These are hard times, and the future is uncertain. People are dying.
Because of Coronavirus we live in total isolation, and theatres are closed until further notice. I am concert pianist, and a life without music seems to me an unbearable sentence. It’s time to act!
Isolation inspires introspection, and as a musician I thought to accompany the natural progression of this terrible circumstance with a musical video diary: a pill of music a day, offered first on Facebook and later posted on Youtube. The well over 500 Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti will be my diary. They are a universe of their own in the firmament of music: happy, solemn, devilish, lyric, irreverent, revolutionary, popular, touching, simple, entertaining, fiendishly difficult, crazy. Above all, they are the work of a genius. To survey them all will be an expedient to try and ease the long road to normalcy. An open hand, if you will, towards a better future.
We know very little of Scarlatti’s life. His dates (Neaples, October 26th 1685 – Madrid, July 23rd 1757) attest to a long existence of which documentary evidence is very scant indeed: of his presence in Florence, Venice, Rome and Lisbon, where in 1719 he became Music Master to the royal family, are established facts. In Lisbon he became the music master of Maria Barbara of Braganza, a relevant figure in Scarlatti’s biography. We know of further travels to Paris, Rome, Neaples and London, but the dearth of undisputable information is disarming. As a result, much of the deductions put forth by scholars have more the scent of legend than that of certainty to them. No autograph manuscript of the Sonatas exists. In fact, the very survival of these masterpieces appears to be the outcome of a shady deed: the Sonatas have come down to us in very elegant copies possibly commissioned by Maria Barbara, whom by then had become the Queen of Spain, in exchange for her extinguishing the Maestro’s gambling debts. Apparently, most of the Sonatas were written as “lessons” for Maria Barbara, and if that were the case she must have been a keyboard player of incalculable talent. The technical and musical innovation put forth by Scarlatti as the story unfolded were of epic reach: hands crossing at the keyboard, chains of fast repeated notes played with different fingers on the same key, and dissonant harmonies centuries ahead of their time contributed to the mad race towards a unique form of musical expression. Within the Sonatas royal dance forms (minuets, gavottes) found their place alongside popoular ones (fandangos, jotas), and imaginative imitations of other instruments such as the guitar, the mandolin or the castanets. From the magical forest of Scarlatti’s Sonatas also emerged marvellous cantabiles of various inspiration, monumental sequoias raching toward the light.
The question as to whether this music ought to be destined to the harpsichord, the clavichord, or whether it is licit to interpret them on the modern piano is an open ended one. For once with Scarlatti we have a piece of undisputable data: the Maestro knew Cristofori’s piano (quite possibly since its first appearance at Florence in 1700), and had several exemplars at his disposal while in the service of Maria Barbara. From here to state unequivocally that Scarlatti wrote at least some of his Sonatas for the piano is an unsubstantiated assumption. Inevitably, though, I am biased. My approach will be a simple one: as I am a pianist, I will play as a pianist and will use the full resources of my intrument. I will film in my studio in Vecchiano, in the province of Pisa, Italy, on my old Steinway and Sons model “B” from 1959.
In the spirit of friendly communion, each episode will have a brief spoken introduction, possibly highlighting the most salient aspects of the music being offered. Those who will have the time and means will be encouraged to interact with me along the way, and I will make efforts to respond to every question, curiosity, suggestion and so on. The order in which I will perform the Sonatas is a mystery, and for me too. I will not seek a chronological sequence, as those we have (Kirkpatrick and Pestelli to name but two) are the result of informed guess work. Instead, I will adopt the time-tested method of common sense; a project of this magnitude will require months of work, study and production: a certain flexibility in the musical discourse and in the broadcasting calendar has to be factored in. The only certainty is that there will be a new entry every day until completion. I am about to embark on this project with devout gratitude: to play all the Sonatas by Scarlatti will be an adventurous and thrilling voyage of discovery, a dream becoming reality. Scarlatti must have had quite a sense of humour. In the preface of the “30 Essercizi for Harpsichord”, his only work to appear in print during his lifetime, he penned a funny advice to the reader. It is a glimpse into the spirit in which these works were conceived, and in which they continue to live on:
«do not expect, whether you are a dilettante or a professor, to find in these compositions any profound intention, but rather an ingenious banter in the art to exercise you in rigorous play of the harpsichord. No point of view or ambition guided me, but obedience brought me to publish it. […] Therefore do show yourself more humane than critic, and you will thereby grow your own pleasure. […] Live happily».