Monday, January 16, 2012

Guest Post: The Art of Binary, or Music To Code To - Domenico Scarlatti's 555 Keyboard Sonatas

Marc van Oostendorp is a Professor of Phonology - that is: the study of the sound systems of human languages - in Leiden, the Netherlands, a lover of music and a Spotify enthusiast.


Many things are unknown about the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). During the first half of his life he lived in Italy and in the shadow of his father Alessandro (1660-1725), who was a much more famous (and productive) composer at the time, even though he is now less well-known than his son. The second half of Domenico’s life was spent on the Iberian peninsula. He worked at the Portuguese and Spanish courts, probably mainly as a music teacher to the Portuguese princess Marie Barbara de Bragance. During these last decades he also worked on what is now considered his most important work: over 550 keyboard sonatas (written originally for the harpsichord or pianoforte, but now performed on other instruments as well).

Although Scarlatti has always remained less famous than Johann Sebastian Bach or Georg Friedrich Handel, his sonatas enjoy a great reputation among lovers of the piano and the clavecin. The recording which the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud released earlier this year is generally considered to be one of the best classical cds to have appeared in 2011.

In 1953, the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick published a catalogue of all Scarlatti sonatas known to him; this is still considered to be the most authoritative catalogue. Numbers from this catalogue (1-555) are usually prefixed by K or Kk.

I know of one complete edition of all ‘Kirkpatrick’ sonatas: the recordings made by the British harpsichordist Richard Lester. I made a different playlist of all Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas (579 track, total time: 1 day. Including a few not in Kirkpatrick), which is more varied: I tried to include as many different keyboard players as I could find, and also included recordings by guitarists, harpists, and even a violinist and a saxophone quartet. I also made a separate playlist of Scarlatti Sonata K9, as played by 28 different musicians.

As a bonus, the Petrucci library offers free musical scores of all sonatas. A very nice website is also the one by Christopher Hail, which offers among other things a great catalogue (pdf), plus a Calendar for 2012, with a suggestion for every day on which sonata to listen to (something done in 2010 by blogger Mimo).

Guest post by Marc van Oostendorp


  1. Many years ago, I bought Scott Ross's recordings of the Scarlatti sonatas - 35 CDs or so. I find that I can listen to a small amount of that music at a time, say one CD occasionally, but it gets repititious. There isn't a lot of variety in Scarlatti's music; much less than, say, CPE Bach, who composed much more keyboard music. (You should see what you can find by him, especially the wonderful clavichord recordings by Miklos Spanyi on Bis.)

    I find that Scarlatti on piano is a bit of a hack - it sort of works, but not entirely. I havent' heard the Tharaud recording, but I have heard a number of others. Glenn Gould played three sonatas, and I wish he had recorded more. Carlo Grante is in the process of doing a complete set on a Bösendorfer Imperial piano, which, while it may seem unsuited, is quite nice.

  2. Luc Beauséjour also did two really nice recordings some years ago. The second is particularly interesting.

    Scott Ross recording also is a must have, much better than the one by Richard Lester.

  3. Both Beauséjour and Ross are in the playlist!

  4. Thank you very much for doing this - it is the selfless desire to promote passions like this that makes the internet so powerful. I am listening now as I sit down to 3 hours intense work!

  5. I just wanted to thank you very much for the effort that you put into this. You brought me back to listening to classical music :)

  6. My favourite albums of Scarlatti sonatas are by Colin Tilney, but I keep discovering excellent recordings by performers I'd never heard of. Many pieces work great on piano; many don't.