FL 2 3041

Scarlatti: 18 Sonatas for Harpsichord

Release date August 14, 1995
Album code FL 2 3041
Periods Baroque

Album information

Born in the same year as J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel, Domenico Scarlatti never achieved in his lifetime the recognition of his famed colleagues, however prestigious his position as Music Master to the Spanish Queen may have been. This is probably due to the fact that he composed most of his music for a single instrument: the harpsichord.

Now that there is renewed interest in the harpsichord, so too has Scarlatti come into his own as one of the foremost keyboard composers of all time, along with Liszt and Chopin. He is also today recognized as the true pioneer of modern keyboard technique.

His father, Alessandro, was one of the most celebrated musicians of his time. Active in Naples, he was a prolific composer producing close to one hundred operas and over 600 cantatas! Of his ten children, most of whom were musicians, only Domenico was destined to a brilliant career. After beginning his musical studies with his father and holding a position as organist in the Neapolitan Royal Chapel, Domenico travelled to Venice in 1705. There he met Handel who was on a study tour of Italy. Legend has it that one evening, at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni, the two musicians engaged in a friendly duel of improvisation and virtuosic display. Handel emerged as the superior organist while Scarlatti was proclaimed the best harpsichordist by virtue of his elegant and expressive style.

From 1709 to 1714 Domenico Scarlatti lived in Rome as an employee of Queen Maria Casimira of Poland. In 1715 he was named Master of music at the Cappella Giulia where he worked for the Portuguese ambassador. In 1719 he left the Vatican for a sojourn in England, possibly to meet Handel or to visit his uncle Francesco, but it is uncertain if he reached his destination. Scarlatti moved to Portugal the following year, but only in 1728 was he named Master of music at the Royal Chapel. Meanwhile, he spent some time in Rome, where he was married, and in his native city of Naples.

In 1729, after ten years in Lisbon, Scarlatti agreed to go to Spain with his famous student the Infanta Maria Barbara, who had just married the Prince of Asturias, future King Ferdinand VI of Spain. Scarlatti lived in Madrid until his death in 1757, employing his genius exclusively towards the composition of harpsichord sonatas, intended likely for the sole entertainment of Maria Barbara. His student had been a brilliant harpsichordist in her youth, but her responsabilities as head of state obliged her to abandon practising. Nevertheless, she always kept her passion for music, and one may surmise that Scarlatti composed and played his new sonatas to suit her fancy.

Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas met with a singular fate. Between 1752 and 1757, Maria Barbara had 496 sonatas copied by professional copyists, then had the fifteen volumes bound in precious leather embossed with the royal coat of arms. These sumptuous volumes were later bequeathed to the famous castrato Farinelli and are now preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. They are the principal source for modern editions.

Strangely enough, none of Scarlatti’s original manuscripts have come down to us. Speculation has it that they were destroyed after official copies were made, to prevent the publication of pirated versions and to ensure the Queen’s exclusive rights to this exquisite music. The only works published during Scarlatti’s lifetime were a collection of early sonatas entitled Essercizi per Gravicembalo (London, 1738).

It was the Italian musicologist Alessandro Longo who produced the first modern edition of the sonatas in the early years of our century. Because this edition contained numerous errors, omissions and questionable additions, a review of the entire effort was undertaken by American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, who, after long and thorough research (the results of which were published in 1953 by Princeton University Press and in 1982 by the Éditions Jean-Claude Lattès) established, among other things, an approximate chronology of the sonatas and the presentation of them in pairs. He also published a facsimile of the source. Thus the letter “K” after each sonata refers to the Kirkpatrick catalogue. Subsequently, Canadian harpsichordist Kenneth Gilbert prepared the first complete “Urtext” edition of the sonatas, published in eleven volumes by Heugel between 1971 and 1984.

Today Scarlatti is recognized as the true originator of modern keyboard technique. He discovered or invented many ways to make the harpsi- chord expressive: repeated notes and chords, jumps, hand-crossing, brilliant runs, etc. His music is highly idiomatic, innovative, and written with a profound knowledge of the virtuosic demands and tonal resources of the harpsichord, exploiting to the outmost the instrument’s different registers.

The music’s lively and contrasting impulse, its engaging rhythms, surprising harmonies and distinctive tunes bring out the harpsichord’s melodic, dynamic and percussive attributes. The playful, joyful and radiant qualities of the sonatas imitating in turn the guitar, castanets, hunting horns, trumpets and drums, evoke bewitching gypsy melodies or suggest the obsessive stamping of Flamenco dancers.

Scarlatti’s music has remained modern and alive. Let us dispel a misunderstanding: if this music appears pretty, elegant and refined when played on the piano, its characteristic vigour is nevertheless unfortunately diminished. Only on a harpsichord can the music’s shades, sonority and true colours come to life. Scarlatti himself emphasized that his music was not suited to all keyboard instruments.

As for the term “sonata,” it does not refer here to the classical meaning of the word, but rather to the generic and etymological meaning derived from the word “sonare” (to sound), just as “toccare” (to touch) relates to toccata and “cantare” (to sing) relates to cantata. The form of the sonatas is very simple, almost always binary with optional repeats. Each begins with a compelling introduction followed by a short development and ends with an engaging ritornello. Often, sonatas in the same key are paired in sequence (for example, K. 544- K.545).

For this recording, Luc Beauséjour has selected 18 of the most beautiful sonatas from among the 555 or so that survived. With such an incredible abundance of quality and quantity, making a choice was very difficult. The paramount considerations here were to present an adequate sampling of Scarlatti’s inventive genius and the particular interest of each piece, as well as the performer’s desire to share with the listener his pleasure in playing them.

©Pierre Gouin
Translation: Rachelle Taylor

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Luc Beauséjour
AN 6 1008

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