Review | The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style by W. Dean Sutcliffe

Domenico Scarlatti is one of those cult figures—Berlioz is another—who are as hard to leave out as they areto fit in. His historical and cultural position defies easy labeling, for he is neither Baroque nor Classical, neither Italian nor Spanish, and neither inside nor outside the canon. He is not seminal in the sense of forming a link in a historical chain either of composers or of performers, but his influence is clearly perceptible in the literature of keyboard instruments from Haydn to Ligeti. Could the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F major, Op. 54, have been written without Scarlatti’s ghost looking over the composer’s shoulder?

In one respect, Scarlatti could not be more different from Berlioz. Far from writing an autobiography, he seems to have covered his traces with remarkable efficiency. Only one of his letters survives, and there remain a few periods of his life when he disappears from our sight altogether. He seems never to have courted visibility, serving his employer, the Portuguese, later Spanish, princess Maria Bárbara, faithfully and discreetly. None of his 550-odd keyboard sonatas exists today in an autograph manuscript. Although their approximate chronology of composition has been surmised (it runs parallel with their Kirkpatrick or “K.” numbers), this remains a highly uncertain and contentious matter. In no respect is it yet possible to construct a full, reliable history of his stylistic evolution based on the chronology of the sonatas. We can infer such a history, as many have done, but only at the cost of introducing a suspect circularity into the argument (sonata A appears to us later than sonata B; therefore we may take it as later; therefore the advances manifested in sonata B vis-à-vis sonata A chart Scarlatti’s stylistic progress). As a result, the artist and his artworks inhabit separate worlds, neither illuminating the other.

The doyen of living Scarlatti scholars is by common consent Joel Sheveloff, whose doctoral thesis on the sonatas (“The Keyboard Music of Domenico Scarlatti: A Reevaluation of the Present State of Knowledge in the Light of the Sources”) retains its luster, as the tributes paid to it in the reviewed study confirm. However, the thesis remains unpublished, and Sheveloff has contributed comparatively little (in terms of volume) on Scarlatti since, leaving others to pick up the spade. Faute de mieux, Ralph Kirkpatrick’s study of the composer (Domenico Scarlatti), which set a standard for its time but nowadays shows its age, has remained up to the present the sole full-length study in English on Scarlatti’s sonatas. Malcolm Boyd’s more recent study (Domenico Scarlatti, Master of Music), which offers a badly needed corrective to Kirkpatrick by devoting much attention to Scarlatti’s vocal music (operas, oratorios, serenatas, cantatas, and church music), simply does not have the space to revise comprehensively the older author’s perspective on the music of the sonatas, although it updates the catalogue of works and sources very effectively.

Dean Sutcliffe’s new book, which focuses once more on the sonatas, can therefore claim to be the “new Kirkpatrick.” Its style of expression, full of such concepts as “problematizing,” “ironizing,” “deconstruction,” and so forth, marks the author out as someone fully at home with the “new” musicology. However, the spirit of the investigation is rather traditional in a typically British manner, steering clear of all-encompassing theses and grand narratives. Like Sutcliffe’s description of Scarlatti’s style (borrowed from Bakhtinian terminology), it exhibits heteroglossia—the practice of mixing different forms or levels of discourse. One of its most original and attractive features is to weave into the close analysis of the music reflections on the interpretative choices and approaches made first by editors and then by performers. In this way, the three practices—analysis, philology, and performance—are brought close together in mutual support.

Domenico Scarlatti

Sutcliffe begins with an introduction, “Scarlatti the Interesting Historical Figure,” that lays out many of the themes and issues dealt with later. Central to his view of the composer’s modus operandi is the concept of “disdain” (a term applied earlier to Scarlatti by Giorgio Pestelli): a self-conscious rejection of convention. There follows a long chapter on the sonatas’ reception history entitled
“Panorama,” which is Sutcliffe’s shorthand for a particular musicographical tradition that has much to say about their characteristics as a whole but is reluctant to engage closely with individual works. In the third chapter, “Heteroglossia,” the author explores the manner in which Scarlatti juxtaposes in one movement diverse topics (in the Ratnerian sense) and recoils from wholesale adoption of the galant musical language of his time. This chapter contains a very thoughtful section on perceptions of the Iberian influence (Sutcliffe is meticulous about distinguishing between Portuguese and Spanish, as also between different varieties of “Spanish”); it benefits from the author’s thorough knowledge of Iberian keyboard music contemporary with, and just after, Scarlatti (Sebastian Albero, Carlos Seixas, Antonio Soler et al.). He explains how Scarlatti has been treated as an icon of the Latin as opposed to the Germanic and how, within the Latin camp, he has been appropriated variously for Italy and for Spain. Sutcliffe displays due caution about such labels; he could have been even more forthcoming about the interpenetration of the cultures of Spain and the kingdom of Naples during Scarlatti’s lifetime, which makes any neat national identification impossible.

Sutcliffe moves next to consider the syntax of the sonatas. Rightly, he emphasizes the importance of the syntactical and rhythmic parameters, which are more complex than the norm for their period, whereas the harmonic parameter, on which attention tends traditionally to focus, can be unusually plain over long stretches. He is particularly convincing on Scarlatti’s fondness for elision (his remarks on the “great curve,” where a first-time ending of the opening section is skipped over on its repeat in the interests of a seamless transition into the second section, are especially percipient) and on the composer’s use of “vamp” figures, where insistently repeated scraps of figures accompany unpredictably shifting harmonies—the music standing still, so to speak, even as it lurches forward.

The fifth chapter, entitled “Irritations,” is perhaps the most interesting of all. This term, taken from Peter Böttinger, stands for all the irregularities in Scarlatti’s music that have embarrassed performers and commentators, and have so often been smoothed out silently. They include unconventional voice-leading, with abrupt intrusions or disappearances of notes, “athematic” counterpoint, and abrasive added notes. Here, I think it is a shame that Sutcliffe has not quoted and discussed Scarlatti’s alleged statement, relayed to Burney through Marc-Antoine Laugier, that his deviations from the rules were sanctioned by the pleasure that they gave the ear—an ultra-empirical stance that anticipates Debussy’s famous self-defense. Other irritations are the absence of genuinely slow movements (though Sutcliffe could have pointed out that to some extent this lack affects Italian late-Baroque and galant keyboard as a whole) and the inconsistency of marked ornamentation, which leaves the editor or performer uncertain whether the differences represent intentional elegant variation, accidental omission, or mere casualness. It is hard to discern any pattern in, or derive any conclusions from, the textual differences among the sources. On ornamentation in general, incidentally, one might take issue with Sutcliffe’s statement that “variation, in the sense of the immediate varied treatment of a short musical unit is largely foreign to Scarlatti” (146). This claim is belied by several of the musical examples, most notably Ex. 7.7, in which bars 35–37 of K. 206 are a decorated repetition of bars 31–34. 

In the next chapter Sutcliffe considers the “keyboardistic” nature of the sonatas, the one factor for which they have consistently been applauded. Crucial to his view is that their idiomatic character is based not merely on sheer digitalism or the deft co-ordination of the two hands but equally on the peculiar effects of sonority that a keyboard instrument can achieve (he is undogmatic about which keyboard instrument—harpsichord or fortepiano—is the actor).

The last chapter—disregarding a short conclusion that is little more than a condensed restatement of the book’s substance—is devoted to a consideration of the “macroformal” aspects of the sonatas. Here, the discussion of the status of the pairings of the sonatas in the two main collections (Venice and Parma) and elsewhere is very instructive. Sutcliffe belongs to the skeptical school, regarding the pairs as “acts of compilation rather than composition,” although he leaves it open who determined the couplings (44).

One great pleasure of this book is its wealth of pithy and memorable aperçus. To give just a few examples: apropos of the spare texture in K. 308 Sutcliffe writes , “It is the space between and around the texture that is so expressive, indeed seductive” (99). (Listen) And one page later, concerning perceptions of the galant style: “the unattractive combination of a style that is intellectually low but socially high.” The innovative quality of Scarlatti’s keyboard style is aptly summed up as an assertion of “the keyboard’s rights to and possibilities of intrinsic material” (294). On the next page Sutcliffe adds the telling comment that “the composer’s exploitation of register [especially where both hands occupy a high register] liberates the keyboard from its customary role as a forger” (295). One could multiply these happy examples indefinitely.

True, the book has its own “irritations.” Reference to Scarlatti’s works in vocal genres is sparse, and there is not a single music example from them. Surely, it would have been useful to know which stylistic traits of the composer are not specific to the keyboard medium. Then the improvisatory quality of the sonatas is only grudgingly and infrequently acknowledged. This is, I believe, a mistake. The empirical approach to musical grammaticality acknowledged by the composer himself (in Laugier’s account) and, indeed, the whole stream of consciousness quality of the music arise from his willingness to give permanence, in notated form, to practices stemming from improvisation. I feel as well that the author sometimes uses the concepts of “disdain” and its cousin “irony” tendentiously as devices to explain away those conventional musical processes (scarcely rare in Scarlatti’s music) that can perfectly well be taken at face value. Does one really need, for instance, to regard sequential episodes in the “Cat’s Fugue,” K. 30, as “ironically mechanical” (183)? (Listen) Does heteroglossia exclude the parody-free appearance of the strict style? In more general respects, Sutcliffe tends to favor complex explanations calling for the full apparatus of modish terminology and buzz-words above simple ones, but my resistance is here perhaps more a matter of personal taste.

The most serious shortcoming is one of presentation. Sutcliffe’s analysis of individual sonatas is everywhere very detailed, commonly proceeding in “blow by blow” fashion. However, the sonatas, or extracts from them, under discussion are quoted as music examples almost randomly. In other words, a single, dense mode of analytical commentary is employed, regardless of whether the reader can view the musical notes or not. But having the notes to consult makes all the difference when musical processes are described, often very laboriously, in words. The absence of a musical text for inspection renders large tracts of the analysis unusable, even for the experienced. The author could counter that it is incumbent on the reader to acquire the scores beforehand. But if that were so, why would any music examples be needed at all? In any case, the requirement would be unreasonable and impractical. If the book is reissued in revised form, I would recommend that a simpler mode of analysis be adopted whenever the notes are not shown. This would have the added merit of making the study more reader-friendly in wider respects.

A final word of commendation for the production of this volume. The presentation of the text and examples is always first-rate, and the index is efficient. I was amused by one translation from German, however. On page 37 the author, quoting from Oskar Bie, speaks of “chromatic tone-ladders” darting through the texture. Colorful older German writing on music may often be, but these Tonleiter are simply…scales.

Michael Talbot
University of Liverpool

Works Cited

Sheveloff, Joel. “The Keyboard Music of Domenico Scarlatti: A Reevaluation of the Present State of Knowledge in the Light of the Sources.” Ph. D., Brandeis University, 1970.

Kirkpatrick, Ralph. Domenico ScarlattiPrinceton: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Boyd, Malcolm. Domenico Scarlatti, Master of Music. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.