Sunday, May 15, 2011

Scarlatti or Soler?

In my youth, I was entranced, for a time, by the harpsichord. In the pre-digital days, the sound of the harpsichord was much rarer than it is today. Despite the fact that in the 1960's--when I was coming of age--baroque and renaissance music was in its first big revival, and harpsichord pieces were frequently aired on classical stations--the only way one might play a harpsichord was to rent or own one. When I got my Kurzweil keyboard in the early 90's, I could make a harpsichord sound which would satisfy most people (if not the purists).


The big composer for the harpsichord is Domenico Scarlatti [1685-1757], and his output is truly amazing--over 500 sonatas, most of which are superior in lyrical content, and ingenious turns. But for my money, I've always liked those of Padre Antonio Soler [1729-1783]. Scarlatti was Italian, Soler was Spanish (Catalan). Soler wasn't born until Scarlatti was already in his mid-forties, so historically, Scarlatti belongs to a slightly earlier epoch. To put these dates into perspective, Bach was born the same year as Scarlatti (1785), and Mozart was born in 1756, so his work would have been known to Soler. Musical styles--that is to say--had changed considerably between the time of Scarlatti's early maturity and the last years of Soler's life. Which may account, to an important degree, for the significant differences in their respective compositional styles.

[though no known liknesses of him are thought to exist--?]

To my ears, Soler has always had what I would call a "demonic" quality to his writing, whereas Scarlatti is always--even when he is quite passionate--ultimately decorative and "appliqué" in his effects. Explaining how this may be so in purely musical terms can be--is--a difficult task, perhaps too unnecessarily abstract. Soler's pieces are usually longer than Scarlatti's, though their inherent complexity isn't really greater than his predecessor.

Years ago, a family friend and I were talking about music, and in the course of our discussion, he insisted that Soler had been the pater and Scarlatti the disciple.

--No, I said, Scarlatti was the elder, and Soler had been the junior.

--Wrong, he replied, Scarlatti learned at Soler's knee!

I'm happy now to confirm that I was correct, and my friend was not. Scarlatti was already 43 when Soler was born, and the Spaniard outlived his mentor by some 25 years. There is some dispute, apparently, about whether or not Soler ever actually did meet and/or study with Scarlatti. It's hard to imagine them as separate, given the similarity of their styles, which seem to owe as much to familiarity as to the ambient musical milieu of the time. Travel and communication were immeasurably slower in those days (17th and 18th Centuries), but Soler had to have known Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas intimately at some point in his development.

Ironically enough, Scarlatti's musical influences are notably Iberian folk music--and some even suggest guitarristic effects. Scarlatti's 500+ keyboard sonatas were not published during his lifetime. The harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick catalogued them in 1953, and they have been identified through his numeration system ever since.

Both composers worked for royalty, Soler's keyboard sonatas (apprx. 150) were apparently written for his pupil the son of King Carlos III. Soler's compositions are somewhat more elaborated than Scarlatti's, employing three or four movements, instead of just one. In some, you can just hear the influence of German classicism peeking through. Nevertheless, I always think of his strongest pieces as pure Spanish passion and fervor, with almost a romantic thrust.

In the 20th Century, the pieces of both composers began to be played and recorded on the piano, instead of the harpsichord. The range of tone and sustenance of the modern pianoforte are ten times greater than on the harpsichord--which only plucks, instead of hammering the strings--but the qualities inherent in the music--especially in Scarlatti's case--seem to work better--or at least differently--on the harpsichord than they do on the piano. Horowitz, for instance, recorded a few on piano, and his mincing, gently staccato approach provides an interesting elaboration of the possible sound to be made out of Scarlatti's plucked style. He could also make them sound simply pianistic on occasion.

Scarlatti's work strikes me as every bit as serious and introspective of the best of Bach's work. Bach frequently seems to be working out mental (mathematical) puzzles in his work--something one doesn't find in Scarlatti at all. Each Scarlatti piece seems to exploit the lyrical potential of a specific structural figure, and are almost feats of daring in this respect. They also possess a terrific range of feeling, from delicate joy to moody longing, spirited play to stern condescension.

What happens to music when instruments change? It's a ponderable quandary. In the 20th Century, the guitar underwent revolutionary design changes. What will performers of the future make of our music? What new instruments will be invented, and what of the past glories of the repertory will be played on them, to newer ears? The whole arc of the Romantic Age in music still seems to dominate our emotional (aesthetic) consciousness, though a little over two hundred years ago, the meaning of "romance" was quite different. Developments in science, psychology, medicine, behavioral disciplines etc., over the last century, have failed to alter it much. Do we "hear" romantic qualities in Scarlatti and Soler which they wouldn't have comprehended? Or were they somehow intuitively anticipating the flowering of emotional content, which would come to fruition in the 19th and 20th Centuries? We think of Beethoven or Brahms as brimming with passion and pity and ecstatic content, but perhaps this is nothing more than the difference in stylistic approaches?

The development of the grand pianoforte, which occurred between the early 18th and early 19th Centuries, both facilitated and accommodated the Romantic Era in musical performance and composition. With the vastly increased range of keys, the depth and range of sonorities, sustenance of tone, increased volume of sound, came a whole spectrum of possible expressive projection. Beethoven and Chopin and Brahms, Liszt and Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Albeniz and Ravel--all are inconceivable without the "modern" piano. Working within the much more limited range of the harpsichord, Scarlatti and Soler and Rameau and Couperin were forced to imagine their works as twinkling, flickering, chiming sounds. They had no grinding bass notes, no delicious rubato, no echoing high-register grace-notes with which to play.

Limitation may inspire invention. Undoubtedly, if Scarlatti or Soler had been born later, to later incarnations of the keyboard, they would have been different composers. But their musical natures would also undoubtedly have produced deeply felt and innovative creations. If there is a common element of aptitude in creative endeavor, which spreads across history, across the spectrum of kinds of instrumental applications, then we can with assurance honor the genius in all kinds of musicians, from Indian sitar to zydeco (button piano accordion), from oboists to bongo-players, from Chopin to Carter, from Fats Waller to Julian Bream. Trapped in their world of royal patronage and religious duty, using instruments that some now regard as "antique" or tinny in effect, Scarlatti and Soler composed haunting, inspiring, and joyous works, which characterize what we think of as the emotive machines of their age. Their sound has become their "time."

Therefore, playing the "harpsichord" compositions of these composers on the modern grand piano, involves a reinterpretation of, or introduction of new kinds of "readings" of their works--finding inside the written works subtle emphases, flourishes or nuances which the music somehow contains within it--or simply "hearing" the notes as piano notes through ears attuned to a larger bank of sound-range--a collaboration across time--as, in effect, nearly all music is. Are Scarlatti and Soler more or less important considered exclusively as harpsichord composers? Do they survive today transmuted into reincarnated "piano" versions of themselves? Of course they do, but is that somehow a misuse of their music? What would Scarlatti say today, were he to hear de Larrocha's or Horowitz's piano versions of his works? A purely speculative question....

Listening to these pieces of Scarlatti and Soler brings me unrestrained joy and inspires profound introspection. What is the difference between the ecstasy we experience as the evidence of the deity's grace, and the secular dionysian dervish?

For my money, this fellow Ivo Pogorelich is probably the best I've ever heard doing Scarlatti for piano, following in the footsteps of Horowitz, who opened the door for him--the two have met in some perfect anteroom of eternity and exchanged tips. Listening to these recordings, I'm moved to grant Scarlatti the greater praise--what can't he do with a handful of thirds?--but hearing Hinrichs navigate the emotional contours and passageways of Soler's E flat major sonata (a more ambitious work, I wager, than Scarlatti ever assayed, at least for the keyboard), I can no longer bring myself to choose between the two. I think, too, hearing all this music, that Soler benefits more from the strengths of the romantic grand piano than Scarlatti ever could, largely because, musically, he stradles two distinct periods in the development of musical history, as well as the technics of his instrument.

On harpsichord--

Soler sonata No. 7 in C major player unknown (turn down your sound on this one!)

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