The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style

By Kroll, Mark | Notes, September 2004 | Go to article overview

The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style


Kroll, Mark, Notes


INSTRUMENTS AND INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style. By W. Dean Sutcliffe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. [xi, 400 p. ISBN 0-521-48140-6. $75.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

Domenico Scarlatti is the greatest Spanish composer Italy has ever produced. He often inspires such curious contradictions, and many aspects of his life and works remain controversial and elusive. Performers and scholars will therefore always welcome any new information and insight on this unique figure.

W. Dean Sutcliffe's book represents a substantial contribution to the field. The author offers a comprehensive survey of the literature, an excellent account of the problems posed by the lack of sources (especially autographs), and an unflinching confrontation with the question of placing the sonatas in pairs (he is clearly not an advocate). Sutcliffe addresses issues of performance practice, explores the influence of Spanish folk music, and examines many other factors that, taken together, determine how we hear and play Scarlatti's music. He justly questions the existence of four separate numbering systems for the sonatas (Longo, Kirkpatrick, Fadini, and Pestelli), and he accurately describes the extent to which the Austro-German focus of musicology has distorted the analysis and reception of Scarlatti. This problem, I might add, has also been true for other "latinate" composers, such as François Couperin and the French clavecinistes.

Sutcliffe therefore covers considerable ground with the skill of an experienced scholar, but several aspects of this book diminish the impact of this otherwise valuable study. The most troubling is the uncomfortable impression that Sulcliffe has deep suspicions, if not downright antipathy, about many characteristics of Scarlatti's essential compositional style. This includes the hallmark use of repeated chords, his unconventional voice leading, the rapid tempos of the majority of the sonatas, and the composer's predilection for phrase repetition and unusual formal structures.

Sutcliffe's tendency to express his reservations in what I consider to be overly harsh terms exacerbates the problem. To cite a few instances, he complains that the voice leading of K. 277 is "crude" (p. 14), and the "consecutive fourths [in K. 254, have] an obviously ugly effect" (p. 16). Scarlatti's "gigantic sequences can be . . . infuriating and upsetting" (p. 121), and his repeated chords and passages are described as "idiot repetitions" (p. 283) that lest our tolerance levels. My tolerance level was cerlainly tested when he hinted at some dark psychological disturbance lurking beneath these musical gestures. Writing that "many forms of irrational conduct or mental illness involve repetitive behavior" (p. 158), Sutcliffe suggests that "were we to speculate on Scarlatti's character from the evidence of the music, we might imagine it to have been unstable or even schizophrenic" (p. 35). Although I am sure this was not the author's intention, the conclusion one draws from such inflammatory statements is that he considers Scarlalli's music to be crude, ugly, compulsive, and perhaps even menially unbalanced.

Sutcliffe's harsh tone often extends to his criticism of a number of eminent scholars and performers, especially Ralph Kirkpatrick. Is it really appropriate, or accurate, to describe the work of this distinguished Scarlattian as "incredible, if not absurd" (p. 43), or to accuse him of being guilty of "a fabrication"? (p. vii n. 1). In an amusing twist, the author unwittingly echoes Kirkpatrick on several occasions, such as the comparison of Scarlatti's harmonic practices to those of Igor Stravinsky. Kirkpatrick once shared a conversation with me that he had had with Stravinsky during rehearsals for the premiere of The Rake's Progress, in which the great Russian composer personally acknowledged the similarities between his compositional style and that of Scarlatti.

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