Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas Analysis Essay

Scarlatti - Five Keyboard Sonatas

The Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti has been a favorite of listeners, performers and composers since a collection of thirty of his keyboard sonatas were published in 1738 under the title Essercizi per Gravicembalo. Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich and other composers studied, played and sometimes made transcriptions of Scarlatti's music. Although Scarlatti is categorized in music history as a Baroque composer, his keyboard sonatas were forerunners of what was to become the sonata form as used by Haydn, Mozart, and almost all composers since.

His father Alessandro Scarlatti was an influential Italian composer of operas and other vocal music. Domenico was born in 1685, the same year as J.S. Bach and Handel. He wastaught by his father and for the first half of his life composed operas and vocal music in imitation of his father. He was a skilled harpsichordist, and there is a story (likely apocryphal) of Scarlatti and Handel competing on the organ and harpsichord, where Scarlatti was deemed the better player of the harpsichord and Handel the better player on the organ.

Alessandro Scarlatti
Scarlatti went to Lisbon, Portugal in 1719 as teacher to the Portuguese princess Maria Magdalena Barbara. When she married into the Spanish royal family Scarlatti followed her to Madrid, Spain as music master to the court. He remained in Spain for the rest of his life and died there in 1757.

Many of the 555 keyboard sonatas he composed were composed for use by the Princess as she was a skilled keyboardist. After he became her teacher, he virtually gave up composing vocal music and concentrated on sonatas for keyboard. With so many sonatas, identification by key is not possible. For example, there are 61 sonatas alone in the key of C. There have been different musicologists that have given numbers to the sonatas, with the first being Alessandro Longo who published all of the sonatas known with corresponding numbers. These numbers are abbreviated with an 'L' before the number. In 1953 the American Ralph Kirkpatrick published his biography of Scarlatti along with his renumbering of the sonatas in chronological order. These numbers have somewhat replaced the Longo numbers, but many times both numbers are given for a sonata.

The basic pattern is the same for nearly all of the sonatas.  An example, the Sonata In C Major (K.133 L.282) begins with a theme in the home key of C major. After this theme there is other material that leads to a section in a minor key (C minor, parallel minor of C major) which leads directly to a section in G major, the dominant of the home key of C major. This constitutes the first part of the binary form and is repeated. The second part begins with the opening theme transposed to the key of E-flat major, the relative major of C minor. The second theme is referred to briefly, new material is presented, previous material is repeated in different keys, the 2nd part ends in the home key of C major and is repeated:

All of the sonatas are written in binary form, in two related sections that are both usually repeated. There are two or three main themes in each part with other material that binds the themes together. Key relationships are straightforward, with tonic-dominant-dominant-tonic being primary. Scarlatti varies his form (key relationship-wise) enough to maintain interest. His themes can be quirky, consists of huge jumps, hand crossings, all manner of techniques that make many of the sonatas unique to performance on a keyboard. There are some that have been transposed for guitar, but most don't transcribe very well.

The influence of Spanish music on the Italian Scarlatti has been the subject of much debate by musicians. The best evidence of the influence is most likely to be heard in the sonatas themselves. The repeated notes in Sonata In F Minor (K.239, L.281) as well as the bass line suggests the guitar. As the home key is F minor, major keys play the role of contrast in this sonata:

Another example of the influence of the Spanish guitar is the Sonata in D Major (K.119, L.415) not only in the repeated notes but by the thick texture of some of the chords that suggest the earthiness of Spanish gypsies and early flamenco. Hand crossings in the second part for each hand test the accuracy of the player:

Not all of Scarlatti's sonatas are fast. He wrote many sonatas that are slower, although some players still take them at a brisk pace. The Sonata In C Major (K.132, L.457) has a tempo indication of 'Cantabile', song-like.  Musicologists think there is a good case to be made for performing the sonatas in groupings of two or three sonatas. A good example could be to play the following sonata and then the C Major sonata K.133 above. They are both in the key of C, one is slow, one is fast :

And then there are the sonatas like Sonata In A Major (K.209, L.428) with the designation Allegro, which can mean many different things. It can be a clue as to the tempo meaning bright, lively, or it can also give a clue as to the mood of the piece; happy. This sonata's mood seems to me to be a happy one:

There remains the problem of what keyboard instrument is appropriate for Scarlatti's sonatas. Purists argue for the harpsichord and clavichord, possibly the organ for some of them. Others say that as long as they are played with 'taste', the sonatas can be played on the modern piano. To me, it is a question of preference. I have heard performances on different kinds of keyboard instruments, and even on guitar, that are very good. There are some that sound better on the harpsichord, especially the ones that imitate the guitar. The harshness of thick chords with closely placed notes seems more appropriate to the spirit of the music than the same chords on a modern piano.  But that's just me. Whatever the instrument, if they are played by a good musician that understands something of the time and the style they were written in, the performance will be musical.

The known facts of Scarlatti’s life are few and largely formal: most are perfunctory entries in court and legal records. The details of his work at given appointments with select patrons remain only vaguely known. Only one letter in his hand survives. A few second-hand stories from 18th-century sources—all set down well after his death—offer sidelong glimpses of the man. Given this situation, scholars have either chosen to stick to the absolutely known or endeavored to fill in missing details in a more speculative effort to get closer to this elusive composer’s experiences, creative identity, and, even, psychology. The contrast between Sheveloff 1980 and Pagano in Grove Music Online—biographical articles for the Grove and New Grove dictionaries, respectively—illuminates the difficulty of accounting for Scarlatti’s life and character and the role of scholarly discipline and/or imagination in any portrait of this composer. Centered on the keyboard works, Kirkpatrick 1953 remains a scholarly monument like few others, still debated by scholars more than a half-century after its publication. Subsequent book-length biographies have treated Scarlatti’s compositional output more equitably (Boyd 1986) or attempted to place him beside his father Alessandro (Pagano 2006, Pagano 2015). The most recent developments in research into Scarlatti’s biography has centered on his decade in service to João V, king of Portugal (D’Alvarenga 2008, Doderer 2010).

  • Boyd, Malcolm. Domenico Scarlatti: Master of Music. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.

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    This narrative of Scarlatti’s life, balanced by consideration of his works, gives equal coverage to his entire career and avoids speculation about Scarlatti’s temperament, relationships, or psychology. Boyd includes concise descriptions of each of the cities and courts where Scarlatti lived and worked. Appendix II provides an English translation of Scarlatti’s will.

  • D’Alvarenga, João Pedro. “Domenico Scarlatti in the 1720s: Portugal, Travelling and the Italianization of the Portuguese Musical Scene.” In Domenico Scarlatti Adventures: Essays to Commemorate the 250th Anniversary of His Death. Edited by Massimiliano Sala and W. Dean Sutcliffe, 17–68. Bologna, Italy: Ut Orpheus Edizioni, 2008.

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    D’Alvarenga summarizes the existing evidence and offers new sources for Scarlatti’s travels in the 1720s, proposing a new timeline for this especially peripatetic period, which ended with the composer definitively based in Spain.

  • Doderer, Gerhard. “Some Remarks on Domenico Scarlatti’s Portuguese Period (1719–1729).” In Domenico Scarlatti: Musica e storia. Edited by Dinko Fabris and Paologiovanni Maione, 225–247. Naples, Italy: Turchini Edizioni, 2010.

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    Divided into three sections, this chapter summarizes biographical information in recently discovered sources; compares Scarlatti with a significant contemporary, the Portuguese keyboard composer Carlos Seixas; and surveys the instruments available at the Lisbon royal palace where Scarlatti worked.

  • Kirkpatrick, Ralph. Domenico Scarlatti. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953.

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    This early landmark of postwar American musicology centers on Scarlatti the keyboard composer. Weighted towards Scarlatti’s years in Portugal and Spain, the work presents a picturesque evocation of the world around the composer in a story that supports the author’s speculative chronology of the works.

  • Pagano, Roberto. “(Giuseppe) Domenico Scarlatti.” In Grove Music Online.

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    Pagano’s wholesale revision of Scarlatti’s biography for the New Grove includes second-hand period sources and speculation not present in Sheveloff’s earlier article for the 1980 Grove. First published in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 2nd ed., vol. 22. Edited by Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 2001), pp. 398–402.

  • Pagano, Roberto. Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti: Two Lives in One. Translated by Frederick Hammond. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon, 2006.

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    English translation of the original 1985 edition of Pagano’s book. Includes references to post-1985 scholarship, suggesting substantial revisions of the Italian original.

  • Pagano, Roberto. Alessandro e Domenico Scarlatti: Due vita in una. Rev. ed. 2 vols. Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 2015.

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    Originally published in 1985, this dual biography seeks to draw direct parallels between Scarlatti and his father Alessandro. Pagano states his intention to bring a “Southern” or Sicilian approach to the psychology of the pair. Pagano’s 2015 revised text and the book’s bibliography and index published in a separate volume.

  • Sheveloff, Joel. “(Giuseppe) Domenico Scarlatti.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 16. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 568–578. London: Macmillan, 1980.

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    Sheveloff brings an extreme skepticism to his narrative of Scarlatti’s life. He rejects Kirkpatrick’s chronology, leaves out second-hand reports from the period, and resolutely resists any conjectures as to Scarlatti the man.

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