Domenico Scarlatti

Domenico Scarlatti was born on this day in 1685. (I refuse to wish the dead ‘happy birthday’, as seems to be the trend.) Scarlatti tends to get overlooked in favour of Bach et al. It may well be because he just doesn’t fit in. In our fastidious obedience to historical eras we struggle to neatly put him into either the Baroque or Classical box. Neither can we fit him into a national canon. He was born in Italy, but spent much of his life in Spain and was significantly influenced by the music of that country. There is no national musical culture that we can call his home.

W. Dean Sutcliffe, who wrote an excellent book on the Scarlatti sonatas, points out that there is little contextualising material for Scarlatti’s works. We can’t establish a chronology of his works as we lack autographs to date them. Musicologists are therefore unable to rely on a narrative of immature works leading to masterly ones. There is no story of changing stylistic traits or of evolving complexity. The sonatas stand before us quite equal in their provenance.

Ah, the sonatas! I’m getting ahead of myself. His 555 sonatas are what he’s best known for. What is a sonata, anyway? It seems a simple question but the term has been quite fluid over the centuries. ‘Sonata’ literally means ‘to sound’; its opposite is ‘cantata’, ‘to sing’. For much of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, ‘sonata’ was but one of many terms used to describe instrumental music. Then by the mid-seventeenth century it became it became the most common term. (See the Grove entry for a comprehensive history.) ‘Sonata form’ is something else — a form of thematic development — which evolved long after the term ‘sonata’ had been established.

Most sonatas consisted of multiple movements, but Scarlatti’s are short single-movement pieces, no more than seven minutes long. They are often fast and loud and harsh, mischievous and sudden, flamboyant and exuberant. Yet also strikingly beautiful. Because of his musical quirks, Sutcliffe sees Scarlatti as a rebel. This seems an exaggeration to me: just because Scarlatti didn’t always conform, doesn’t necessarily mean he was rebelling. His sonatas are, however, quite apart from other music, certainly distinctive and incredibly exciting.

Many of the Sonatas have a clear Iberian influence, which has made them particularly well suited to the guitar. Though some are extraordinarily difficult. I doubt I’ll ever be able to play, let alone have the patience and discipline to learn, this wonderful piece:

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