A legend circulating a couple of decades ago among young pianists regarded one of their colleagues, who, perhaps because of a bet, had written a “Scarlatti” Sonata (i.e., a Sonata mimicking Scarlatti’s style). The story went that the pianist was so satisfied with his fake Scarlatti that he started proposing it in concert, and even in piano competitions, where – so legend has it – he frequently was awarded a prize for the best interpretation of a Scarlatti Sonata. Regardless of the reliability of this story, it has – as all legends have – an element of truth. There are so many Sonatas by Scarlatti that very few keyboard players know them all, and it is relatively easy to pass off a fake Sonata (if well written) as an original. Indeed, even at a much more refined level, that of professional musicologists, there is no perfect consensus as to the actual number of the original Sonatas by Scarlatti which have been preserved. Some of them are undeniably original, and this regards most notably the few ones which were printed during the composer’s lifetime. Others are preserved in reliable manuscripts (but only one of them is in Scarlatti’s autograph handwriting!), whilst others have a debated status.
This controversial reception history depends largely on the circumstances of Scarlatti’s life and of the composition and transmission of his Sonatas. Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples in 1685, the fateful year when Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Handel also saw the light. Similar to Bach, Scarlatti came from a family of musicians. The most famous of them was his father Alessandro, who even nowadays competes with his son for the laurel of the most celebrated Scarlatti. But there were many other musicians in his family, including some professional singers; indeed, Domenico himself is known to have performed as a solo singer on various occasions.
The talent of Alessandro’s sixth child appeared very soon; his father was justly proud of his son’s accomplishment. Domenico was barely sixteen when he was appointed an organist and composer in the viceroy’s Chapel in Naples, but, only a few years later, his father sent him to Venice in the hope that he could find a prestigious appointment there. Little is known about Domenico’s Venetian years, though certainly he learnt there the typical idiom of the Venetian Baroque. Blended with that of his native city, it constituted the “Italian” component of Scarlatti’s own, unique style.
After his stay in the Serenissima, Domenico rejoined his family in Rome, where a famous performance “duel” with Handel took place. The Solomonic result of the challenge was that Handel was the best organist of the two, whilst Scarlatti the best harpsichordist. In Rome, Scarlatti obtained a prestigious post as the chapel master of Maria Casimira, the exiled queen of Poland; he also met there Thomas Roseingrave, who, many years later, would publish in London the collection of Scarlatti’s thirty Essercizi per gravicembalo, i.e. the first nucleus of his Sonatas. During his Roman years, Scarlatti dedicated himself to vocal music, with sacred works, operas, and intermezzi.
In 1719, a major change intervened in the composer’s life. He moved to Portugal, where he became the chapel master of the Royal Chapel and the private keyboard teacher of the royal family. It is to our great fortune that one of the members of the family was a particularly gifted performer: Maria Magdalena Barbara, the Infanta, was a skilled keyboard player, and became Scarlatti’s receptive student for many years. It is particularly for her that Scarlatti composed many of his keyboard Sonatas, which were intended as “exercises” (hence the title under which some of them would be later published), as pastimes, as works of art, but also as a form of spiritual entertainment. They had to offer always new challenges to the royal pupil; these could involve technical difficulties which had to be mastered, and that, very frequently, seem to have been “invented” by Scarlatti himself. From the technical viewpoint, his music is extremely idiomatic for the keyboard; in comparison with that of his contemporary Bach, it employs technical solutions of great modernity, and which cannot be easily transferred to other sound media. Or, rather: to other techniques. In fact, Scarlatti’s Sonatas have been performed on the piano already in the late eighteenth century, when Muzio Clementi published the first “instructive edition” of Scarlatti’s Sonatas, adapting and updating their scoring and indications to the potential and to the needs of the hammer piano. And, from that moment on, there has been virtually no professional pianist who did not have at least a handful of Scarlatti’s sonatas in his or her repertoire. Thus, it is perhaps incorrect to say that Scarlatti’s sonatas are inseparable from the harpsichord for which (most of them) were conceived; but it is certainly true that they are intrinsically bound to keyboard technique. (It should be mentioned, however, that many of them have been successfully transcribed for other instruments, most remarkably the guitar).
The Royal Princess also enjoyed new musical stimuli, and Scarlatti was certainly able to provide them. The form of the Scarlatti Sonata is very well-defined, at least in its broadest traits. It is normally in one movement, and it is generally divided into two parts. But what happens in those two parts could not be more varied. Some of the Sonatas are of the lyrical type, and there the quintessence of Baroque expressivity can be found. This is frequently enhanced by Scarlatti’s use of Iberian traits, such as the ancient modes rather than a simple major or minor mode. The “Italian” style of Scarlatti, in fact, found new challenges in, and was enriched by, the encounter with Iberian music.
Other Sonatas are conceived as dance movements, with various degrees of liveliness and frenzy. In many of them we may find still other idiomatic traits, frequently derived in turn from the Iberian folklore. With an extraordinary instrumental fantasy and creativity, Scarlatti managed to imitate on the harpsichord the sound of castanets, or some characterizing features of guitar playing.
In still other cases, Scarlatti employs the contrapuntal, fugato style. However, there are not very many real fugues, among the 555 Sonatas listed in Kirkpatrick’s catalogue; frequently, his counterpoint is masterly but tends to become an ornament of music’s façade. He suggests polyphonic structures, but does not always follow them with the thoroughness of his northern contemporary Bach. By way of contrast, he employs parallel motions in octaves or fifths which are definitely forbidden by the rules of both harmony and counterpoint, but are explicitly and boldly adopted by Scarlatti as timbral resources. For instance, one of the most famous among the Sonatas recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album, i.e. K. 380 in E major, includes numerous passages in open fifths, which are clearly suggestive of trumpet fanfares. In Sonata K. 108, in G minor, we find instead long passages in octaves at the bass, and this is by no means a unique case in Scarlatti’s output – whereas, once more, Bach employed octave passages very sparsely in his keyboard works. Another fanfare-like piece is Sonata K. 96, another of the best-loved works in Scarlatti’s output, and here too we find, along with open fifths, some octave passages which sound as beautifully on the piano as on the harpsichord. In this Sonata, which is almost a catalogue of technical difficulties, we find some other typical traits of Scarlatti’s palette, such as the strings of very quick repeated notes (with the indication that they have to be played by changing the fingers speedily on the same key), and the quintessentially Scarlattian leaps and hand-crossings. This was evidently a technique Scarlatti mastered particularly well, and enjoyed displaying as frequently as possible. Through these hand-crossings, he also managed to create the impression of a “third hand”, when the leaps contain a substantial melodic component creating a dialogue between soprano and bass line.
Scarlatti provided his royal pupil also with aural and compositional novelties. They include the use of entirely unconventional chords, which, at times, seem to anticipate the “clusters” found in twentieth-century music. Scarlatti frequently employs dissonances with a timbral, rather than with a harmonic, concept. This is found, for instance, in Sonata K. 487, where, close to the beginning, the left hand plays a series of chords which move in a fashion absolutely in opposition with harmony rules (parallel octaves and fifths!), and which can be construed as ninth-chords in inversion (but with some degree of fancy). Scarlatti’s idiosyncratic and free treatment of harmony includes also the unexpected modulations he scatters throughout his Sonatas. For instance, Sonata K. 260 presents a number of changes in its key-signatures, which, moreover, do not always correspond to the actual key in which the passage is composed.
These are only a handful of examples showing the diversity and variety of Scarlatti’s inspiration; many more will be found by simply listening to the selection of Sonatas recorded here. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Scarlatti’s works fascinated both his contemporaries and posterity. Fortunately, some beautifully bound manuscript collections of his Sonatas have been preserved thanks to the good offices of the famous singer Farinelli, who held Scarlatti in high esteem (and was reciprocated by the composer). Other Sonatas saw the light in print, and many more circulated in manuscript copies. This makes the establishment of their chronology very difficult, and the catalogue of Scarlatti’s Sonatas is constantly being updated following the findings of musicologists. But, even if it is difficult to know by heart all 555 pieces from the Kirkpatrick catalogue, it is also difficult to mistake Scarlatti’s very own style: his personality shines from every one of his notes. So, it is very likely that the legend quoted at the beginning of this text is just that, a legend: indeed, one would need to be Scarlatti in order to write like Scarlatti.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
Born in Milan, Maria Clementi has given recitals in Mozarteum of Salzburg (Wiener Saal and Großer Saal), Gewandhaus of Leipzig, Sala Grande of the “G.Verdi” Conservatory of Milan; at the Teatro Grande of Brescia and Teatro "G. Donizetti" of Bergamo for the International Piano Festival "Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli” during the Mozart Celebration year, at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, at the Tiroler Festspiele of Erl.
Maria Clementi has performed in Italy (Auditorium “C.Pollini” of Padua, Teatro Civico of Vercelli for the “Società del Quartetto”, Teatro Comunale of Treviso, Sala Accademia of the Conservatory “S.Cecilia” for the Season "Uto Ughi per Roma", Teatro “G.Fraschini” of Pavia, Teatro Bibiena of Mantova, Auditorium of the Conservatory “Dall’Abaco” of Verona, “Società del Quartetto” of Bergamo, for “Società dei Concerti” of Milano, Amiata Piano Festival, Gioventù Musicale d’Italia, Piano City Milano, Yamaha and Bösendorfer Italy…), as well as in Austria, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Japan.
A very young winner of many piano competitions, a first prize at the International Competition for Piano and Orchestra of Cantù in Italy, at the age of 16 a third position at the International Music Competition “G.B.Viotti” of Vercelli and she won the second prize at the 38th National Piano Competition “Premio Città di Treviso”.
She collaborated as a soloist with orchestras such as “I Pomeriggi Musicali” of Milan, RAI Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto, the Symphonic Orchestra of Emilia Romagna “A.Toscanini”, the Symphonic Orchestra of Bacau, the Cluj Philharmonic, the Symphony Orchestra of Milan “Giuseppe Verdi” and with conductors such as Peter Maag, Gianandrea Noseda, Ovidiu Balan and Enrique Mazzola.
In 2015, Brilliant Classics released her first album which is dedicated to Luigi Dallapiccola: complete piano solo and violin and piano works.
In 2018 Maria has released her new album for Dynamic Records, Maria Clementi plays Muzio Clementi: both works were met with widespread acclaim from public and critics.
She began studying piano at a very young age, graduating with honors under the guidance of Piero Rattalino at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan. “Later she continued her studies with Lazar Berman, Boris Petrushansky, Alexander Lonquich. Meeting Rosalyn Tureck also had a large impact on her artistic development.”
She regularly holds masterclasses in Italy; since 2014 she is a Piano Professor at the Conservatory “G. Puccini” in Gallarate.
Maria Clementi is deeply involved in chamber music activities both in Italy as in Europe and her performances were broadcasted live on radio and television.
Domenico Scarlatti (b Naples, 26 Oct 1685; d Madrid, 23 July 1757). Composer and harpsichordist, sixth child of (1) Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonia Anzaloni. He never used his first Christian name (which could have led to confusion with his nephew Giuseppe): his name is always given in Italy as Domenico (or the familiar Mimo) Scarlatti, and in Portugal and Spain as Domingo Escarlate (Escarlati or Escarlatti).