The Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti

Welcome to the wonderful sounds of Domenico Scarlatti! Here you will find over 500 short pieces for harpsichord, with evocations of the bells, shawms, flamenco guitars and drums of 18th century Spain. To me, it is a feast of sounds. I hope you agree.

Domenico Scarlatti was born in Italy in 1685, the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Frideric Handel. He moved to Portugal in 1719 to become music master to the young Princess Maria Barbara; when she became Queen of Spain in 1729, he followed her there. Respected as an extemporizer on the harpsichord, and for his dazzling technique, he did not begin to formally write his keyboard music down until 1738, when he was knighted by Portugal and composed a volume for presentation. A few years later, he collected a number of his older pieces into two more volumes. But then, ill health and gambling debts galvanised him into finding his voice. During his last 6 years 1752-7, he transferred his keyboard skill to paper in the form of some two hundred suites which he called sonatas. They combine pure joyous harpsichord sounds with the taut rhythms of Spanish dance and the harmonic brilliance of his Italian heritage to a degree that places him among the greatest musicians of all time.

For a performer, there is always a conflict between saying as much as one can with each individual piece, and being faithful to the lifetime-built philosophy of the composer. Intellect produces complexity, but feeling demands simplicity. Most performers, on encountering the range and quantity of Scarlatti's music, quickly choose a few pieces and interpret him as a capricious mannerist (or, worse in my opinion, as a romantic). This tendency is exacerbated by the characteristics of the piano, to which Scarlatti's sounds do not transfer well. (His at-times breathtaking technique does transfer, as Vladimir Horowitz amply demonstrated. He and Scarlatti would have had a ball together!) Here, I attempt the opposite - to present the cumulative achievement of a great musical colourist on the instrument which was his canvas.

MIDI is a system of recording the finger motions of a keyboard player, rather than recording the sound produced by the player's instrument. As a serious classical-music recording medium, it is as avant garde today as Scarlatti's music was in it's day. Just as Scarlatti's keyboard technique was far beyond that of most of his contemporaries, so recordings such as these are beyond current MIDI practise. In particular, there is not yet a standard way of prescribing sound fonts to the required precision. Few MIDI instruments implement key release velocity (string damping), and none of which I am aware take account of the effect that one string's sound has on other harmonically-related undamped strings. But, pushing the limit of things is what artists have always done. So be it. Finger motions are pure information, the stuff of the modern age.

My recording follows the numbering of Kirkpatrick, whose study of Scarlatti is the base from which a modern player must build ("Domenico Scarlatti", Ralph Kirkpatrick, Princeton, 1953). To start, there are the 30 "exercises", as Scarlatti called them, of 1738. Sonatas 31-93 were presented to the Queen in 1742, and 94-147 in 1749 - some of these almost certainly predate 1738. (They include some works for violin and continuo, which I omit from this recording.) Then, with number 148, we begin the Sonatas proper, the pieces that were presented to the Queen as they were composed, between 1752 and 1757. The Queen's copy of the music, in the original 16 volume binding, is preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, Italy. 545 of the sonatas were transcribed for piano by Alessandro Longo in 1906, and are still available from Ricordi (Italy) and Kalmus (USA); several other more complete (but very expensive) editions have been published recently.

It was usual in Scarlatti's time to mark off thematic sections of music with repeat signs. The commonest interpretation of this marking at that time was to repeat the section with ad-lib variations by the performer, who was expected to be as able a musician as the composer. Scarlatti's carefully crafted sounds admit of little casual variation, but much of his music is written with slight pauses in one hand or the other that permit variations in hand crossings - right over or under left, left over or under right, even intermixed. From the consistency of these pauses throughout his music, I am convinced that this was the major variational technique that he used.

Most of the sonatas are built of hierarchical pair patterns - pairs of sounds paired in turn with other pairs, which in turn can be paired with other pair sets in French rondeau fashion. The primary formal structure of almost all of the sonatas follows two pairwise symmetries: tonalities are mirrored about a central double bar, and thematic material repeats after the double bar (although not always in exactly the same order). For example, K1 begins in D minor, progresses to A major at the double bar 14, and ends in D minor bar 31; thematically, bar 1 matches bar 14; 2-5, 22-25; 7, 17; 9, 18; 13, 31. In addition, almost all the later sonatas are written in formal pairs, several with explicit marking that they are to be played together. I have included silences at the end of each sonata such that, if the sonatas are played in numeric order, this pairwise arrangement on which Scarlatti obviously placed considerable importance will be heard. Since this recording is an exploration of sounds, I have omitted repeats other than in a few exceptionally short pieces.

Harpsichord actions have a tiny inertia compared to that of modern pianos - a well-voiced harpsichord can be played appreciably faster. Scarlatti obviously enjoyed having the fastest fingers in Europe, and explicitly noted some passages even faster than I can play them. (Burney quotes Thomas Roseingrave, no mean keyboardist himself, on a Scarlatti performance in 1714 as "ten hundred devils at the instrument - he had never heard such passages of execution and effect before".) Nevertheless, modern players unfamiliar with old instruments and old performance surroundings often play harpsichord music faster than it would have been played at the time. Although harpsichords have no sustaining pedal, playing any note on good Italian instruments, such as Scarlatti played on, re-excites into sound all other undamped strings, thus sustaining a tonality for as long as one has fingers available to hold down the relevant keys. The Spanish royal quarters were veritable echo chambers compared to today's concert halls. Scarlatti did not mark precise tempos, but just noted a word or two concerning the way the piece was to feel (mostly Allegro, "get going"). These recordings are an attempt to produce on modern wavetable cards sounds of the musical character of which Scarlatti was a master - those of a powerful Italian instrument in rooms typical of the Spanish court. I have strictly restricted the techniques I use to those that were available to Scarlatti on his instruments.

Many of Scarlatti's works are centered upon the visual drama of his technique, which must be absent from a recording. Nevertheless, this recording still displays, I hope, some of his brilliance. First, there is the consistency of Spanish dance rhythms as the foundation of his sound. To me, these rhythms are not polyphonic, but elaborated percussive solo accents, and as such are entirely consistent with the precision striven for by most recording musicians of today. And, when Scarlatti's phrases are repeated with no variations of sound, as he mostly explicitly wrote them, they build structure and power upon a sustained rhythmic foundation, rather than on a phrase-oriented vocal one. I have therefore eschewed melodic inflections and rubato for the most part (perhaps to a degree that overcompensates for the tendency of most performers to take the opposite approach).

Scarlatti introduces musical ideas in such profusion that, in most cases, if conventional phrasing attention is paid to them, the music becomes totally fragmented. The rarity with which Scarlatti actually notes pauses or breaks between apparently-disjoint phrases becomes justified when his work is studied overall - the silences he marks explicitly become more effective, and the phrases take their place as his development of melodic sequences, using sounds rather than just notes. The harmonies of these sequences are based on tonalities, and multiply in the manner of Italian toccatas (as, in fact, Scarlatti labelled some of his early pieces), while the melodic lines proper continually expand into multiple voices that blend into harmony. In the Italian style of his training, it is pure sounds, free of extra-musical allegories.

Harpsichords such as Scarlatti used had a much more robust sound than those used as the model for most MIDI harpsichord voices, so you may wish to experiment to find the setting on your synthesizer that suits you best. On many modern cards, the clavichord patch is closest in sound to the sort of instruments Scarlatti played on, while the steel-string guitar setting with reverberation on is closer to the sustaining character of a good instrument. If you have a Soundblaster 32 (or AWE-32), you can use the sound font I have prepared from my own harpsichord (see http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~bf250/harpsichord.html ) which is close to how I hear them when I play.

A twelve-note scale can not have all intervals in tune at the same time. MIDI systems default to equal tempering, where only octaves are really in tune. This tuning was not musically acceptable to keyboard musicians of Scarlatti's time, who restricted the keys they played in so that more of the musically-important intervals could be in tune. They also valued the variety of characters that differing keys have when all intervals are not equal. I used a technique of consonance analysis to aid me in finding the tuning that Scarlatti used most commonly, since no records of this survive other than the music itself. These recordings use the best tuning I have found, one published by d'Alembert in 1752. With it, Scarlatti displays a harmonic sureness that is, to my ears at least, lacking with Italian tunings of the period, which historically one would expect him to have used.

A closing note: What would I do differently with the sonatas if I were to start over? 537 things different! (I think that's how many I recorded.) Let me start on a positive note - I'd keep my focus on tonality and tone colours - it's so special to Scarlatti. I want my sound to be clear, powerful, and legato - I'd keep everything that contributes to that. So, I'll probably always keep some MIDI quantizing active to attain that clarity that my old fingers so seldom can deliver now. You play very differently in a living room than in a large concert hall - you have to play differently yet again in cyberspace, the world of pure disembodied information. You have to recast the whole way you approach music, compared to live performance - your appearance counts zero (no reviving listeners with spectacular hand crossing variations), audience interaction is gone (no coughing is great, but no breathing isn't), suspense, surprise and other excitement pale by the third playing.... (Listen to K.164, where I have left in one "surprise" pause, for a few times for an example.) There's an old saying, "friends die off but enemies accumulate" - if you are going to record music, you'd better believe it. There is no question in my mind as to the weakest area of my playing - melody. In my reaction against the non-stop rubato-rallentando treatment of so many, I threw out too much of Scarlatti's melodic shape. I'm working on that. Pregnant pauses should only occur every nine months, but melody should always be present! And, I let my intellect override my feelings when I omitted closing rallentandos in the early versions. The idea has some merit, that the rhythm should keep going after the fingers stop, but it doesn't work - too many of them were too abrupt and I've redone them. But mostly, I'll keep trying to grow, keep exploring the fascinating beauty of sound. All kinds of little details will change - that's life. And to me, music is the instinctive and total struggle of life against non-life.

Anyone may copy, play, and adapt my recordings as they wish, as long as no charge whatsoever is made for copies or access - they must remain absolutely free to all. Scarlatti did not claim copyright on any of this music and it was widely copied during his lifetime. The files are a record of my performance, are not mechanically derived from any source, and I did not consult copyrightable editions during their preparation. They were created and edited using a Kawai MIDI keyboard, Cubase Compact for Windows, and a Soundblaster 32.

Happy listening!

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Index to the Sonatas

Kirkpatrick
#    Longo  time
----------------
1     366   1:12
2     388   1:19
3     378   1:31
4     390   1:39
5     367   1:42
6     479   1:31
7     379   2:28
8     488   1:38
9     413   1:41
10    370   1:16
11    352   1:17
12    489   1:56
13    486   2:10
14    387   1:39
15    374   1:42
16    397   3:27
17    384   1:56
18    416   2: 4
19    383   2: 9
20    375   1:47
21    363   2:47
22    360   1:34
23    411   2:55
24    495   2:38
25    481   1:51
26    368   2:23
27    449   1:43
28    373   1:55
29    461   2:58
30    499   4: 9
31    231   2: 9
32    423   0:37
33    424   1:57
34    s7    0:40
35    386   1:25
36    245   1:27
37    406   1:58
38    478   1: 9
39    391   1:54
40    357   0:46
41x       
42    s36   0:40
43    40    1:31
44    432   2:25
45    265   1:38
46    25    2:45
47    46    2:31
48    157   1:53
49    301   2:40
50    440   2:18
51    20    1:51
52    267   3: 3
53    261   1:41
54    241   2:32
55    335   1:46
56    356   2:25
57    s38   2:38
58    158   3: 2
59    71    1: 3
60    13    1:19
61    136   3: 8
62    45    1:36
63    84    1: 6
64    58    0:52
65    195   1: 2
66    496   1:21
67    32    0:58
68    114   1:46
69    382   1:47
70    50    1:10
71    81    1: 1
72    401   1:19
73v   217 
74    94    0:46
75    53    0:50
76    185   1: 8
77v   168 
78v   75  
79    80    1:24
80v       
81v   271 
82    30    2:41
83    s31   1:26
84    10    1:56
85    166   1:48
86    403   2:43
87    33    2:29
88v   36  
89v   211 
90v   106 
91v   176 
92    362   1:56
93    336   3:44
94          0:46
95    358   0:51
96    465   3: 2
97x       
98    325   1:34
99    317   2:11
100   355   1:33
101   494   2: 6
102   89    1:33
103   233   1:48
104   442   3: 8
105   204   3: 3
106   437   1:27
107   474   2:18
108   249   1:41
109   138   2:50
110   469   1:54
111   130   1:42
112   298   1:37
113   345   2:14
114   344   2:41
115   407   3:46
116   452   1:50
117   244   2:58
118   122   1:58
119   415   3: 3
120   215   2:43
121   181   2:31
122   334   2:21
123   111   2:20
124   232   2:14
125   487   1:27
126   402   2:10
127   186   2:33
128   296   2:31
129   460   2: 6
130   190   1:29
131   300   1:41
132   457   2:53
133   282   2:10
134   221   2:30
135   224   2:24
136   377   2: 5
137   315   2: 7
138   464   1:52
139   6     2:26
140   107   2:14
141   422   2: 8
142x      
143x      
144x      
145   369   1:51
146   349   1:23
147   376   2:39
148   64    1:35
149   93    1:16
150   117   1:27
151   330   1:53
152   179   1:19
153   445   1: 6
154   96    1:51
155   197   1:37
156   101   1:40
157   405   1:59
158   4     1:50
159   104   1:23
160   15    3: 0
161   417   1:32
162   21    2:44
163   63    0:54
164   59    1:33
165   52    1:39
166   51    1:42
167   329   2:43
168   280   1:44
169   331   2:19
170   303   2:48
171   77    1:27
172   s40   2:46
173   447   2:17
174   410   2:21
175   429   2: 3
176   163   2:59
177   364   1:33
178   162   0:59
179   177   1:26
180   272   1:30
181   194   2:20
182   139   1:32
183   473   2: 1
184   189   2:15
185   173   1:17
186   72    1:30
187   285   2:21
188   239   2:46
189   143   2: 2
190   250   1:37
191   207   2: 0
192   216   2:25
193   142   1:52
194   28    2:57
195   s18   2: 7
196   38    1:28
197   147   1:36
198   22    1:45
199   253   2:11
200   54    1:56
201   129   2: 9
202   498   2:28
203   380   2:21
204x      
205   s23   4:44
206   257   4:25
207   371   1:30
208   238   1:23
209   428   2:23
210   123   1:23
211   133   2:55
212   135   2: 8
213   108   2:29
214   165   2:13
215   323   2:55
216   273   3:32
217   42    3:11
218   392   1:54
219   393   2:20
220   342   2:26
221   259   2:23
222   309   1:35
223   214   2:12
224   268   2: 0
225   351   2:36
226   112   1:57
227   347   2:27
228   399   1:42
229   199   1:38
230   354   1:58
231   409   2: 8
232   62    2:36
233   467   2: 6
234   49    2:22
235   154   2: 6
236   161   1:57
237   308   1:39
238   27    1:57
239   281   1:56
240   s29   4: 2
241   180   1:26
242   202   2:14
243   353   1:24
244   348   1:50
245   450   2: 9
246   260   1:59
247   256   2:15
248   s35   2:32
249   39    2:30
250   174   2: 2
251   305   1:26
252   159   1:51
253   320   2: 4
254   219   1:43
255   439   1:58
256   228   2:52
257   169   1:48
258   178   2:30
259   103   2:32
260   124   3:56
261   148   2:34
262   446   2:29
263   321   3: 5
264   466   3:18
265   s32   3:40
266   48    1:38
267   434   1:25
268   41    2:28
269   307   1:43
270   459   3:17
271   155   1:27
272   145   1:49
273   398   1:58
274   297   1:15
275   328   1:45
276   s20   1:40
277   183   1:20
278   s15   1:31
279   468   2:27
280   237   1:39
281   56    2: 7
282   484   2:46
283   318   1:58
284   90    1:50
285   91    2:14
286   394   1:29
287   s9    2: 3
288   57    1:40
289   78    1:22
290   85    1:46
291   61    1:48
292   24    1:44
293   s44   2:20
294   67    2:10
295   270   1:47
296   198   3:25
297   s19   2:12
298   s6    2:27
299   210   1:42
300   92    2: 1
301   493   2:18
302   7     2:16
303   9     1:57
304   88    1: 7
305   322   1:48
306   16    2:37
307   115   1:29
308   359   2:43
309   454   1:58
310   248   2:23
311   144   2: 2
312   264   1:45
313   192   1:38
314   441   2:19
315   235   1:29
316   299   2: 7
317   66    1:51
318   31    1:48
319   35    2: 3
320   341   1:37
321   258   1:13
322   483   1:39
323   95    1: 7
324   332   1:38
325   37    1:14
326   201   1:26
327   152   1:28
328   s27   2:40
329   s5    2:36
330   55    1:12
331   18    2: 1
332   141   1:55
333   269   1:24
334   100   1:17
335   s10   1:46
336   337   1:30
337   s26   1:43
338   87    1:46
339   251   1:39
340   105   1:51
341   140   1: 9
342   191   1:23
343   291   1:45
344   295   1:33
345   306   2:11
346   60    1:22
347   126   1:41
348   127   1: 8
349   170   2: 0
350   230   1:14
351   s34   2:55
352   s13   1:47
353   313   1:20
354   68    2: 2
355   s22   1:37
356   443   3:43
357x  s45 
358   412   1:51
359   448   1:34
360   400   1:59
361   247   1:28
362   156   1:23
363   160   1:35
364   436   1:41
365   480   1:42
366   119   1:59
367   172   1:34
368   s30   2:17
369   240   2: 8
370   316   1:44
371   17    1:44
372   302   1:25
373   98    1:18
374   76    1:52
375   389   1:16
376   34    1:50
377   263   1:38
378   276   1:47
379   73    1:31
380   23    2:50
381   225   2: 8
382   s33   1:26
383   134   1:25
384   2     1:38
385   284   1:47
386   171   1:32
387   175   1:20
388   414   2: 9
389   482   1:18
390   234   2:13
391   79    1:10
392   246   2:11
393   74    1:21
394   275   2:43
395   65    1:46
396   110   2: 3
397   208   1:49
398   218   2:22
399   274   1:32
400   213   1:26
401   365   1:52
402   427   4:22
403   470   1:44
404   222   3:26
405   43    1:31
406   5     1:54
407   s4    1:20
408   346   1:11
409   150   1:35
410   s43   1:53
411   69    1: 8
412   182   1:57
413   125   0:58
414   310   2:19
415   s11   1: 3
416   149   1:54
417   462   4:52
418   26    2: 9
419   279   2: 0
420   s2    2:48
421   252   2: 6
422   451   2:57
423   102   1:54
424   289   1:50
425   333   1:47
426   128   2:59
427   286   1:18
428   131   0:57
429   132   1:28
430   463   1:26
431   83    0:44
432   288   1:21
433   453   2:17
434   343   2:22
435   361   1:57
436   109   1:30
437   278   1:31
438   381   1:55
439   47    2:15
440   97    1:12
441   s39   1:50
442   319   1:32
443   418   1:59
444   420   2: 2
445   385   1:34
446   433   2: 0
447   294   1:31
448   485   1:41
449   444   1:42
450   338   1:36
451   243   1: 8
452x      
453x      
454   184   2:14
455   209   1:47
456   491   1:28
457   292   1:48
458   212   2:16
459   s14   1:42
460   324   4:11
461   8     1:59
462   438   2:22
463   471   1:21
464   151   1:23
465   242   1:30
466   118   2:58
467   476   1:39
468   226   2:58
469   431   1:34
470   304   3:23
471   82    1:26
472   99    1:25
473   229   2:10
474   203   1:56
475   220   2:12
476   340   1:51
477   290   2: 7
478   12    3:18
479   s16   2:18
480   s8    2: 9
481   187   2:17
482   435   1:51
483   472   1:19
484   419   1:34
485   153   1:55
486   455   2:16
487   205   1:56
488   s37   1:42
489   s41   1:37
490   206   3:26
491   164   2:30
492   14    2:11
493   s24   3: 7
494   287   3: 9
495   426   1:48
496   372   2:26
497   146   1:47
498   350   1:40
499   193   2:47
500   492   1:44
501   137   2:40
502   3     2: 1
503   196   1:35
504   29    1:20
505   326   1:16
506   70    1:27
507   113   2:37
508   19    2:24
509   311   2: 0
510   277   1:36
511   314   1:34
512   339   1:33
513   s3    2:36
514   1     1:30
515   255   1:19
516   s12   2:19
517   266   1:33
518   116   2:46
519   475   1:56
520   86    1:52
521   408   1:58
522   s25   1:54
523   490   1:13
524   283   1:57
525   188   1:26
526   456   2:13
527   458   1:36
528   200   1:19
529   327   1:24
530   44    1:47
531   430   1:42
532   223   1:58
533   295   1:35
534   11    1:37
535   262   1:32
536   236   2: 0
537   293   1:42
538   254   1:45
539   121   2:33
540   s17   2: 5
541   120   2:25
542   167   2: 3
543   227   2: 6
544   497   1:43
545   500   1:46
546   312   1:44
547   s28   2:18
548   404   2: 2
549   s1    2: 6
550   s42   2: 7
551   396   2: 6
552   421   1:56
553   425   1:55
554   s21   2: 4
555   477   1:57

sum 17:39:5
v violin & continue
x no score available