Recording all the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti on the piano is an undertaking of great moment and fascination: a journey through shared cultural experience, as well as one that explores the subtle thought processes of a musical genius, with his Italianate approach to art.



The “vexed question” for anyone approaching Domenico Scarlatti analytically and with a proper concern for his language (even before showing a respectable acquaintance with the history of musical instruments) is that of the sources; that is to say, of the composer’s autographs – in this case non- existent. Scarlatti’s music began to become more widely known in Europe after 1739, the year his thirty Essercizi per gravicembalo (Exercises for the Harpsichord) were published in London – though advertised in January 1739, the notice may possibly postdate the edition by one year. As far as dating the Essercizi is concerned, one of the sentences in Scarlatti’s dedication to Joao V, the Portuguese king, “these compositions first saw the light under your gracious Majesty’s lofty patronage, in the service of your most deservedly favoured Daughter” – raises the possibility that they were written between 1714, the year Scarlatti became maestro di cappella to the Portuguese ambassador in Rome, and 1729, when Princess Maria Barbara married the son of Felipe V, the King of Spain, who would become Scarlatti’s new patron. The original edition of the Essercizi was shortly followed by Roseingrave’s augmented reprint of the same year, which added a further ten previously unpublished sonatas. Scarlatti’s music now began to excite the enthusiasm of musicians, both professional and amateur, and of the general public: proof of the interest roused by these strange and masterly compositions in his contemporaries can be seen in the “Twelve Concerti Grossi after Scarlatti” by Charles Avison, in the many quotations and allusions in certain of Handel’s concertos, and in the way in which the writer Laurence Sterne has his Tristram Shandy describe the character of his own father, in “musicalese”, as a sort of con furia person, like Avison’s Sixth, (perhaps a useful linguistic hint for the performer as to the correct interpretation of E29?) But while eighteenth-century England’s role in the promotion and sale of music was to lead to its growing importance as an international centre of musical life, in Italy, on the other hand, little or nothing was known about the son of Alessandro Scarlatti.

For this complete Scarlatti recording we shall be using “catalogue” numbering consisting of city or edition, letters and numbers. (Parma has priority, both in order and catalogue arrangement, in the case of those sonatas that appear in other editions or manuscripts as well.) Thus we have the sigla E1-30 for the Essercizi 1 to 30 and P1:1 to P15:42 for all the sonatas in Parma. Sonatas contained in collections other than Parma and Esserciziare identified by their source, followed by the number showing the order in which they appear in that source. For example, because the letter E identifies the Essercizi, E1 is Kirkpatrick’s K1, while P1:1 means the first sonata in the first volume of Parma, i.e. K148.

As shown by the three primary collections (Essercizi, Parma and Venice), the sonatas are almost always arranged in groups of thirty. Besides Scarlatti, the Portuguese Seixas and the Spaniards Soler and Albero also left collections of thirty sonatas, usually short and consisting of a single movement. Why were these pieces assembled in thirties? Is there a practical significance – a sonata a day for a month? Or was it perhaps symbolic? In his Memorial do Convento, the Nobel Prize writer Jose Saramago describes the thirty steps of a ceremonial staircase, built for Joao V in memory of the thirty pieces of silver for which Judas betrayed Christ. And thirty was also the age of Jesus Christ when he was baptized.

Other manuscript collections of Scarlatti sonatas – or ones that include some Scarlatti sonatas – are referred to by the name of the city in which they are to be found: Barcelona, Bologna, Cambridge, Coimbra, Lisbon, London – Worgan (the second name comes from the eighteenth-century collector), Madrid, Milan, Montserrat, Munster, Naples, New Haven, Paris, Tenerife, Turin, Valladolid and Vienna; others bear the name of the editor (Roseingrave, Clementi) or publisher (Avison, Haffner, Johnson, Cooke – linked to Roseingrave in the 1739 edition). The Essercizi is the only collection whose name is taken from its title.

It is interesting to note the way in which the Roseingrave and Cooke edition mixes Scarlatti sonatas with unpublished movements by Roseingrave himself. Two introductory pieces, in the style of a French overture, set the scene for the dotted rhythms of Essercizio 8. Roseingrave’s intelligent rearrangement of Scarlatti’s sonatas offers a convincing performing order for all 42 numbers in the edition, including the final fugue, which is followed by a minuet of his own composition. There are also a number of interesting textual “revisions”, justified here by the statement “carefully revised and corrected from the errors of the press by Thos.

Roseingrave….” Given the different order of the Essercizi in this collection and the credibility of their new arrangement, we can quietly begin to trust such reorderings (Parma, especially) – in print, on the concert platform and, nowadays, on disc – and say goodbye without regret to any claims of evident chronological order, chiefly based, as they are, on conjecture. An unfamiliar order will do no damage to the music.

Odd ornaments and notational oddities: “great curves”, trills, “tremoli”

In “The keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti: a re-evaluation of the present state of knowledge in the light of the sources”; Brandeis University, 1970, a brilliant and painstaking investigation into the various Scarlatti MSS, Joel Sheveloff devotes considerable attention to a particular aspect of Scarlatti’s notation that he calls “great curves”, sort of non-phrasing slurs over parts of the text that may require notes under them to be left out. In modern editions this strange feature, which Kirkpatrick calls “calligraphic slurs”, is either left to be interpreted by the editor as he thinks best or simply just omitted. When these “curves” indicate a da capo, with an alternative ending for the repeat, a metrical distortion can sometimes occur (see E 18, for example). In sonata P3:4 (K 110), however, the sequence of structural units may even have to be rethought and the player might have to revise his whole strategy: omitting bars 44 and 105 would lead to a serious metrical elision and a rethinking of the entire structure. This particular oddity appears in Venice 1749, but is missing from the collection known as London. That the omission of everything under the slurs (i.e. bars 44 and 105) is intentional is confirmed by the versions in Cambridge and New Haven; Parma 3, however, restores the bars in question.

In her article The notation of Scarlatti’s MSS: problems and observations (Minutes of the Scarlatti Conference, Siena 1985, in “Chigiana”, XL 1990) Emilia Fadini neither advocates nor condemns the practice of playing trills from the note above, since “As we know, Italian performance practice, like that of Spain and Portugal, did not regard the almost compulsory French way of starting the trill from the upper note as the norm. Here too, therefore, it will be up to the performer to decide whether to start the trill from the main note, the one above or the one below, with or without appoggiatura, judging from the context alone.” Deo Gratias! Trilling from the upper note is defended by traditionalists in academic circles, who respect the practice as deriving from a more codified French system of ornamentation, but we are also influenced more empirically by recordings of the great performers – Ross and Kirkpatrick especially, but also others such as the pianists Gould (for Bach) and Horowitz (for Scarlatti). The latter, in turn, under the guidance of his “teacher” Kirkpatrick, trills from above even in an extended conjunct melodic line, which is really not the place for it – but he does it so beautifully! Nothing “on paper” is more important in music than conviction and inner coherence in performance.

Many aspects of Scarlatti’s writing (or at least what we may suppose to have originated with him) can lead in some cases to uncertainty. The word “tremulo”, for instance, which appears in the following sonatas: K 96, 114, 115, 118, 119, 128, 132, 136, 137, 172, 175, 183, 187, 194, 203, 204a, 208, 272, 291, 510, 525 and 543, has been officially approved by Kirkpatrick as equivalent to the word “trill” and treated by him as the same ornament. We are indebted to Barbara Sachs for an article in which she reviews the credible assumptions, rather than mere guesses, that this ornament sign might demand an interpretation different from that of the trill. Whenever the instruction tremulo appears, always in the right hand, the third and fourth fingers are free, or the second and third, or in many cases all three, so that rapid repetitions are possible with those fingers. In fact, the performer, trained and tireless as he must be if he is to storm the mighty mountain, immediately sees – and (we have to add) feels in his fingers – what is essentially a guitar “tremolo”. Such a solution is actually put forward in Nicolo Pasquali’s 1757 treatise on fingering, in which he suggests that the same note be repeated three or five times. Moreover, Christophe Rousset points out, as a sort of contre-exemple ideal to convince anyone who doubts the sign does have a precise meaning, that in one Scarlatti sonata tremolo appears no less than five times placed right above tr, which should logically disqualify the two signs from meaning the same thing. Who could take issue with him? If anything, Sachs writes, this example might suggest playing both ornaments in sequence, treating the second one as repeated notes at the end of a trill, thus reviving an ornamental formula from both the treatise of Lorenzo Penna (1672) and the keyboard music of Gregorio Strozzi (1687). Sachs thus restores the same meaning to the tremolo, i.e. the repetition of a single string, that was taught by Marini and Castello and is still valid today.

What should the performer do? Not act like a doctrinaire preacher, obviously, concerned more with the text than with its meaning, but treat the tremolo sometimes as a trill and at others as quick, light repeated notes.


“There is at present no evidence to controvert the astounding hypothesis that most of the remainder [beyond the thirty in the first edition, known as the Essercizi] of Scarlatti’s 554 sonatas date from the very last years of his life, for the most part 1752 onwards.” (Ralph Kirkpatrick, “Domenico Scarlatti’s Early Keyboard Works”, The Musical Quarterly, XXXVII – 1951). “Since every manuscript of keyboard music in the composer’s hand has been lost and copies cannot be connected with dates of composition, no evidence existed then or exists now to overrule Kirkpatrick’s theory. The burden of proof, that dates of transmission closely approximate those of composition, always falls on the propounder. The unlikelihood of such a late burst requires something more positive than dates on scribal copies to become credible.” (“Domenico Scarlatti: Tercentenary frustrations”, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 71, no.4).

The two major studies contradicting Kirkpatrick’s claim to have established a chronological order for Scarlatti’s keyboard works – that of Giorgio Pestelli, based on stylistic considerations, and the one by Joel Sheveloff, comparing manuscript sources with printed editions – provoked Kirkpatrick to a devious response (“a study in reverse scholarship”, as Sheveloff calls it), a sort of reductio ad absurdum, in which with a buffoonish logic he proposes, given the shortage of documentation, that Scarlatti did not himself actually write the sonatas, but merely prepared an outline of them for their true author, Queen Maria Barbara. He called this the “Barbarian” conjecture (reminding us of the attribution of Shakespeare’s plays to Bacon); but I for one cannot accept it as valid, in view of the strong consistency of the language in both the Esserciziand the rest of Scarlatti’s work, and the recurrent use of motives and procedures such as the ubiquitous falling tetrachord and the “walking bass” 1-5, to mention only two examples, besides the unfailingly compact structure of every piece. Such linguistic coherence does much to undermine Kirkpatrick’s argument that creative thought could possibly be expressed in sketches or simple “ground-plans” that would later be developed by a second person.

Faced with a substantial body of compositions of roughly the same length and all called “sonata”, it is fairly natural to regard them as a whole and to view each item as part of a larger set. This leads one to see each individual sonata as existing both inside and outside its own system of reference, that being the sum of the known Scarlatti sonatas. In his ground-breaking study (“Domenico Scarlatti – Life and Works, 1953) Ralph Kirkpatrick established guide lines for a formal analysis of the Scarlatti sonata that are still valid today, even if less refined and extensive than present views. As Kirkpatrick sees it, after the exposition of the main thematic and rhythmic material, there comes in both halves of the sonata a shift to a subsidiary tonality, a point which he calls the “crux”; all events which follow are termed “post-crux”. Beyond a shadow of doubt, the “big K” had grasped the shape of Scarlatti’s sequentially repeating syntactical units, sometimes known as “interconnected tiles”, a theory that is of growing interest to scholars today.

Rita Benson and Kathleen Dale succeeded in arranging the sonatas by “form” and “mood”, while Christopher Hail, a devoted (if mysterious) “promoter” of Scarlatti, floods the internet with extremely relevant information, even going so far as to rearrange the sonatas by tonal sequence. In this “hit parade” – which concerns only the first half of each sonata – the vanguard is led by 84 sonatas whose key-structure is a simple I major, V major; these are followed by 60 built on I major, V major, V minor and V major, and then by a group of sonatas in the minor that use the straightforward pattern I minor, V minor. Among the “unique” examples, whose key-sequence is not found elsewhere, is Essercizio 7, one of the Avison transcriptions, with its I minor, V minor, IV minor, VII minor, III minor and III major. The most famous classification – controversial, admired, but in fact found worth discussing only because of its provocative chronology – is the 1967 study by Giorgio Pestelli, then still in his twenties, who confidently assigned an order of composition to the sonatas on the basis of their language, style and formal structure. According to Pestelli, Scarlatti’s output can be classified as follows:

  1. Venice 1705-1709
  2. Rome 1707-1719
    • The violin sonatas
    • Close to the toccata
    • In the margins of the suite
    • The polyphonic sonatas:
      • the fugues
      • the other polyphonic sonatas
  3. The pre-Essercizi
  4. The choice
    1. “Essercizi”
    2. “… vague idea of dances”
    3. Four movements in moderate tempo
    4. Along the pathway of the toccata…
    5. “…in the sphere of the etude”
  5. The great flowering after the Essercizi
    1. The “easier” style
    2. The “varied” style
    3. 1738-1745 I – Allegri alla breve; II – Ternary movements; III – Etudes; IV – Andanti; V – Search for remote keys
  6. The last decade, 1746-1757
    1. The galant moment
    2. Allegri alla breve
    3. “Simplified” Allegri alla breve
    4. Ternary movements
    5. “Amplified” ternary movements
    6. Etudes
    7. “Amplified” ?? andanti
    8. Counterpoint in “middle style”; the shadow of Frescobaldi
    9. The “Wertherstimmung”
    10. The revival of the toccata
    11. The late sonatas


Tradition and innovation in Scarlatti’s musical language

Sutcliffe underlines the historical potency of “impurity” in Scarlatti’s mixed style. “After all, if Scarlatti was intent on purity, he was certainly at liberty to ignore the outside voices that seem to press in on his musical world – that is what all composers to a greater or lesser extent had always done”. This may be understood as meaning that Scarlatti did not feel competitive pressure from important figures of the previous generation (the so-called Anxiety of Influencesuggested by Harold Bloom in 1973, according to which every poem can be seen as a faulty reading of an earlier one – hence the phenomenon of “strong” and “weak” poets). In the world of music, works become “relational events”, rather than “closed and static entities”. In escaping, to a very large extent, the influence (or rather, the judgment) of his father Alessandro, Domenico perhaps did not suffer from this kind of anxiety, thanks to his family life in Spain; on the other hand, he did not allow this newly achieved independence to reject the lessons of Italian tradition, which continued to make every work of his compact and coherent, regardless of their style or shape. Chris Willis finds “performative rhetoric which animates the Italian toccata” in certain pieces by Scarlatti that are neither anchored in, nor divorced from, Italian tradition. Scarlatti too was faced with the task of writing music similar enough to that of the previous generation to be well received by his audience, but without loss of respect for his originality. Brahms, for instance, offers us music of great originality that has no direct references to the past but, at the same time, includes deliberate (though hidden) allusions to it. These allusions serve to recall the music of his predecessors at a subconscious level, which allows his music to be regarded as very original. If Scarlatti had any “anxiety” of this kind, he disguises it – or possibly manages it – so well that we are left with a sense of balance between continuity and a break with his forerunners.

The poetic aspect of Scarlatti’s Spielfreude – delight in performing – has been described in an original way by Peter Boettinger, who speaks of “the childish pleasure of treating single notes as if they were fresh snow: intact and smooth.” Hence, in joining up the notes, the adult performer could in some sense be regarded as distrustful of such naivety, with Scarlatti’s own outlook a “distrust of this distrust.” Summing up, we have here a case of the Peter Pan syndrome, together with the ability of a composer to create devices that are proof against both time and the instrument itself.

The concept of Fingermusik – finger music – , a word which Pagano uses to refer to certain procedures in Scarlatti, seems to be equally matched by that of Augenmusik – eye music ; together they mark the two opposite sides of the creative process, the musical material providing the first and its elaboration (or even better, its design) the second.

Sutcliffe notes that Scarlatti often “thinks through his fingers and his inspiration comes from a symbiosis of hands and keyboard.” Valabrega writes: “Scarlatti’s creative force is striking and his musicality is of the utmost fluidity. His is an incomparable openness, a vein of Mediterranean song, shining and fluent, through which the art of the harpsichord is brought to its ultimate perfection.” An “instrumental demon”, he calls him. Is it in fact this “demon” which is at the root of those reports, ranging from mere anecdote to historically reliable accounts, that surround the figure of Scarlatti the harpsichord virtuoso? Charles Burney mentions a meeting between Roseingrave and Scarlatti, apparently in the first decade of the eighteenth century, at a private assembly in Venice, in which our man Roseingrave was showing what he could do at the harpsichord, until “a grave young man dressed in black and in a black wig, who had stood in one corner of the room, very quiet and attentive while Roseingrave played, being asked to sit down to the harpsichord, when he began to play, Rosy said, he thought ten hundred d—ls had been at the instrument; he had never heard such passages of execution and effect before.”

More apocryphal – totally so, according to Graham Pont, the author of an article about the incident – is the story of a certain battle of the keyboards in Rome between Scarlatti and Handel, told by the biographer of the “great Saxon”, John Mainwaring. This, says Pont, is quite as unfounded as a report by Scarlatti himself (relayed again by Mainwaring) of a masked ball in Venice in which he heard somebody playing the harpsichord that “could only be the famous Saxon or the devil himself.” The theatrical aspect of Scarlatti’s keyboard music, with its element of social interaction, even provocation, is underlined with searing frankness by Diderot in a passage from his La Religieuse, which is worth quoting, as told succinctly – and with no mincing of words – by Daniel Heartz:

“In her last convent Sister Suzanne was one day taken to the Mother Superior’s room, where she was obliged to sit down at the harpsichord and play Couperin, Rameau and Scarlatti. The aged abbess, with one hand on Suzanne’s bare shoulder, went through the stages of, first, sighing, then gasping and finally orgasm. Diderot leaves us to imagine the sequence of pieces that corresponded to these three stages.” Have times changed at all?

[Scarlatti’s preface]

“Reader, whether you be Dilettante or Professor, in these Compositions do not expect any profound Learning, but rather an ingenious Jesting with Art, to train you in the Mastery of the Harpsichord. Neither Self-interest, nor Ambition led me to publish them, but Obedience. Perhaps they may please you, in which case I shall the more willingly obey further Commands to gratify you in a simpler and more varied style. Be therefore kind rather than critical, and your Pleasure will be greater. To understand the disposition of the hands, be advised that the D indicates the right hand, and the M the left. Live happily. (Or perhaps: May Happiness be yours!)

N.B. In the numbering of the thirty Essercizi, E1 – 30 corresponds to K1 – E1-30

Sonatas E1 and E30, placed at the beginning and end of the collection, may have been arranged thus to encourage performance of the thirty sonatas in order, since in Scarlatti’s day the usual practice was to end a cycle with polyphony. In the same way, the influence of Scarlatti can perhaps be traced in the fourth part of Bach’s Clavierubung, better known as the Goldberg Variations: for instance, the thirty variations of Bach’s work; similarities between his Variations 20 and 29 and Scarlatti’s E22, E24 and E29; the transition from Variation 15 to Variation 16; the use of free counterpoint in the final variation.

E30, the so-called “Cat’s Fugue”, which concludes the cycle, acquired this amusing title from Muzio Clementi’s selection of pieces for his “Practical Harmony”. The rising theme is supposed to represent footsteps – in this case, those of a cat, walking carelessly over random keys on a harpsichord, though always at the interval of a third. (On the other hand, Nora the Cat, who has won millions of followers on the Net, seems to prefer repeated notes to rising thirds.) The name does actually appear in the index of the manuscript known as Munster, but could have been added later. In 1803 Antonin Reicha composed a Fugue in G minor (op.36, no.9) on a “theme by Domenico Scarlatti”, apparently inspired by the Cat’s Fugue; however, no.16, a fugue in C minor, with a theme in thirds, sounds more like Scarlatti than the one in G minor. Walter Gerstenberg is right to class E30 a fugato rather than a real fugue, and Pestelli argues convincingly that the tradition of “Toccate di durezze e ligature” (toccatas demonstrating unprepared and prepared dissonance) and “Stravaganze” (oddities), which thrived from Frescobaldi to Zipoli, lives on in this Scarlatti sonata.

E1 opens with a motive that is a quintessential “fingerprint” in Scarlatti, a rising sequence of five conjunct notes that occurs frequently in the left hand as a “walking bass” (often in triple time), a device we shall in future call 1-2-3-4-5. Another “signature” found in E1 is a falling four-note motive that often resembles a typical Phrygian cadence in the bass or, as here, appears as a melodic fragment in the right hand. At the close of the first part of E1, this falling tetrachord, as we shall refer to it, recalls a similar passage in L’Egyptienne by Rameau (1728), in view of the addition of parallel thirds to the lower voice. The writing in E1 is predominantly in two parts, with the piece beginning as a canon at the octave, a common feature of Scarlatti’s language when he is using this texture. The second half of the sonata – the B section – again starts with a canon at the octave below, this time in the dominant, the key in which the first half ended, as it would in a typical Baroque inventio; the difference being that Scarlatti’s continual transformation of his basic motives, rather than imposing a cyclical thematic unity, seems to propel the music forward, so that it becomes more like narrative or theatre.

An Allegro in D by Carlos Seixas ( 037 from the Alvarenga collection) has some features that can be recognized in E24, E26 and E29, but there are more similarities in the Essercizi with Rameau: apart from the previously mentioned passage in E1, other sonatas that recall – or are possibly influenced by – the great French composer are E10 and E14, which could be likened toLes Tourbillons of 1724, and E27, where a passage divided between the two hands brings to mind Les Tricotets, as well as the third double of the gavotte, the allemande and Les Trois Mains, all from 1728; while the hand-crossing in E12 shows parallels with Couperin’s scoring for two keyboards in Le tic-toc-choc ou les maillotins, a piece croisee from the 18th Ordre of 1722. This last Essercizio was later published again in an interesting arrangement by Carl Tausig, who filled in the spaces left blank in Scarlatti’s original, aptly demonstrating a kind of “German style” approach to the acoustic texture that contrasts with – and in retrospect reveals – Scarlatti’s own deftly transparent sound world and his sense of proportion.

part from the cases just mentioned, parallels with J.S.Bach’s keyboard writing occur most frequently in some pieces in binary form. E4 in fact begins like an allemande, and Landowska finds a similarity in its opening to Bach’s Prelude in D # minor (WTC 2), and even more of one between E8 and the Fugue in G minor from the same book. A feature closer to the typical Baroque dance is the symmetry in the two halves of the themes, compared with the asymmetry of the harmony: thematic unity in the home key (A), followed by thematic unity in a subsidiary key (B); then, after the double bar, comes a C- section – often, especially in theEssercizi – thematically very similar, if not absolutely identical to the opening, but in a secondary key. The themes and harmony of the second half are more adventurous, possibly inducing a sense of palindrome in the listener as the sonata closes with either the main theme or its partner. Kirkpatrick calls this type of Scarlatti sonata “closed”; it is certainly further from the pre-Classical stamp that is beginning to show in the “open” sonata, with its unsettled, ambiguous C-section (the future Classical “development”), full of idiosyncratic ideas like “vamp sections”, triple repeats, remote modulations, etc. In the thirty Essercizi, second-half openings correspond to first-half, except in E17, E18, E19, E27 and E 30, where only a fragment of the first half is repeated; in E10, E20, E25 and E29 the opening is varied, and in E22 and E28 (this last no more than a fragment) it is inverted. Five sonatas in the collection are built on a “walking bass” 1-2-3-4-5, an omnipresent feature of these pieces: E7, E10, E13, E15 and E21.

With the exception of E9 and E19 – and of course of the fugal E30 – the second half of every sonata opens with the same harmonic function that closes the first half. In E25, whose first half finishes in the dominant minor, the second half begins with the same function in the major, which leads back to the tonic through a series of modulations. In E14, the harpsichordist Donald Foster hears echoes of the pastoral tradition, where Sacheverell Sitwell detects the sound of the mandoline, against a Neapolitan-Spanish background. (I suspect that much of what a listener, a scholar or a performer perceives in these pieces is defined by the tempo he has in mind.) Other “Iberian” sonatas might include E6, with its zapateado rhythm, E15 and E24, with their many memories of the guitar, and E27, with its prominent Phrygian falling fourths, shortly after the start.

Wanda Landowska discovers a pastoral tendency in E7, as well as rhythmic monotony and a lightly veiled melancholy, qualities perhaps even more marked in E9, which Carl Tausig turned into an actual real-life “Pastorale”; in addition to refashioning it enough to suit his own poetic vision, he transposed the piece into E minor, in order to make the pairing with E20 in E major (re-christened “Capriccio” for the occasion) tonally more plausible and acceptable. Tausig’s was a very arbitrary interpretation of Scarlatti’s pairing system, though he was not the first in the field: Clementi had already made a suite from the etudes in his “Gradus ad Parnassum”, a move which probably prompted Longo to do the same in his arbitrary “montage” – and, later, catalogue – of Scarlatti’s sonatas. Carl Sloane, in his article “A fresh look at Domenico Scarlatti’s Essercizi per gravicembalo, and the “tremulo di sopra” (Early Music 35: 605-608, 2007), concludes: “The Essercizi have been extensively organized, and to obviate any argument which attempts to use their supposed random arrangement as proof that the pairs in Venice and Parma are due to the scribe [incomplete sentence here!]. The groupings themselves would seem to be of an experimental nature, and one is bound to wonder if they are part of Scarlatti’s ‘ingenious jesting with Art’; those in the first half may be founded in modal theory – D minor istono primo, and G minor tono primo irregolare. The rationale in K16-18 and K23-25, or the corresponding quadruples, seems obvious, at least to a point, but both they and the E-D couples may reflect a desire to create contrast by exploiting the temperament. Until someone presents a more convincing argument to the contrary than any I have seen so far, I am compelled to believe that Scarlatti used mean-tone, and although some writers are dismissive of what they regard as hair-splitting divisions of the comma, I doubt whether any of them would extend their point of view to meantone.”

Joel Sheveloff is of the opinion that the so-called “Italianate” two-movement sonata had arrived in Spain by 1745, and thinks that this may have influenced Scarlatti’s decision to pair some of the sonatas, even though in his case each sonata keeps its own title and number. Thus theEssercizi groupings can probably be thought of as immediate forerunners of the pairings in Venice and Parma.

To compile his twelve Concerti Grossi for strings, published in 1743, the English organist Charles Avison (1709-1770) assembled a collection of various Scarlatti sonatas, taken from the Roseingrave-Cook edition and from other sources; some of the sonatas which Avison used appear in the Venice 1742 manuscript, others are continuo sonatas that probably reached England from Spain. Avison usually combines sonatas in the same key, though E6, E11, E12, E19, E25 and E28 have been transposed to fit the key of the concerto to which they are assigned. The other Essercizi used for these concerti are E1, E2, E5, E7, E9, E17, E20, E21, E23, E24 and E26. E7, with its unique and puzzling key structure (I minor, V minor, IV minor, VII minor, III minor, III major), forms the last movement of Concerto no.9, where it follows an untracedsiciliana, apparently also by Scarlatti.

Vestiges of the Essercizi can also be found in G.F.Handel. Alexander Silbiger, who has done exhaustive research into this matter, has come upon a number of possible Scarlatti “borrowings” in Handel’s op. 6 Concerti Grossi, written in September-October 1739. It was well known that Handel had drawn extensively on Gottlieb Muffat’s Componimenti Musicali, a collection of keyboard music published a short time earlier, but the Essercizi were not thought to have attracted Handel’s attention. Basil Lam, however, points out that the opening theme of Concerto no.5 is based on the first few measures of E23; in the same sonata one finds an even closer likeness in Handel’s subsequent transformation of the theme. The third movement of this concerto (presto) shows features of Scarlatti’s style that may possibly have been borrowed from E23. Lam also writes that the last movement of Concerto no.1, whose opening figure seems to have been borrowed directly from E2, “is in general strangely reminiscent of Domenico Scarlatti.” In addition to these concordances, Silbiger has succeeded in finding others. In Concerto no.3, the fifth movement (in 6/8) seems to draw on E15 for its meter, rhythm and structure, and some figures in the second movement are definitely related to passages in E12. Other similarities are weaker, for instance those between the first movement of Concerto no.4 and E16; or between the fifth movement of Concerto no.6 and E6.

Comparing the two composers, one can see clearly that his strangely idiosyncratic but effective ideas, as well as his particular way of writing, would have made Scarlatti popular and influential in years to come. A succession of novel but subtly prepared statements, unexpected and apparently unconnected four-bar phrases, sudden changes of mode and mood – these are some of the features that recur most frequently in Scarlatti’s music. Handel, on the other hand, gives prominence and structural weight to the opening figures, which he then develops effortlessly in a binary framework that is not as symmetrical as in Scarlatti.

Silbiger’s summing up of Handel’s approach to form: “….almost the reverse of Scarlatti’s – which is more a consequence of the musical flow than of a previously established system…” does indeed describe one of the chief aspects of Scarlatti’s formal mastery, and one which makes him unique. There can be no doubt that the composer of the Essercizi is the same man who wrote the later sonatas in Parma and Venice: there are too many identical melodic shapes and formal gestures for us to question that the same person created this miraculous music. I cannot therefore subscribe to the suggestion that it could have been conceived in the head of Maria Barbara, Scarlatti’s patron – but also his student.

Carlo Grante©2009

Notes on individual Parma volumes, etc.; Reviews of Carlo Grante’s Scarlatti recordings (Facebook)

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in C major (K. 159)

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in E minor, P4:20 (K. 198)

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in A minor (K. 54)

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in G major (K. 55)

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in A minor. P1-28 (K. 175)

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in B minor. (K. 27)