Domenico Scarlatti

The early Sonatas

Just imagine: the tonality has just been created that has grown to become the new standard for all composers of the Baroque era. Rameau had just been the first to formulate the strict laws of tonality. Scarlatti, too, surrendered entirely to tonality in the early period. This early period in Scarlatti's composing ranges from K1 to K95. It is also the only period of his career in which pieces for a solo instrument with harpsichord accompaniment were created, namely the sonatas K73, K77, K78, K80, K81, K88, K89, K90 and K91. It can be assumed that these sonatas were written at the Portuguese court, where apparently a member of the royal family played a melody instrument. The solo instrument was a violin, as can be clearly seen from the few double stops and chords in the solo part. These duo sonatas are conceived as the only sonatas to be accompanied by basso continuo. They are the most baroque sonatas in Scarlatti's oeuvre. This suggests that they are commissioned works. Where Scarlatti was able to compose freely, his works show completely different qualities. One should keep this point in mind. Through his employment first at the Portuguese and then at the Spanish court as a music teacher, Scarlatti was able to compose whatever he thought was right. Incidentally, some of these duo sonatas are composed in several movements and thats unique in Scarlatti's sonatas.

Even in this early period, the sonatas for solo harpsichord are much more interesting.

Scarlatti originally called these compositions "Essercizi" (K1 - K30) - that is, exercises, the term "sonata" appears afterwards in his manuscripts. This suggests that these compositions were originally created for teaching purposes. Their musical content, however, extends much further than that of the common etudes of later epochs - think of Czerny or Cramer, especially the etudes of Czerny, Beethoven's pupil, are of no great musical value. Scarlatti's sonatas - insofar as they are to be understood as exercises - are exercises both in terms of playing technique and music. Both elements are completely equal.

Regarding the musical aspect, it should first be noted that in this first period Scarlatti's concept of tonality was often based on the medieval modes. This means that Scarlatti understood the major scale as an alteration of the Mixolydian and the minor scale as an alteration of the Doric mode. This is evident from the key signatures:

- K4 and K8 e.g. are in g minor and have one flat as key signature;

- K20 e.g. is in E major and has three sharps as key signature, K26 is in A major and has two sharps. Etc.

Scarlatti did not really use the modes mentioned, but his understanding of major and minor as derivations from the modality is certainly interesting and gives food for thought, also where the interpretation is concerned.

Even in the later periods, this method of key signatures appears occasionally, especially at the beginning.

The formal layout of most of the early period sonatas is very simple. The pieces are in two parts, the second part is a variation of the first. Often the main motif appears at the beginning, which is then treated imitatively in the second voice. An example:

K2 (G major - Presto) 

(To the score)

Example K2

Bars 9-12 are the echo of bars 5-8. These echo effects play a major role in Scarlatti's music. Reference is made to it frequently in the following.

In the baroque period a distinction was made between the "genus diatonicum" and the "genus chromaticum". The terms speak for themselves. In the genus diatonicum mainly the notes of the prevailing scale were used, in the genus chromaticum all chromatic notes. The genus chromaticum was used to convey feelings of great pain. Scarlatti used the genus chromaticum very seldom and when he did, then only in places. An example can be found in

K3 (a minor - Presto) 

(To the score)

Example K3

Another example of the genus chromaticum can be found in the fugue


(To the score).

Incidentally, this sonata is a true polyphonic masterpiece and also one of the very few minor sonatas that end with a major chord. As an example, the first bars:

Example K58

As an example for the virtuoso treatment of chord breaks,

K10 (d minor - Presto) 

(To the score)

may serve:

Example K10

There are regular passages in Scarlatti's sonatas where one hand is in absolute counter-rhythm to the other. An early example is

K14 (G major - Presto) 

(To the score)

Example K14

Incidentally, this sonata is the first tarantella in Scarlatti's work.


K32 (d minor) 

(To the score)

the minuet type appears for the first time in Scarlatti's sonatas. This short piece is of such melodic beauty that Scarlatti called it "Aria" rather than "Minuet". This beautiful piece deserves to be quoted in full:

Example K32 page 1

Example K32 page 2

In some of the early sonatas the "Neapolitan sixth" appears, not only as a cadenza but also, which is remarkable, as a loose melody tone. Both forms appear in

K34 (D minor - Larghetto) 

(To the score)

Example K34

The cadence appears in bars 21-24, the loose melody tone in bar 27.

The Sonata


(To the score)

is not in the right place in the Kirkpatrick catalog. Stylistically, this sonata belongs to a later period, namely the early Spanish period. Bars 19-30 prove that:

Example K62

Typical for the early period is rather


(To the score),

a celebration of the joy of playing:

Example K72

The fugue


(To the score)

is undoubtedly one of Scarlatti's strangest compositions. The usual structure (one-part, two-part, three-part, four-part) is not present. From the beginning there is four voices. There are also several themes. This piece is both a fugue and also not a fugue:

Example K87

Copyright © John Sankey 1999

The disadvantages of Sankey's notation program become clear again here.

A strange passage from the minuet


(To the score)

must not go unannounced. As if out of nowhere in the completely "normal" course of the music suddenly a place appears where the peculiar chromatic melody course lets the "ordinary" harmonization appear in an iridescent light:

Example K94

If one compares K95, the last sonata of the early period, with K96, the first sonata of the Spanish period, one could speak of a stylistic break with a little bad will. However, this is not the case, one should speak of a style enrichment. What Scarlatti owes to the knowledge of Spanish folk music and thus the musical world Scarlatti is examined in the following chapter.