Music: The Queen's Music Master

If musical scholars were as suspicious a breed as Shakespearean scholars, there might be a movement to prove that Domenico Scarlatti never existed, or that his best pieces were written by somebody else—possibly the Queen of Spain. The man left hardly any record of himself: one letter (inviting the Duke of Huescar to come calling), a will, some signatures, and a very few musical autographs. Most of what we know about him comes front legal documents and gossip.

Until he was almost forty, Domenico seems to have been under the thumb of his eminent father, Alessandro Scarlatti—then one of the great lions of Italian music. Alessandro was a purveyor of musical entertainment to the very rich, and guided his own career by the simple rule that a prince of the blood is a better financial risk than a prince of the church. When lie was twenty, he was already music master to Oueen Christina of Sweden (who was living in Rome) . A pretty good start. And, as a man who contrived to support himself in great style, Alessandro did what he could to transmit success and the secrets of it to his son. Therefore, from his youth into his middle age, Scarlatti fils supported himself creating diversions, mostly operatic, for the dowager queen of Poland and tire notorious libertine Cardinal Ottoboni; and—to round out his Italian career—as musical director of the Archbasilica of St. Peter’s. Then, when he was thirty-five, Domenico resigned his post and left Italy for good. By that time, he had written a great deal of operatic and liturgical vocal music. What has survived (and a lot of it hasn’t) is perfectly all right, but slapdash and in no sense arresting.

If he had gone into a cloistered monastery, Scarlatti could not have been kept under wraps more securely than he was in the Portuguese and Spanish courts. Maria Barbara and her husband, Fernando VI, were music lovers. They were in a position to buy musicians, and this is just what they did. (They did not, in fact, buy Scarlatti, who was a gift from King Joao V of Portugal to his daughter.) But once they acquired a musician, his public life was over. 1 Ie could look forward to a life of great security, following the court from one royal estate to the next, but Jus audience would be a private one.

The traveling must have been unpleasant, but there is no indication that life at court was particularly tedious. The musicians in the entourage were men of unusual endowments, and, allowing for occasional temperamental outbursts, they must have found each other stimulating. And the royal patrons were generous. Scarlatti’s salary was large enough to allow him to keep a fine house in Madrid. The Queen, in her will, bequeathed her music master 2000 doubloons—which was, and still is, a fortune in Spanish gold. (Scarlatti died before Maria Barbara, and nobody got the doubloons.) Furthermore, in 1738, Scarlatti was made a knight ot the order of Santiago by João V. They checked his ancestry in a cursory way, and finding no heretics, Jews, or Moors in it, bestowed the cloak o£ the order on him, with special permission to “wear clothes of velvet and silk in any color, rings, jewels, chains and clothing of gold, inasmuch as the hat be of velvet.”

It was in these circumstances that Scarlatti wrote the sonatas that constitute his major contribution to music and on which his reputation rests. There are 555 of them in Ralph Kirkpatrick’s catalogue. It is impossible to state flatly when the composition of die series began, but in 1738, when he was fifty-three, Scarlatti published thirty of them under the title Esserrizi per Gravicembalo. The following year, a British publisher brought out an edition of the Essercizi with an additional twelve sonatas. Aside from these, most of the works have survived in beautiful manuscripts copied and bound in leather at the command of the Queen.

It is hard to remember that these pieces were composed not only for the Queen’s pleasure but also for her use. She must have been a most unusually accomplished performer by any standards. The Scarlatti sonatas are not only extremely idiomatic for the harpsichord; they are hard to play. Many, in fact most, of them, are accessible only to the virtuoso. Of the eighteenth-century keyboard works that immediately suggest comparison—works of Couperin, Rameau, Handel, and the Italian crowd—none are as treacherous. J. S. Bach wrote pieces that are every bit as hard, but Scarlatti could not possibly have known them.

Since Scarlatti could not have started the sonata series before he was forty, and was still working hard right up to the time of his death at the age of seventy-two, it is proper to think of this literature as an old mail’s music—a source of encouragement to late starters everywhere. Much of Scarlatti’s facility must be attributed to the fact that the composition of the sonatas made few demands on his imagination in point of form. Scholars, enthusiasts, and apologists can demonstrate enormous differences between one piece and another, but the fact remains that they are all about the same length—five minutes, give or take a minute or two; and that almost all of them are divided at or near the middle by a caesura. And there are whole families of pieces that resemble each other closely. Of the D major sonatas, twenty-two fast ones are in ⅜ time. Faced with this combination of tempo, key, and meter, Scarlatti always went into the same whirling dervish routine.

The largest distinction of the sonatas is a stylistic one. A great deal —too much, I think—has been made of how much of Spain got into them: brassy sounds from outdoor processionals, hints of flamenco, and so on. The real eccentricities are in the harmony, which is never completely predictable and at its wildest is extraordinarily audacious, as in one of the A minor sonatas (number 175 in the Kirkpatrick catalogue) , which takes the dissonance as far as it was to go before Le Sacre du printemps. This can be explained by the fact that the only ears to which he was responsible besides his own belonged to a King and Queen whose taste he had helped form.

The most nearly complete edition of Scarlatti’s keyboard music is the work of the Italian musicologist Alessandro Kongo, who died in 1945. In the interest of correctness, Kongo altered some notes which he took to be copyist’s errors, and for this he has been savagely attacked, and with justification. Nonetheless, his edition is quite serviceable and will do nicely until something better comes along. It contains 545 sonatas in ten volumes and a supplement, is supplied with an invaluable thematic index, is in print, and sells for about four dollars a volume.

With the re-emergence of the harpsichord in recent years, there has been some question whether it is ever legitimate to perform Scarlatti on the piano. Actually, there were pianos as well as harpsichords at the Spanish court at the time Scarlatti was there, though they were quite unlike modern instruments, and we have no way of knowing whether he liked them. However, the music often goes slack and loses its bite when played on the piano. This does not mean that a pianist shouldn’t play Scarlatti if he wants to, but it does mean that he will have some trouble finding pieces that, are truly effective on his instrument.