Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in D Major L. 424
April 6, 2014 2 Comments
Spring has been long coming in Washington, DC where I live. It’s April 16 and we had snow just a week ago followed by cold. The cherry blossom festival was rained out last weekend. This weekend it’s been sunny but windy. However, that’s still good. Sun makes you feel alive. The cherry blossoms around the tidal basin will start coming out in full force in a few days. So rather than hold off any longer, I’m going to write today about my favorite piece of Spring music.
For decades, every year on March 20 since high school, I used to reach for an old vinyl LP called “Horowitz Plays Scarlatti” and cue up the first track.
When I first heard this sonata, originally written for harpsichord and transcribed for piano by Vladimir Horowitz, it knocked my socks off. And it still does to this day.
I remember the day I found this album at the local library. I was leafing through the classical recordings on the shelf and suddenly, there it was in my hands. Someone had told me that Horowitz–who had married Toscanini’s daughter–was one of the greatest pianists alive (Rubenstein was still around as well). I hurried home with my prize and when the piece started it was as if the music fit perfectly into the receptors of the cells that process music in my brain. What’s more I just knew this piece epitomized how I felt about Spring.
That Spring, of my senior year in high school, I listened to it incessantly. In the fall I left for Purdue University, where all my brothers had gone, to study computer science, which all my friends were going to study. I lasted three days before changing my major to English. At the end of the semester, I transferred to a local extension of Indiana University and lived at my parent’s house during the Spring semester. Scarlatti got me through that period. In the fall I transferred to the main campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, and ended up in a huge, hi-rise dorm. My dorm-mates were local drongos, out to get drunk, sow their seed, party till they puked, and listen to mind-numbingly loud rock music. (I’m not against Rock music, it’s just hard to appreciate it at four in the morning the day before an exam.)
In the spring semester of the next year, I transferred to a French language-speaking dorm, and I had changed majors again to French literature. This little dorm sat in the middle of a quiet little meadow through which ran a small stream. The grounds were filled with flowering dogwoods, redbud Judas, hawthorn, and quince bushes. My dorm was co-ed and my dorm mates majored in languages, music, art, journalism, dance and literature. For the first time in my life, when I turned on my classical music people would walk in and say things like “Oh, that’s nice what is it?” Or even more astounding “Oh, so you’re a fan of Scarlatti, too?
You cannot imagine the relief when, after years of feeling like a freak, I finally found a community of people who shared my tastes and interests. I was able to understand how homosexuals must feel when they move to San Francisco or XYY chromosomal men feel when they join the Navy SEALS.
Scarlatti starts the Sonata in D major with a little flourish that ends with the pianist performing an incredibly fast trill. Then it launches off into a rhythm played at a tempo to which it would be impossible to dance without bursting into flames. Sonatas (meaning “sounded” as opposed to “sung”) evolved out of dance tunes. Scarlatti drives along at this breathtaking speed and then just stops. Then he begins again, this time varying the melody a range higher, and making it sound even more meticulous. Then he pauses, before launching off in another direction. I haven’t been able to count how many times he does this, but he does it without sounding repetitious. Of course, since it is such a short piece–maybe 2 or 3 minutes–you don’t get tired of it.
At the risk of sounding a bit like Forest Gump, the pieces on this album are like a box of wonderful bon bons. Each one carries within it a short sweet musical idea that completely absorbs you for a while and then fades away, leaving you with a nice warm feeling. When she was 9, I told my youngest daughter, Simone, that this piece reminds me of Spring and she said “Oh, yes. It sounds like butterflies. Or insects running around.”
Writing this and other sonatas for harpsichord must have enlivened Scarlatti as well. In his 72 years on this earth, he managed to compose over 600! I will write about a few more during the next couple of days.
I wish there were some way of being to reach back over the centuries to talk with the people of the past. The first person I would contact, had I that power, would be Domenico Scarlatti. I would just thank him for his wonderful Sonata in D Major and tell him that like on every first day of Spring, I listen to it again.