From Harpsichords to Pianos: Exploring Scarlatti’s Keyboard Choices

The history of keyboard instruments is as rich and layered as the music that has been composed for them. One of the most iconic composers who bridged the gap between the age of the harpsichord and the emergence of the piano was Domenico Scarlatti. Delving into his choices and the surrounding context provides an intriguing perspective on the transition from one beloved instrument to another.

The Harpsichord Era

Characteristics of the Harpsichord

The harpsichord, a keyboard instrument where the sound is produced by a plectrum plucking its strings, was the predecessor of the modern piano. Its unique tonal qualities, including its bright and slightly metallic timbre, made it a favorite among Baroque composers. Unlike the piano, the harpsichord does not allow for dynamic variation based on key touch. That is, pressing a key softly or forcefully produces the same volume.

Popularity in the Baroque Period

During the Baroque era (1600-1750), the harpsichord reigned supreme as the primary keyboard instrument. Composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel wrote extensively for it. The instrument’s expressive capabilities, albeit limited in dynamics, matched the intricate and ornamental style of the period.

Scarlatti’s Legacy

Domenico Scarlatti, born in 1685, is an emblematic figure of this transitional era in music history. Although he was a contemporary of Bach and Handel, his musical choices, particularly in the context of keyboard instruments, distinguished him from his peers.

Jean Rondeau plays Scarlatti: Sonata in A minor, K. 175
Source: Warner Classics

His Early Inclination

In Scarlatti’s earlier years, the harpsichord was his instrument of choice. His compositions from this period, such as his operas and chamber cantatas, often featured intricate and delicate harpsichord parts. The expressiveness of the harpsichord resonated with his style, which was characterized by rapid passages, hand-crossings, and unexpected modulations.

Scarlatti and the Iberian Influence

A significant portion of Scarlatti’s life was spent in the Iberian Peninsula, first in Portugal and then in Spain. This move had a profound impact on his compositional style. The folk tunes and rhythms of the Iberian cultures found their way into his keyboard sonatas. The harpsichord’s sharp attack and quick decay were particularly apt for capturing the essence of these dance rhythms.

The Advent of the Pianoforte

As Scarlatti was building his legacy with the harpsichord, another instrument was on the horizon: the pianoforte, which would eventually evolve into the modern piano.

Dongsok Shin performs the Sonata in d minor on an early pianoforte
Source: The Met

Pianoforte: A Revolution in Expressivity

The pianoforte, or simply “fortepiano,” was developed in the early 18th century. Unlike the harpsichord, it generates sound by hammers striking the strings, allowing for dynamic variation. The name “pianoforte” itself refers to this capability, with “piano” meaning soft and “forte” meaning loud. This instrument offered a broader expressive palette, giving performers the ability to convey a wider range of emotions.

Scarlatti’s Interaction with the Pianoforte

While there is no concrete evidence that Scarlatti regularly composed for or played the early pianoforte, it is interesting to consider how his music sounds on this new instrument. Many of his later sonatas, with their wider range and demand for varied touch, seem tailor-made for the piano’s dynamic capabilities.

Today, performers and scholars are divided on which instrument is best suited for Scarlatti’s sonatas. Some argue that the harpsichord, being the instrument of his time, brings out the authentic sound intended by the composer. Others suggest that the piano, with its richer tonal capabilities, reveals layers of expression that a harpsichord simply cannot match.

Conclusion

Domenico Scarlatti stands at an interesting crossroad in music history. His work encompasses the tail-end of the harpsichord’s dominance and the dawn of the piano era. His compositions offer a unique lens through which we can appreciate the evolution of keyboard music and the transition from one instrument to another.

While it’s captivating to ponder what Scarlatti might have thought of the modern piano, what’s undeniable is the enduring beauty and innovation of his music. Whether played on a harpsichord, an early pianoforte, or a grand piano, the genius of Scarlatti’s keyboard choices continues to captivate audiences around the world.

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