Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Delicacy of Stile and Masterly Composition"

That was what the English publisher Thomas Roseingrave wrote about the sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685 - 1757) that he published in 1739 -- the first time anyone outside the Spanish court had access to them. Handel immediately paid them the highest compliment by stealing bits from them for his "Grand Concertos". I have put up a couple of posts before on Scarlatti. Here is one that is an overview. A few days ago I put up a post on the Sonata K. 213 that compares different performances. Now I would like to do another post, also on K. 213, but this time looking at what Scarlatti is up to. These five hundred and fifty-five sonatas are so remarkable because they are so individual. It has been said that they are the outstanding musical achievement of the 18th century. You could certainly argue the point!

At the same time, they pose a challenge to historians and musicologists. When you are studying a repertoire like this, you look for similarities: what does Scarlatti typically do in his sonatas? And there is the problem. Antonio Vivaldi wrote some five hundred concertos and it is not so difficult to generalize about what he is doing. It is not true that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto five hundred times, but it is true that he developed and used a specific format: ritornello for orchestra interspersed with variations for the solo instrument(s). But when we come to the sonatas of Scarlatti, we run into an unusual problem: it is almost impossible to generalize about them because the whole point seems to be that each one is a fresh approach to the form. Yes, there is a form, but it is so basic that it doesn't tell you much. Once you have said that the sonatas are all in binary form, with two repeating halves and the first half ends with the dominant and the second ends with the tonic you have not only run out of things to say, but you have also described most of the instrumental pieces of the 18th century!

This is why a lot of what you read about Scarlatti is a bit frustrating: everyone tries to generalize and generalizations usually miss the mark. What one is forced to do is talk about each sonata as an individual. And did I mention that there are five hundred and fifty-five of them? We're gonna need a bigger boat!

So what I am going to do is look at just one sonata, the K. 213 again, and take it apart a bit to see how it is put together. Here is the sonata, just to remind you what it sounds like:

That tempo is a little more brisk than most. So we know that there are two halves and that the first ends on the dominant and the second on the tonic and each half is repeated, but that doesn't tell us much of anything about this particular sonata because that description applies not only to Scarlatti's sonatas but to the great majority of 18th century instrumental movements for solo instruments. Dance suites for harpsichord or lute all follow this same format. So what happens in this sonata? Here is the harmonic scheme:

Key: D minor. The first couple of phrases alternate between D minor and A7 (i and V7). Then there is a three part sequence with vii°6/5 of v, vii°6/5 of iv and vii°6/5 of i. This is a bit eccentric because the minor form of the dominant is heard, meaning it is not functioning as a dominant. Then we have a similar pattern, heard twice, with vii°4/3 of V, but this time it is a major V, functioning as a dominant. Next is an harmonic excursion that takes us from V to i, then to V of V, signaling a modulation to A minor, the minor dominant that we heard before. Once achieved, the rest of the first half stays in A minor until the full cadence ends the first half. The second half begins in A major that, by means of a descending sequence, becomes A minor. Some of the vii° sequences of the first half return, but this time they twist into F major at the end. C major is then stressed with repeated V7 - I patterns. This moves up a step and becomes vii°4/3 of D minor, which then seems to be the tonic again. This is underlined for the rest of the half with repeated progressions of vii°7 of V - V - i. Final V7 - i cadence.

Sorry for the "Mesopotamian manner" as George Bernard Shaw used to call it, but there is no other way of describing what is going on. So this is the harmonic scheme--interesting, if not absolutely earth-shaking. But it is with the melodic material that Scarlatti does even more interesting things. Some of the sonatas are like little arias, with beautiful melodies. Not this one. There really isn't a melody. Try singing it! The first thing we hear is a D minor triad followed by a descending scale:

Click to enlarge

This phrase seems so ordinary, normal, typical. But it actually plays with our expectations. In music of this period an opening outlining a triad in long notes like this tends to telegraph a certain kind of continuation. Perhaps it is going to be a fugue like this famous example that also outlines a D minor triad and follows that with a scale segment:

In this kind of piece, that opening is a theme that is immediately echoed in other voices in essentially the same form with minor adjustments. But what does Scarlatti do? For one thing, when the second voice comes in, it has no intervals in common with the first voice. For another, this isn't a 'theme' because it never comes back! This is like a little joke: you were expecting a fugue subject, but I was just kidding around. So what thematic material do we have? There are really only two candidates: ascending and descending diminished and dominant seventh chords and the interval of a 2nd. This latter comes out of that opening phrase because, of course, a scale is nothing but intervals of a second. But Scarlatti focuses on it. Apart from those diminished arpeggios, it is almost the only thing we hear. All the appoggiaturas are seconds, of course, and they are a recurring element. But also, the back and forth passages in thirds are also going back and forth in seconds. The little motif of a rising and falling second that becomes ubiquitous in the middle of both halves is another one. That same rising and falling second is the motif that begins the second half. The more you look at this piece, the more you realize that, apart from a few major and minor chords that occur at cadences, EVERY single thing in this piece is either a diminished seventh or dominant seventh arpeggio -- or a rising or falling second! Here are those basic elements:

Do we find this in other pieces by Scarlatti? Well, I haven't checked all five hundred and fifty-five, but no, I would say not. In other pieces we find different harmonic schemes and different thematic material handled differently. The more you listen to these pieces, the more you see that each is a little world of its own. Now that we have dug into it a bit, let's listen again:

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