface to the Essercizi with two words: vivi felice. I hope this selection of fourteen sonatas will demonstrate to the listener how substantially that kind wish for a happy life was supported by his own music.

Glen Wilson

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