The elegiac Scarlatti

“Once he had finished tuning the instrument, adjusting the jacks, which had been disturbed in transit, and checking the duck quills one by one, Scarlatti began to play, starting off by letting his fingers glide over the keys, as if he were releasing notes that had been imprisoned, then organizing the sounds in tiny sections, as if choosing between the right and the wrong notes, between harmony and discord, between phrasing and pauses, in short, as if giving new expression to what had previously seemed fragmentary and dissonant… nothing could even be remotely compared to the sounds that the Italian drew from the harpsichord, which seemed as much a childish game as some fulminating oath, as much a divertissement for angels as the wrath of God.”

Thus is Scarlatti’s stay in Lisbon described by Portuguese writer José Saramago in Baltasar and Blimunda, a clever and entertaining historical novel. While not an account of Scarlatti’s actual playing, this passage still plausibly fits in with the characteristics of many of his sonatas, especially the better known ones. Many of the composer’s most recognizable elements are there: the frenzy of contrast between consonance and dissonance (“harmony and discord”), the dramatic pauses, the fervent nature of the music, etc. Scarlatti sonatas, both fast and slow, correspond to these characteristics, as do sonatas both major and minor. Abundance seems to often appear in his music: either abundance of joy or of frustration. As a result, his music is often criticized as being “over the top.” In hindsight, we listen to Scarlatti and feel familiar with the post-Romantic rawness of his sound world. Many of the left-hand clusters written by an 18th century composer were to reappear two centuries later in the Rite of Spring. (In fact, many of the charming dissonances of neoclassical Stravinsky are quite reminiscent of Scarlatti.)

This week, however, I explore a Scarlatti sonata that doesn’t so easily match our (and Saramago’s) perception of Scarlatti. The sonata in G minor, K. 426, marked Andante, is an elegiac and wistful piece, lacking a lot of the assurance and confidence of the composer’s other sonatas. Besides being sorrowful in the “generic sense of the word,” it seems to describe a state of emptiness and want rather than one of either wrath or joy. Rather than ambitiously move from section to section, it slowly and patiently goes in circles around the same musical material. 

Whereas it isn’t at all rare for a composer to write works not in line with his most popularly recognized characteristics, what makes this particular Scarlatti sonata interesting is the composer using exactly the same material he uses in his wildest sonatas. The sense of void is described with Scarlatti’s characteristically provocative musical language, consisting of motion in parallel octaves, uncouth polyphonic writing, large intervallic leaps, imaginative and sometimes uncanny use of the keyboard’s register, and rhetorical pauses rarely heard in German baroque music. Hence, this sonata sounds entirely “Scarlatti-ish” while not having the character and nature of what we know as “Scarlatti-ness.” Although it is unique in its field, it does leave us with the same charming feeling we get at the end of so many Scarlatti sonatas: that of being puzzled. 

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