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An Italian composer who lived for almost 40 years in the Iberian Peninsula, Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) made his mark on the history of music by developing a technique, style, and form that revolutionized the art of keyboard performance.
The son of Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico began his career by following in the footsteps of his father, considered during his lifetime to be the greatest master of Italian lyricism. In the service of the Princess of Poland during her stay in Rome from 1709 to 1714, the son composed a dozen or so operas and several cantatas, serenades and other occasional vocal works. Choir director of Saint Peter’s in Rome from 1714 to 1719, he was required to write religious works (Miserere, Stabat Mater, Masses, etc.). But his true passion was the harpsichord, and in 1719 he accepted a position in the Court of Lisbon in order to have more time to devote to the instrument.
Music teacher of the Infanta Maria Barbara, he followed her to Madrid in 1729 when she married the King of Spain. It was there that Scarlatti spent the remainder of his days composing the monumental corpus of 555 “sonatas” for which he still remains famous. Neither prelude, toccata, suite nor sonata movement in the classical sense of the term, the majority of these pieces belong to a distinctive genre—binary in form (two sections with repeats) and of a relatively short duration (varying between one and at most seven minutes)—to which Scarlatti was one of the few composers to dedicate himself and in which he flourished unconstrained. In this miniature genre, the harpsichordist developed his own personal style, brilliantly combining rhythmic and harmonic originality and defying the conventions of the period with a splendid melodic inventiveness, featuring a lyricism and poetry of an altogether Mediterranean character, frequently showing the influence of Spanish popular music.
These works have been described as sonatas, but the composer considered them to be “exercises,” as is witnessed by the title of the only collection to have been published during his life, Essercizi per gravicembalo. Appearing in 1739, relatively late in the composer’s career, this collection contains only thirty pieces, barely five per cent of his enormous production; it is probably an anthology of those works that Scarlatti himself considered to be among his best. The preface bears witness to a lively, candid, and light-hearted personality, reflecting the character of his music: “Reader, be you dilettante or professor, in these works do not search for profound erudition, but rather an ingenious playing with art, that will familiarize you with the mastery of the harpsichord. […] Perhaps you will find them pleasing; I should then be all the more happy to obey other requests to please you with an easier and more varied style. Show yourself to be more humane than critical, and your pleasure will only be greater. Be happy.” But Scarlatti was to publish no further works in the years that followed. As well, there remains of these thirty works, as with the others, no manuscript in his hand.
The essentials of this vast corpus were, however, carefully compiled by copyists and richly bound in two collections of fifteen volumes, probably at the request of Queen Maria Barbara. Today, these are preserved in Venice and Parma. Several anthologies were published in the 19th century, but the complete catalogue was not finished until the 1950s by the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick (from where we get the numbering system preceded by a ‘K’). The numbering is not necessarily chronological by order of composition, which, as a result of a lack of information, is by and large impossible to reconstruct. Kirkpatrick thus placed the thirty pieces published during the life of the composer at the beginning of his catalogue (K. 1 to K. 30) and arranged the others according to key relationships, two by two or even three by three, as suggested by certain details of the manuscripts in Venice and Parma, for more than two-thirds of the works. For example, the copyists indicated that certain sonatas should “follow each other quickly” or even that they had been “copied in the reverse order of that intended by the composer.”
In the present recording, Sonatas K. 132-133, K. 332-333 and K. 335-336 were thus intended to be performed as pairs, while Sonatas K. 490, 491 and 492 formed a triptych. Even today, Scarlatti’s “sonatas” have not ceased to impress people by their sensual and flamboyant character. In his novel The One-Armed God, recalling the Italian musician’s stay in his country, the Portuguese writer José Saramago (Nobel Prize in 1998) wrote: “The Italian ran his fingers over the keys, at first without purpose, then as if he was searching for a theme or as if he wanted to correct the echoes. Suddenly he appeared to become completely absorbed in the music, his hands floating over the keyboard like a boat decorated with flowers flowing with the current, held back here and there by the branches of trees leaning over the water from the shore, sometimes rapidly, sometimes drifting on the immense waters of a bottomless lake, or the luminous Bay of Naples, or on the dark, secret canals of Venice, or in the resplendent and new light of the Tagus.”
© 2002 Guy Marchand, for Traçantes, the music research, text-writing and translation service of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique.
Translation: Sean Ferguson.