Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) is a real treasure. His music is bite-sized, sounds great on piano or harpsichord, and features the lightness of the Italian Baroque, forays into Classical style, and some Spanish flair from his music master positions in Seville and Madrid. A single three- or four-minute Scarlatti sonata can traverse a wide range of emotions in the span of a simple AB form, leaving the listener satisfied. The music is full of odd surprises, like gestures that seem less than idiomatic for the instrument or advanced harmonies and dissonances.
I discovered Scarlatti at age ten or so, when I found a website of classical MIDI files that included all 555 of his sonatas, sequenced by the indefatigable John Sankey. Excited by this zip file of riches, I set out to listen to all the sonatas, writing down my favorites as I went, hopefully to arrive at a selection of 50 or so of the best. This quickly became irrelevant, because almost every single piece had some cool or memorable feature. I gave up somewhere in the 200s, and since then I’ve sought out this music only sporadically, until now.
It’s still a bit intimidating to start venturing into this repertoire. The 555 sonatas are labeled according to at least four different catalogues (Kirkpatrick, Longo, Pestelli, Czerny), and they’re almost all really good. So if you’re new to this music, it’s more a matter of…where to start? When pianists and harpsichordists program or record Scarlatti, their selections may overlap sightly in featuring particularly popular sonatas, but may also reflect their individual tastes. The catalog is deep enough that a musician can still “claim” a piece as their own if it hasn’t had much time in the spotlight. So seeking out recordings is one place to start.
The other starting point is in sheet music. In addition to various selections by Henle, Schirmer, and EMB, Ricordi released a sixty-sonata selection in 2016 extracted from the ongoing complete critical edition by keyboardist and scholar Emilia Fadini (nine of ten volumes are available). Since Ms. Fadini has been playing, studying, and living with this music since at least 1987 (and probably much longer than that!) her choices really mean something. Furthermore, she states in her preface that she chose pieces ranging from easy to intermediate level of difficulty, making this a great gateway for teachers and students. In preparing my list for this post, I restricted myself to the contents of this book. The great news is that if you get excited about the ten below, they’re all there, plus fifty more. In my headings I referred to the Kirkpatrick (K.) number, and also included the order in which each piece appears in the book.
In addition to the links below, I also made a YouTube playlist of performances of all these pieces. Here we go!
This one is actually pretty unusual. Instead of a neat AB form with both sections in the same meter, this one has AB in 3/4, plus a Minuet in 3/8 time. The first two sections feature a wandering line over an incredible simple bass accompaniment that still manages to create compelling music. Some dissonances emerge in the B section, but Scarlatti is only getting warmed up on that front. In the Minuet, some of the dissonances are so surprising that you may find yourself looking closely at the music, wondering, “Is that really the right note?” Here, too, the accompaniment is minimalist. A pianist coming to this piece after playing some particularly dense Bach might be pleased by the simplicity of the textures.
Scarlatti uses some fun devices here. The opening gestures cadence on quick arpeggios traveling rapidly down the keyboard, and there are some passages of alternating-hand chromatic runs that remind me of the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 78 “For Therese.” It’s all very playful and spirited, and the repetition of all the primary motives causes them to linger in the ear.
I love this one. The A section is a genteel dance in 6/8 that opens with horn calls and later features some rustic grace notes. A wonderful detail toward the close of the A section is a series of leaps in the right hand to the third and then fifth of the tonic, putting an exclamation point on the merry mood. In the B section, Scarlatti flips a switch to take us to a pathétique C minor mood with thicker chords. In this setting, the grace notes in the melody sound plaintive rather than festive. The C minor atmosphere ends with a big scale down the keys, and then the opening section returns for an abridged recapitulation.
The counterpoint and two-voice imitation here resembles a Bach invention, but some of the odd triplet flourishes near the end of the A section are unmistakably Scarlatti, conjuring a whiff of flamenco guitar. The B section takes us into a world of constantly shifting, advanced harmonies in dotted rhythms. These also have a Spanish flavor, and Scarlatti builds to some large climactic chords in both hands before transitioning back to the opening material.
It’s telling that harpsichordist Scott Ross, the first performer to record the complete Scarlatti sonatas, said this was his favorite in a 1986 interview: “It’s the most beautiful. It’s also the slowest and the happiest one, the one with the most sunshine in it.” I agree about the beauty of the piece, but in Scarlatti’s progressive harmonic language, the sunshine also gives way to some glimpses into the abyss in the B section. There are so many touching details: a melody line in the A section that emphasizes a yearning, dissonant D-sharp three times in a row, and several instances where Scarlatti perfectly judged when to reach for a climactic high note to seal the mood.
Compared to the usual short duration of Scarlatti’s sonatas, K. 296 is a bit of an epic, depending on your tempo and whether you take the repeats. The harmonic plan is kind of incredible for its time (1753). In the A section alone, Scarlatti moves from F major to the dominant, C major, but then doesn’t cadence in C, instead going to F minor. The harmony keeps churning until it resolves to a B major area for five bars, then to A minor to end the section. I mean…what? That sounds more like a description of a Schubert sonata. The ending in A minor also means that the repeat of the opening is a iii-I cadence rather than a traditional dominant-tonic cadence. Really, really progressive stuff.
As for the actual material, the opening travels through a French-overture dotted-rhythm construction, serene bass arpeggios, sequences with spicy harmonies, more arpeggios that now highlight A minor, and some odd broken-octave figures leading to the final cadence. The B section contains almost all of these same elements, but now leading to desolate key areas of D minor and G minor. Somehow Scarlatti works his way back to F major. What a journey.
This popular sonata was memorably, sensitively performed by Vladimir Horowitz. After listening to Horowitz playing it, I imagine it would be hard not to fall in love with this music. From the soft tinkling of the opening, to a series of gestures that seem to beckon you to come closer, to quietly dancing rhythms, to several scalar figures that ascend into the sky, it’s just pure beauty. One internet writer described it as evoking a modest Spanish street band marching by. In the B section we get more of this great material, but now with some flips to minor mode. Of course, the sunshine wins out in the end, giving us a picture of an idyllic Spanish scene.
The straightforward tune right out of the gate is imitated in the bass. A second variant of the subject features delicate Mozartian dissonances. I love this little moment so much, but these 8 bars only return for the repeat of the A section, and are never heard again. The rest of the section is full of bustling energy and pleasing musical logic. Scarlatti creates quite a storm of sound, seeming to be everywhere on the keyboard at once, achieving this in part through some daring leaps in both hands. The B section doesn’t offer many surprises, but it’s still wonderful music.
Have you practiced your contrary-motion scales lately? Give this one a try. Aside from the scales, the first section features a really neat sequence of knotty two-voice counterpoint working its way downward. In the B section, a minor-mode dance whirls over Alberti bass. It’s hard not to listen to this part without swaying along. Another tangle of two-voice counterpoint leads back to the contrary-motion scales. This piece has a really addictive energy, and is one of the more technically impressive sonatas I found in this book.
Another fast, virtuoso, minor-mode dance. I like some of the advanced harmonic touches, as Scarlatti ratchets up the tension with a long sequence of ascending half steps. In the second half of the A section I noticed some very low Gs in the left hand, lower than some harpsichords models can even play! The resonance of these low notes anchors the dark atmosophere. The B section offers almost no relief from either the minor or the continuous motion. Aside from four breath-catching cadences across the whole sonata, this is a perpetual-motion piece in the mold of the Prelude from Bach’s English Suite No. 5.
Again, if you’re interested in the 60-sonata collection from Ricordi, edited by Emilia Fadini, here’s a link. Really a great starting place for this music.