1685 was a bumper crop year for composers. Three towering giants of the late Baroque were all born within 8 months each other. This triumvirate of musical masters, each of whom composed prolific amounts of keyboard repertoire, included the likes of Bach (J.S.), Handel and today’s birthday boy - Dominico Scarlatti.
Of the 3, Scarlatti is reputed to have been the greatest harpsichordist (Bach was considered the better organist whilst Handel was considered a close second on both instruments). A modest man and ever reverential of his peers, Scarlatti is nonetheless purported to have crossed himself, casting gaze aloft to the heavens when recounting the improvisation skills of Handel, especially on the harpsichord.
The sixth of ten children, Scarlatti was born in Naples, into a musical family. His elder brother was a recognized musician and his father, Alessandro, is considered to be one of the most significant composers of early Baroque opera in Italy.
Naples at the time was under the patronage of the Spanish Royal Family. In 1719 Scarlatti would move to the Portuguese Imperial Court in Lisbon, where he then became resident court composer, as well as keyboard teacher to the Princess Maria Barbara. When the Princess eventually married into the Spanish Royal family, Scarlatti moved with her entourage to the court at Madrid, where he would live out the rest of his days until the ripe old age of 71.
Scarlatti composed, among other genres, over 550 harpsichord sonatas: attributes of which span the grand flowering of Baroque counterpoint, incorporate elements of rococo taste, and foreshadow the structural and gestural nuances of Classicism. His music was admired and performed by composers including Mozart, Liszt, Brahms to Shostakovich and Bartok in the twentieth century. Chopin would proclaim decades later that Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas would be important components in the recital programming of the world's leading pianists. He was right!
Scarlatti self-published 33 of these sonatas during his life under the title Essercizi per Gravicembalo (keyboard exercises) and noted in the preface that each sonata was to represent ‘an ingenious jesting with art’. Each is full of embellishment, mischief, sarcasm and unbounded capriciousness.
When encounting Scarlatti’s music one will invariably come across two acronyms: K numbers and L numbers. The K stands for the American Harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick who catalogued all of Scarlatti’s works in chronological order. The L numbers refer to an earlier cataloguing by the Italian musicologist and composer Alessandro Longo. Nowadays, the K numbers are considered the more chronologically accurate and appear in greater prevalence.
As a final thought, Scarlatti was a man of impeccable taste and timing and had the wisdom and foresight to choose a birthday which coincided with a certain pianist, teacher and "The Musical Blog" writer who for the present shall remain nameless….
All kidding aside, his music is full of life and engaging energy. A small potpourri mix of his sonatas is a perfect way to commence a program and it is not uncommon to see them grouped in pairings according to tonic major/minor relationships. Here is a sampling of some of my favorite Scarlatti Sonata recordings - Enjoy!!
Murray Perahia - Scarlatti Sonata in D major (K29)
Dazzling, energizing and full of exuberance. Perahia has put out a WONDERFUL disc of Scarlatti sonatas which I highly recommend.
Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli - Scarlatti Sonata in C major (K159)
A towering and imposing figure, Michelangeli is one of the great Italian pianists ever. A revered teacher as well, his summer masterclasses in Italy were legendary for both their pursuit of musical truth, and classes which frequently occurred in the early hours of the morning (just so the maestro could be sure the student really knew their stuff!)
Martha Argerich - Scarlatti Sonata in D Minor (K14)
A miraculous live recording by one of the greatest pianists of them all! Not an easy encore piece whatsoever! Anyone looking for a repeated note study - this is your piece!
Glenn Gould - Scarlatti Sonata in G major (K13)
I grew up on Glenn Gould recordings in general. He only recorded 3 Scarlatti sonatas, but each is lively, effervescent and exceptionally witty. As with everything that Gould touched, it is difficult to hear this piece played any other way.
Horowitz - Scarlatti Sonata E major (K380)
We think of the legendary Horowitz as purely a Romantic era specialist, and of course he had his moments with that repertoire. However, he had a tremendous affinity for the music Scarlatti and produced arguably one of the greatest discs of Scarlatti sonatas ever. If you are looking for a clinic on myriad leggiero touch possibilities, then look no further.