Domenico Scarlatti

domenico scarlatti

I love complete sets of the music of my favorite composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach.  A clever little company, appropriately called Brilliant, has discovered a formula for marketing these: license low-cost but serviceable performers (mostly European), pull everything together, put it all in low-cost but serviceable packaging. It’s hard for a natural collector like me to resist these. Sometimes I browse their website and find myself drawn to seventeen-CD sets of the music of people I never heard of.


Most recently I bought the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Mister Scarlatti was the son of a prolific Italian opera composer; Scarlatti Junior moved to Spain where he concentrated on keyboards, writing nearly six hundred tiny sonatas. (I fondly remember Peter Schickele’s comment about giving someone the complete Scarlatti sonatas “recorded on convenient 45RPM records and sent out one a week over a period of thirty-five years.”)


These sonatas, if you don’t know them, are lovely. Each one is a perfect little jeu d’esprit, turning perfectly ordinary scales and arpeggii into something different and new. Some of the sonatas are jumping-bean sprightly; others are grave thoughtful little quasi-marches. Some die away into series of melancholy chords, and others tromp all over the place.


Keyboard players (even sub-amateurs like me) know the pleasures and perils of these sonatas; they run up and down the keyboard, often forcing the player to cross hands so that the left hand is playing on the right-hand keys and vice versa. Scarlatti famously said that he had ten fingers and saw no reason not to keep all of them busy.


Five hundred fifty-five sonatas is a lot, as Schickele reminded us. If you listen to more than half a dozen of these sonatas in succession, your ear will get a wee bit numb. But taken a few at a time, they are wonderful.




This is the soulful B minor sonata, K. 27, played by the late Russian pianist Emil Gilels. It’s one of the slow ballad-like ones; Gilels plays it on a modern piano rather than the more traditional harpsichord, which makes it even richer and more mournful.





%d bloggers like this: