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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

Bach lived his life in defiance of the Enlightenment and was revived in reaction to it. The remaining member of the class of 1685, Domenico Scarlatti, exemplified the esthetic of Enlightenment better, perhaps, than any other musician of his time.

The son of Alessandro Scarlatti, one of the giants of the opera seria, Domenico Scarlatti was at first groomed for a career in his father’s footsteps, for which he showed a precocious aptitude. His first opera, Ottavia ristituita al trono (“Octavia restored to the throne”), was produced at Saint Bartholomew’s in Naples, Alessandro’s stamping ground, for the 1703 carnival season, when Domenico was all of seventeen years old. His last, the archetypical Berenice, regina d’Egitto, ovvero Le gare di amore e di politica (“Bernice, Queen of Egypt;” or, the “Contest of love and politics”), was produced for the Roman carnival fifteen years later, whereupon Scarlatti retired from the opera stage, at the age of thirty-two, with almost forty years of life still ahead of him.

The next year, 1719, he took a position as maestro di cappella at the cathedral of Lisbon, in Portugal, where he produced several oratorios and other sacred vocal works (some in a very chaste stile antico), and also supervised the musical education of the Infanta (crown princess) Maria Barbara, a gifted keyboard player. On her marriage to Fernando, the crown prince of Spain, in 1728, he followed Maria Barbara to Madrid, where he was known as Domingo Escarlatti, and served as courtier until his death in 1757, the last twenty years alongside the great castrato Farinelli, who (as we have seen) also retired to a sinecure at Madrid.

Scarlatti, At Last

fig. 7-8 Domenico Scarlatti, by Domingo Antonio de Velasco.

Scarlatti spent his years at Madrid as a pampered retainer, later a knight, and was free to compose whatever he wanted. What he wanted to compose was virtuoso harpsichord music for himself (and, presumably, his royal pupil) to perform. Unconstrained by any set requirements, yet prompted by a tremendous musical curiosity and imagination, he invented what amounted to a new style of composition, which he called “ingenious jesting with art.”26 The phrase is pregnant. It jibes presciently with Dr. Burney’s comments on the nature and value of music, and reveals a wholehearted commitment to the ideal of delighting—rather than edifying, instructing, awing, or stirring—the listener. Nothing could be farther away from the monumental worlds of Bach and Handel.

Accordingly, Scarlatti became the great miniaturist of his age, spending the last thirty to forty years of his life turning out upwards of 550 short, freestanding compositions for the harpsichord (and, to an undeterminable extent, for other keyboard instruments to which they are adaptable, namely organ, clavichord, and early forms of the pianoforte). These pieces were individually called sonatas, but they were in only a single “movement” and were often published under different names (such as essercizi, “studies”), or even as pièces grouped in suites. None survives in the composer’s autograph, and it is impossible to know, therefore, exactly what he called them or how he grouped them.

The reason for occasionally calling them pièces is clear enough: like those of Couperin and the other French clavecinistes, Scarlatti’s pieces are uniformly in “binary” form—far more uniformly than Couperin’s, which are often rondeaux (with recurrent refrains) or passacailles (variations over a ground). Scarlatti himself never gathered them into suites. Early copyists and editors liked to group them in pairs, similar in key but contrasting in tempo. This, too, is a practice that (while effective, and widely followed in performance) cannot with any certainty be associated with the composer.

Rather, Scarlatti evidently preferred to provide delight in single short doses—“by the shot,” one could say. But unlike Couperin, who also deserves credit for pioneering the single characteristic piece (albeit published in “ordres” or suites), Scarlatti liked to make brash statements as well as tender ones. Like any jester, he had an exhibitionistic streak. He could never have said, with Couperin (in the preface to his first book of pièces de clavecin, 1713), that “I would rather be moved than astonished.” Scarlatti’s sonatas, though occasionally tender and lyrical, are, as a corpus, the most astonishing pieces of their time.

Their astonishing character draws on several sources. One is the outstanding instrumental virtuosity they require and display (particularly in the use of special effects like crossed hands and even glissando). Another is their harmonic extravagance, manifested both in terms of boldly handled dissonance and an often flamboyant, yet exquisitely graded use of modulatory chromaticism. Still another is the fantastic variety with which their single basic shape is treated.

Finally, there is a singular imprint of local color—a local color that to listeners in countries where the international music trade flourished seemed exotic (as it must have seemed to the foreign-born Scarlatti himself, hence his penchant for noticing and drawing on it). The Scarlatti sonatas are a very early instance of exotic local color being sought and valued for its “pure” musical allure, without any symbolically nationalistic overlay. (A century or more later, this allure was exploited nationalistically by Spanish musicians, notably the pianist-composer Enrique Granados, who pioneeringly programmed, edited, and emulated Scarlatti at a time when his work had largely lapsed into “historical” limbo.)

The most remarkable aspect of Scarlatti’s sonatas, in fact, may be the absence in them (despite their frequent vivid “pictorialisms”) of anything symbolic at all. At a time when music, like the other arts, was mainly valued for its mimetic properties, Scarlatti sought to convey what Thomas Twining, a friend of Dr. Burney, called “a simple original pleasure, … no more imitative than the smell of a rose, or the flavor of a pineapple.”27 In this, Scarlatti was true to the spirit, not of his father, but of the Italian string composers of his father’s generation. His sonatas, unlike Couperin’s character pieces, were works at which old French academicians like Fontanelle might have railed.

What made them the darlings of connoisseurs and epicures from the beginning—or at least from 1739, when a selection of them was published for the first time and immediately pirated far and wide (as well as plundered by Handel for his “Grand Concertos”)—was what their British publisher Thomas Roseingrave, a famous harpsichordist in his own right, called “their Delicacy of Stile, and Masterly Composition.”28 The Scarlatti sonatas, from which the following examples have been drawn, were chosen to exemplify all these traits in turn—except sheer virtuosity, which is exemplified throughout. They are numbered here according to the catalogue of Ralph Kirkpatrick (1911–84), an eminent harpsichordist who in his biography of Scarlatti (1953) tried to put the sonatas in something resembling a chronological order. (The previously standard listing by Alessandro Longo had been an arbitrary one like the Bach-Gesellschaft ordering of Bach’s cantatas.)

The Sonata in G, K. 105, has an overall shape that can be regarded as typical for Scarlatti: the usual swing from tonic to dominant in the first half, followed by a return in the second half by way of a FOP or “far-out point” (in this case, the cadence on B minor (iii) in mm. 118–19). As is also typical for Scarlatti, the endings of each binary half match up with their counterparts more closely than the beginnings, so that a drive to completion is achieved. What makes the sonata unforgettable, though, is not its general contours but the specific harmonic content, which is also “typically Scarlattian,” but in an unusually, almost uniquely concentrated fashion. Beginning half-way through the first half, and even more pervasively in the second half, the harmony is rife with dissonant seconds, few of which can be considered “chord tones,” and even fewer of which resolve in normally prescribed fashion to consonances. In mm. 39–41 (the beginning of Ex. 7-19) their actual function is best perceived. The harmony is clearly A major. The Ds in the left hand, however, show no tendency whatever to resolve to C♯; instead, they seem to cling to the E in a sort of decorative cluster.

In fact, this pungent decoration was widely employed by harpsichordists. Francesco Geminiani, an Italian violinist who worked in England, called particular attention to it in his Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick (1749): “No performer should flatter himself that he is able to accompany well till he is master of this delicate and admirable secret which has been in use above a hundred years.”29 But before Scarlatti it was rarely written down (which was why it was a “secret”). A sort of simultaneous mordent, it was called acciaccatura (from acciaccare, to bruise or batter). Scarlatti was uniquely drawn to its use and, by notating it, put it “on the map.”

The deliciously grotesque passage shown in Ex. 7-19, where the acciaccaturas are maintained throughout like a sort of pedal (or—more to the point—like a constantly strummed open string), discloses the reason for Scarlatti’s seeming obsession with them. By combining the acciaccaturas with “Phrygian” neighbor notes (B♭ applied to A in the first half, E♭ applied to D in the second), Scarlatti unmistakably conjures up the sound of “Flamenco” guitars, the Andalusian gypsy style that has become pervasive in Spanish popular music, and that must have already been a conspicuous part of the sonic landscape in Scarlatti’s day.

Scarlatti, At Last

ex. 7-19 Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata in G, K. 105, mm. 39–54

The Sonata in E major, K. 264, is one of Scarlatti’s most vagarious essays in modulation. The first half already contains chords whose roots lie the very maximum distance—namely, a tritone—away from the tonic on a complete (rather than diatonically adjusted) circle of fifths. The second half begins with a remarkable excursion (Ex. 7-20) in which the traditional FOP seems to be pushed much farther than ever before, requiring an enharmonic alteration of the key signature to avoid a huge proliferation of double (or even triple) sharps. The harmonic distance covered in Ex. 7-20, though covered very unconventionally (by a sequence of three successive ascending whole steps adding up to another tritone: B–C♯ [= D♭]–E♭–F), turns out to be not all that great; the cadence point at the end of the example is C, merely the “minor vi” or “flat submediant” of E (that is, the submediant of the parallel minor), and though played around with at length, it is never exceeded. Far more significant, perhaps, is the fact that the strange modulation is carried by a melodic sequence drawn from the sonata’s opening pair of measures, so that it could be regarded as a motivic development.

Scarlatti, At Last

ex. 7-20 Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata in E major, K. 264, mm. 127–46

The “perhaps” is necessary, because a modulatory motivic development at the beginning of the second binary half, culminating in the FOP, was something that would later become a virtual sine qua non or mandate for “classical” sonata composers; but it happens only ad libitum (“when he pleases”) with Scarlatti. For him it is only one of many ways of proceeding, and a rather exceptional one at that. Its “significance” is something that we judge, inevitably, with a hindsight the composer did not possess.

The same goes for the overall shape of the Sonata in F minor, K. 481, a plaintive andante cantabile, in which the beginning of the second half features another bold enharmonic modulation over a motive derived from the first half (compare Ex. 7-21a with Ex. 7-21b), again arriving at a bizarre FOP that is the exact reciprocal of the one in the previous sonata. Instead of the submediant of a major tonic’s parallel minor, we have the submediant of a minor tonic’s parallel major.

Scarlatti, At Last

ex. 7-21a Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata in F minor, K. 481, mm. 9–12

Scarlatti, At Last

ex. 7-21b Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata in F minor, K. 481, mm. 36–44

But there is something else to notice. In this sonata, the return of the original tonic happens to coincide with a return of the opening thematic material. This dramatic “double return” (original key arriving together with the original theme) was something else that would become practically de rigueur by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and a defining attribute of the “classical” sonata form. The double return is often thought typical of Scarlatti, because the most famous Scarlatti sonata of all—C major, K. 159, a favorite of piano teachers everywhere (Ex. 7-22)—happens to have one (compare the beginning with m. 43).

But the double return is actually a great rarity in Scarlatti’s work. If we take an exclusively “horizontal” or synchronic view of his output (that is, comparing it only to what was going on in its own time), the double return will seem an insignificant caprice, even an eccentricity. If, on the other hand, we take a “vertical” or diachronic view (comparing it to what came before and after), it will appear momentously significant, even prophetic. Which view is the true view?

Scarlatti, At Last

ex. 7-22a Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata in C, K. 159, mm. 1–6

Scarlatti, At Last

ex. 7-22b Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata in C, K. 159, mm. 38–47

Obviously, it is a question of perspective. Both are true views, but neither is the true view. To Scarlatti’s contemporaries, his sonatas, while much admired by connoisseurs, were admired as “original and happy freaks,”30 to quote Dr. Burney—the offbeat products of an imaginative but isolated and pampered genius. (It was no doubt the self-indulgent quality of his work that gave rise to the rumor, contradicted at last by recently discovered portraits, that in his late years Scarlatti became too fat to reach the keyboard when seated.) As Ralph Kirkpatrick put it, a composer as fertile, as prolific, and as nonchalant as Scarlatti “would have been perfectly capable of discovering the classical sonata form and then throwing it away.”31 And yet to many other modern historians and performers, Scarlatti’s harmonic and formal experiments have made him seem no mere eccentric, but “an epoch-making composer,”32 to quote Fernando Valenti (1926–90), an eminent harpsichordist who did a great deal to popularize Scarlatti’s work. According to this view, Scarlatti was a more “advanced” composer than Bach or Handel, his fellows in the class of 1685. There are facts that may be cited to justify such a view. The most persuasive one, paradoxically enough, would be Scarlatti’s retarded development.

Surely one of the latest bloomers among the major names in music history, Scarlatti only came into his own as a composer in 1738, with the publication of his first book, Essercizi per gravicembalo. By then the class of 1685 were all aged fifty-three, and Bach’s and Handel’s careers were largely behind them. Scarlatti was just beginning to be “Scarlatti,” and thus his effective starting point coincided with Bach’s and Handel’s finish lines. As a composer, then, Scarlatti might better be regarded not as a contemporary of J. S. Bach but rather as an elder member of the generation of Bach’s sons.

Such a view of Scarlatti, of course, reflects a general historical view that places the highest premium on teleological evolution, and on innovation, evolution’s handmaiden. It is known as the “Darwinian” theory of history, after a fundamental misreading of the work of Charles Darwin, the biologist whose (entirely non-teleological) theory of evolution has dominated natural history since 1859, the year in which his masterwork, The Origin of Species, was published. By then, of course, the members of the class of 1685 had all been dead a hundred years or more. It is clearly anachronistic from the point of view of Scarlatti and his contemporaries. Does that make it an altogether irrelevant criterion of judgment?

Many historians and musicians in the twentieth century have not thought so. The Darwinian view of music history was given a memorable expression by Igor Stravinsky, a highly innovative modern composer, when commenting on an extravagantly Darwinian historical study by Edward Lowinsky called Tonality and Atonality in Sixteenth-Century Music. Lowinsky had contended that if a historian can show a trend or an accomplishment, no matter how small or how isolated, to have been “pregnant with the seed of future developments,” then “it does not seem a matter of decisive importance whether it represents, say ten, fifteen, or twenty per cent” of the total musical output its time.33 “Or, indeed, a smaller per cent still,” Stravinsky enthusiastically chimed in, perhaps recalling the recent history of Russia, his native country, and the “Three Who Made a Revolution” (to cite the title of an influential study of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky by Bertram D. Wolfe).34

In back of an apparently scientific view, then, is a more general cultural assumption that significant history is the creation of small elites. When it is put in this way, the political implications (or foundations) of the view are more easily noticed. Exclusively diachronic views of historical phenomena, and the concomitant tendency to overrate innovation, have lost some ground as a result. But an exclusively synchronic view may tend to overrate eccentricity and obscure the reality of “trends and accomplishments.” Again, it is more important for us right now to understand the question than it is to adjudicate it. Rather than attempt to decide the matter of Scarlatti’s “true” significance or to harmonize the vividly conflicting perspectives on his achievement, we can regard him as an archetype of “peripheral” composers—composers who are geographically and temperamentally remote from the centers of institutional and commercial music making, but (perhaps seemingly, perhaps truly) “ahead of their time.” Whether “seemingly” or “truly” depends on the manner in which the times make contact with the individual, and (inevitably) on the interests and biases of the historian.


(26) Domenico Scarlatti, Preface to Essercizi per gravicembalo (London, 1738); quoted in Ralph Kirkpatrick, Domenico Scarlatti (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 102.

(27) Thomas Twining, Aristotle’s Treatise on Poetry, Translated: With Notes on the Translation, and on the Original; And Two Dissertations, on Poetical, and Musical, Imitation (2nd ed., London, 1812), p. 66.

(28) Title page of XLII Suites de Pieces Pour le Clavecin. En deux Volumes. Composées par Domenico Scarlatti…Carefully Revised & Corrected from the Errors of the Press [by] Thos. Roseingrave (London: B. Cooke, [1739]).

(29) Francesco Geminiani, Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick (London, 1749), p. 4.

(30) Burney, A General History of Music, ed., F. Mercer, Vol. II, p. 706.

(31) Ralph Kirkpatrick, Domenico Scarlatti, p. 266.

(32) Fernando Valenti, liner note to Domenico Scarlatti, Sonatas for Harpsichord (Westminster Records, 1952).

(33) Edward E. Lowinsky, Tonality and Atonality in Sixteenth-Century Music (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), p. 74.

(34) Igor Stravinsky, Foreword to Lowinsky, Tonality and Atonality, p. viii.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07013.xml