Costume Party

Sonata in D (K419) D. Scarlatti (1685-1757)

Allegro from Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 4 G. Handel (1685-1759)

At the time of Handel’s birth, what is now Germany was a loose confederation of feudal states known as the Holy Roman Empire. Handel was born in the state known as Saxony, and as he became famous his moniker became ‘the Saxon’.

As a young man, Handel went to Italy for a four-year period (1706-1710) to further his musical education and connections. Handel’s first stop was Florence, where Ferdinando de’ Medici was trying to make the city the musical capital of Italy with his checkbook. Handel found himself at a masquerade ball playing harpsichord, wearing a costume and mask. Scarlatti was also there, and asserted that the harpsichordist could be no one but ‘the Saxon or the Devil himself’! Being thus unmasked, Handel was pressured to write an opera. He was reluctant, believing there was ‘little honour or advantage from such an undertaking’. But he was finally persuaded, and in three weeks he finished his opera Agrippina which was performed 27 nights in a row. The theater at almost every pause resounded with shouts of “viva il caro Sassone!” — “Long live the beloved Saxon!

Normally genius manifests itself in youth, but Domenico Scarlatti didn’t flower until his 50s or so. Until then what little he wrote was in desultory imitation of the style of his illustrious father Alessandro Scarlatti. Then when Domenico was age 34 his father died, and Domenico sought his music fortunes in Spain(!). There he augmented his already extensive musical training by studying Spanish music including Flamenco for a four-year period. After a brief trip to Rome where he acquired a wife, Domenico moved to Spain for good, and became composer and music instructor to Princess Maria Barbara — later Queen of Spain. Under her patronage Domenico flourished, writing 555 sonatas and fathering five children with his wife.

Very few of the autographs (the originals) of Scarlatti’s sonatas have survived, and very few were published. The vast majority (496) are found in volumes bound in red morocco leather engraved with the coat of arms of Spain and Portugal, the music inside done with black, red, green and blue tempura, found in a library in Venice. We know that Queen Maria Barbara had a set of copies like this made — but we don’t know for sure if the volumes in Venice are the ones the Queen had commissioned. Seems likely that they are, but I am frequently amazed at how many works by famous composers have survived to modern times by the most tentative of paths. (For example, about half of Bach’s output is lost — after his death many of his manuscripts were used as scrap paper to wrap fish and cheese.)

I have always been fascinated by going back to the ‘primary sources’ of things that interest me — invariably my efforts are rewarded by discovering treasure — and little by little I’ve been acquiring the 15 volumes of a facsimile edition of the Venetian collection (as close to Scarlatti’s originals as we are ever likely to get). I’ll be playing from one of the volumes (dated 1742). You are very welcome to check it out on the piano music desk after the service if you are so inclined.