Thursday, April 07, 2005


No. 10.5 DOMENICO SCARLATTI, Sonata in D Minor, L413/K9

Surely the composer graced with the most striking name is Domenico Scarlatti. If you append the following titles to that name - ... the Red Corsair, ... the Masked Assassin, ... the Silken Highwayman - you get an idea of what a prime place Mr. Scarlatti might have occupied in quasi-historical harlequin romance novels had he pursued the career of dashing criminal. Instead, though, we content ourselves with Domenico Scarlatti, the Genius Composer and Master of the Harpsichord.

(Incidentally, the picture I found of Scarlatti is surprisingly bland. I was hoping for something like the picture of John Bull, with a black background and a sheen of Spanish cruelty. Instead, though, we get the standard issue gentleman-in-a-tidy-wig standing by a keyboard with a piece of manuscript in his hand. His face is long and noble - the sort of face you might pick for a bust of Virgil - and his body is a swell of velvet and lace and multi-butttoned waistcoats. If only we could have had one of the darker Goya-influencing Spanish painters - Velasquez? - to take a crack at him...)

DeVoto includes two of Scarlatti's sonatas (he only wrote 600 of them). I am going to spread these out over two posts. I should note, going into it, that I think Scarlatti is fantastic- his approach to harmony is thrilling and unorthodox. Devoto calls some of his harmony 'bizarre,' which seems fair enough if you consider him within his historical context. Still, what strikes me is that all of Scarlatti's harmony functions, and therefore serves to point out how artificial and conservative most tonal theory books are in their treatment of the subject.

The Sonata in D Minor, L413/K9 is a short bipartite work, about 62 measures of 6/8. It is, for the most part, in two voices, although Scarlatti so often adds the interval of a third or a small block chord to one of the voices that the texture doesn't feel particularly contrapuntal. This piece is a long, long way from Fux counterpoint exercises- Scarlatti doesn't shy away from long sequential passages in parallel thirds (e. g. measures 9 through11). Sequences and literal repetitions are some of his favorite devices, allowing him to do a few things:
•1) prolong a certain sonority to make the 'bizarre' change which follows it more interesting (I think unusual harmony requires judicious use of non-bizarre areas to keep from becoming monotonous and disorienting - i.e. Richard Strauss 'Salome' gobbledygook)
•2) throw the audience for a loop with the following trick- measure A, measure A repeated, measure B, measure B repea- oh wait! It's not repeating literally! He's changed something!
•3) establish keys without using actual cadences- a scale in thirds contains certain implied chords that create a quasi-cadential effect. This allows Scarlatti to establish not so much a key as a scale- he can use these sequential passages to leave a certain ambiguity about major/minor to keep the audience on its toes. And, of course, these are easy places to introduce accidentals for modulations (something he doesn't do in DeVoto's examples, though).
•4) Ornament the repetitions to show off

Okay, so what happens, broadly, in the harmony of this sonata? Section A offers a long passage of thorny, antique-sounding D Minor (an effect created, I have noticed, by using v chords- the opening chords are i V i v ) before moving to an unusual set of scalar passages that imply F major without actually coming to a proper cadence. Scarlatti goes on in F major, but continues to cloud the subject by using trilled suspensions and a chain of appoggiatura figures. Even though the chords are Is and Vs, we don't feel a solid, uncomplicated arrival in F until bar 25, where an ascending F scale dispels any doubt.

Section B starts as a continuation of this now solid, comfortable F major. We get I, V7, I - v?! He uses a minor v in F major? It certainly sounds that way until it becomes apparent that Scarlatti has instead - pissing on most freshman theory book rules about modulation - moved to G Minor in an unusual and striking manner. The perceived v chord in F major is, in fact, a iv chord in G Minor, natch. In the same vein, the v6 chord in G minor a couple bars later is in fact a iv in A major (yeah, a minor iv chord in A major- Scarlatti rightly realizes that the divisions between a major and parallel minor aren't nearly as rigid as the books imply). The A major section, in fact, turns out to be a dominant for the D minor which reasserts itself (one could, I guess, argue that there never was a iv chord in A minor, that it was just a premature arrival of the D Minor tonic- but it doesn't sound that way when you hear it).

The other big harmonic surprise comes after a few bars of establishing D Minor- we're back into G Minor again? Scarlatti uses the altered-repetition trick (see trick No. 2 on the list above) to include a D Major chord in D Minor (yes, it does sound cool) which acts as a dominant for the arrival of G Minor, which arrives after a very weird little progression- V-sharp, VI, dimished ii6, V-sharp6/5, i and then- sequence. This sequence is, like I mentioned earlier, in either D Minor or F Major, and after that bit of strange time in G minor we're not sure which.

Well, it's D Minor (the piece is only 63 or so bars, he can't spin this out forever), which gets reaffirmed with many more queasy appoggiatura figures and lots of V chords that lack thirds. This makes for a certain bleak character.

It's hard to imagine the first reception of these pieces- did he sit beside Princess Maria Barbara at the 'gravicembalo' and play through them for her, or did she sight-read them? Is she the one who nicknamed him 'Mimmo'?

Tomorrow- another Scarlatti sonata.


Blogger Andy and said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'm studying this piece in my History course and it was very helpful to come across your artical. It is also very well written! Thank you!

4:08 PM  
Blogger Lam Chu Xin said...

Anyone can help me, i want to take ABRSM exam and want to make program notes about that pieces..
Pls help me how to analysis and make program notes about scarlatti sonata gminor,K476,L340


8:38 PM  

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