Domenico Scarlatti

General remarks

In general, it can be stated that there were four distinct periods in the composition of the sonatas. This fact alone is unusual for a composer of his time. Unusual because fellow composers saw tonality as an essential renewal and devoted themselves entirely to it without having undergone major stylistic developments. That cannot be said in his case. Scarlatti had an intimate relationship with the not so long ago modality, which also explains his interest in Spanish folk music, which is also modal in nature.

As far as these four different periods are concerned, the following is a classification:

Scarlatti was not necessarily a polyphonic composer like Bach, for example. The polyphonic elements of his music are mostly limited to imitation except in the early period and in some compositions of the late period, these are fugues. These do not have the polyphonic rigor in the sense of Bach, the greatest polyphonist of all, but represent Scarlatti's views on polyphony. Noticeable is e.g. the

Sonata K41  

(To the score).

The use of the second voice does not bring the theme as it "ought to be", but rather the counterpoint that is preferred in this case. That is against all laws of the fugue. However, this approach illustrates Scarlatti's views on musical freedom. Whenever he found it musically necessary, he "disregarded" the laws of tonality and formal theory already formulated by his contemporary Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). He also saved this concept of freedom from the modality. Some Sonatas such as


(To the score)

have a striking theme. The beginning of this fugue cannot be classified either tonally or modally when listening. Only in the fourth bar does the harmonic structure take shape. Therefore this joint was later called "cat fugue". Here are the first bars:

Example K30

Occasionally, fugues also appear in later periods, of which


(To the score)

is a masterful example. This fugue is three-part at the beginning, but then changes to two-part, underlaid by a perpetuum mobile-like 8th note accompaniment (alla-breve time) in the left hand and, with its almost 5 minutes length, belongs to the sonatas of larger size. This sonata as well as


(To the score)

show Scarlatti at the height of a very own polyphonic mastery.

During this first period the fashion dances of the time such as the minuet also appear a few times. Scarlatti's minuets are always short pieces of great melodic beauty. Later minuets, of which there are some, are already largely stylized and can no longer be easily recognized as minuets.

Scarlatti's music is always intended to be extremely rhythmic and therefore predestined for dance. From


(To the score)

however, the Spanish dance forms have largely become the basis of his music. This is by far not just talking about flamenco, which Scarlatti got to know during his four-year stay in Seville and which has become an important source of inspiration for him. Dances like the Seguedilla


(To the score),

but also in


(To the score)

find their echo in his music. The same applies to the farmers' fanfares in the village, which appear as the main motif for the first time in K96. The "deadly sin" parallel fifths is also repeatedly used structurally, that is to say quite deliberately. All these elements come from the modality, in this case from Spanish folk music, which is also modal in character. It is Scarlatti's great achievement that he does not quote these elements, but has made them his own and seamlessly integrated them into his own style, which sees tonality and modality as a unique unity. This happened at a time when the "highly learned" composer colleagues could only muster a weary smile of contempt for folk music. Scarlatti was therefore the first composer ever to create national art music. It is a revolutionary act. However, it should always be kept in mind that the main emphasis is on "art music".

In addition, it is mainly at the beginning of the Spanish period that the greatest musical contrasts were set against each other in blocks without any transition, a way of seeing that also stems from the modality. There are major - minor, tonal - modal, polyphonic - homophonic, and sudden key changes, especially with half-closings (e.g.)


(To the score)

Half-closure in G major, further on in E flat major). In this sonata, as in many others, there appears a cadence dominant - tonic, where the dominant seventh chord is a suspended chord that is not resolved. The fourth appears in place of the third:

Example K174

In the Gilbert edition bar 114 is missing. I am sure that this bar belongs here.

There is also an unexpected key change in Sonata


(To the score),

from E flat major to F sharp major:

Example K371

The reason for this key change is that a sequence begins in F sharp major that leads back to the basic key via G sharp minor, B flat minor and E flat minor. So the sequence does not move away from the basic key, but begins at a remote point, from there to lead back to the basic key. This approach is again unique for the Baroque period; no other composer of that epoch used it.

Most of Scarlatti's sonatas are essentially two-part conceived. This serves the transparency and clarity of the music. Take


(To the score)

as an example, a sonata that is consistently kept in two parts. To intensify the musical happening, there is sometimes a transition to three-part music, and now and then to chordal structures.

Sometimes Scarlatti goes over to three voices by lengthening the notes of a line so that they overlap, e.g. in


(To the score):

Example K365

In other sonatas, suspended chords are used structurally as main chords, e.g. in


(To the score):

Example K141

Another and no less important revolutionary act was the renewal of playing technique. These are examined in more detail in a separate chapter. Contemporaries have described his own playing as an experience of a previously unknown sonority. In part, this can be attributed to Scarlatti's technical inventions. After all, a larger part of the scope of the instrument was used simultaneously than ever before. This was done by constantly crossing the hands, through arpeggios, which sometimes ran through the entire range of the harpsichord at a rapid pace, and through the use of the aforementioned dissonant suspended chords, which, interestingly, were not resolved. The latter also points to a more modally oriented understanding of harmony. In addition, his playing style was certainly not staccato, because the fullness of the sound would have fizzled out, but legato and even molto legato. Furthermore, reference must be made to the way the appoggiaturas are played, the so-called "acciaccaturas". These were struck by Scarlatti at the same time as the main note, i.e. in each case as a dissonance. All these elements are the only way to explain the new richness of sound that so fascinated his contemporaries. If one considers that the greater part of Scarlatti's music is in two parts, this conclusion is undoubtedly justified.

Another argument in favor of the more modal understanding of music is that there are hardly any final chords in the sonatas and if so, then in the minor sonatas they are mostly minor chords and only rarely, as was the predominant practice of the time, major chords. Such final chords are most likely to be found in the first period. Most sonatas end with either a single note, an octave, or a double octave. So with a harmonic illusion that consists in the fact that the previous tones are still in the ear. Often the upper closing tone is prepared by a long lead on the seventh (tension - solution), while the lower closing tone already sounds. As an example, the final bars of


(To the score)

in the sounding version:

Example K173

As far as the appoggiaturas are concerned, two forms can be distinguished:

The acciaccatura appears in passages of notes of the same value and is struck together with the note following it, which in any case means a dissonance. An example from

K121 (G minor - Allegrissimo)  

(To the score):

Example K121

The way of playing is as follows:

Another of many examples for the acciaccatura can be found in

K124 (G major - Allegro)  

(To the score)


The way of playing is as follows:

Example K124

The "rule of thumb" for the melodic appoggiatura is:

The note value of such a appoggiatura is either 1/3 or 1/4 of the main note, depending on its length. An example for both forms:

K173 (b minor - Allegro)  

(To the score)

The way of playing is as follows:

Example K173

In this case the main note has the value of 4 sixteenths. So the appoggiatura gets the value of a sixteenth and the main note is shortened by this value. The point of such appoggiaturas is that the agogic accent remains on the main tone and in such cases is not on the beat. This ensures lively rhythmic and sound patterns.

K181 (A-Dur - Allegro)  

(To the score)

Example K181

The way of playing is as follows:

Example K181

The main note has a length of three eighth notes. The appoggiatura is given the value of an eighth note and the main note is shortened by this value. What has been said above applies to the agogic accents. The main rhythmic motif in this sonata is this:

181 rhythm

This sonata has a very clearly defined second theme, which appears six times in all, on five different pitches. Here is the example for the first and second appearance:

Example K181

Before his Spanish period, Scarlatti had a harpsichord in use, the size of which was enlarged downwards by a fourth. In


(To the score)



(To the score)

or also in


(To the score)

e.g. this can be seen clearly.

From the Spanish sonatas (i.e. from K96) a larger size of the harpsichord was prescribed than the usual one (C-c'''), upwards by a fifth and downwards by a fourth (G'- g''') . It is well known that the Spanish court had many instruments, including clavichords, the forerunners of the piano. The only instrument at the Spanish court that actually had the prescribed range is a one-manual harpsichord. So it can be assumed that this was Scarlatti's favorite instrument. From K387 the range of this harpsichord has been expanded in depth to F'. There was no such instrument at the Portuguese court. By the way, why should a composer prescribe tones that an instrument does not contain? His sonatas from K96 onwards were probably composed for this instrument. Unfortunately, it is unknown which instrument Scarlatti used in his four years in Seville. Due to its size, it cannot be determined exactly from which sonata Scarlatti stayed at the Spanish court.

Another indication of Scarlatti's more modal thinking are the already briefly mentioned parallels of fifths, which appear regular and structural from the start and which are known to be forbidden in tonality. It is nonsense to believe that a composer with his qualities should so often "unconsciously" have made such "mistakes". These parallel fifths have been used very deliberately. An outstanding example, representative of many, from

K96 (D major - Allegrissimo)  

(To the score):

Example K96

As an example of the mental state of certain musical circles, a rape at this point, which has been downloaded from the Internet and is obviously taken from a printed edition, is given here:

Example K96

The "editor" is a music theorist who has felt the need to "improve" Scarlatti's "primitive mistakes" (= parallel fifths). Music theorists are characterized by the fact that they understand nothing about the tonality and absolutely nothing about the modality. So they constantly have to explain and do not know what to do. So he "composed" what, in his opinion, Scarlatti must have had in mind. Fortunately, Scarlatti himself does not seem to have been able to implement these ideas for which he was accused. The result is - to put it mildly - a disregard for the great composer and a deliberate falsification and rape of his work. Unfortunately, the source is not given on the Internet. However, it is probably an older edition, which can be deduced from the fact that the sonatas have all possible titles, just not the only correct one, namely "Sonata".

Another example of structural parallel fifths can be found in Sonata


(To the score),

which will be discussed later.

Other, more hidden examples can be found e.g. in


(To the score)

in bars 30 and 34..

In some sonatas there are cadenza-like passages such as in


(To the score)

or again in K394, where a real cadenza appears, a unique piece in Scarlatti's work and also for the period. These cadences and cadenza-like passages can be freely interpreted rhythmically.

In some sonatas such as


(To the score)


(To the score)



(To the score)

one encounters strange unison passages. In the case of K101, when they first appear, these explain the Spanish gypsy scale, which is structured differently than the Hungarian one. The Spanish gypsy scale is an alteration of the Phrygian mode:

Example Spanish gipsy scale

E and A are the main notes, with E being the root note. That, too, comes from the modality, of course. The tones G and D have been altered in order to act as leading tones to the main tones. The very fact that the Spanish gypsy scale is older than the tonality proves its modality. Here is the example from K101 (A major - Allegro)::

Example K101

Incidentally, the interaction between dissonants and consonants is one of the most masterful qualities in Scarlatti's music.

The "normal" division of the music of his time into four or eight bar periods is replaced by Scarlatti more often than was the case with other composers by asymmetrical periods, i.e. three or five bar periods, e.g. This becomes clear in the example from K101. The repetition of the first four-bar period is extended to a five-bar period. Such expansions or reductions in periods of several bars occur very frequently and are one of Scarlatti's stylistic means, who used this stylistic device to increase musical tension. This is mainly due to Scarlatti's unconventional thinking, but it is also reflected in Spanish folk music. Indeed, he was the most unconventional of all composers of his era and therefore probably the most interesting. An example from


(To the score)

shows the irregularity in the division into bars:

Example K383

The repetition of the first seven-bar period is shortened to four bars. This is followed by a five-bar period, which is extended in its repetition to a seven-bar period and then concluded by a final bar.

Regarding the metrics of the sonatas, it can be said that with Scarlatti the ternary meters are by far the majority (3/8, 3/4, 6/8, sometimes 9/8 or 12/8, with 3/8 time being the most common appears). The hemiole 3/4 appears regularly on 6/8, e.g. in K96 (at the end), in K153 or K159, in the case of 3/8 time, distributed over two bars. As an example, the last bars of K96:

Example K96

In the example above from the same sonata, note the hemiolas in the upper part.

In some sonatas Scarlatti proves to be a visionary and looks far into the future, for example in the

Sonata K127

To the scaore

or in the

Sonata K551

To the scaore

These, like some other sonatas, are stylistically more closely related to the Viennese Classic than the Baroque.

There is a theory that the ternary element comes closest to the basic human feeling. Other theories deny this. Perhaps there are certain differences from people to people. Be that as it may, there seems to be an indication of this in the case of Scarlatti. Other composers in later epochs also had a preference for ternary meters, for example Frederic Chopin or Alexander Skriabin.

Another important element in Scarlatti's music is perhaps best described as "non-stop music". The flow of the music only comes to a rest on the closing notes at half and full closing. In some sonatas, however, several semicircles appear. A short period, consisting of a few bars, is repeated once or twice, each time a whole tone higher, occasionally a whole tone lower each time. These passages usually appear at the beginning of the second block and appear in every period in Scarlatti's compositions.