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Music for the keyboard has dominated much of Western music history, with works for the harpsichord and its relatives forming a hugely significant portion of Baroque repertoire. Yet alongside the development of keyboard music, the guitar enjoyed a rich and varied evolution of its own. The Baroque guitar was particularly prominent in Spain, France and Italy, while romantic depictions of guitarists appeared in paintings by the likes of Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer. This programme brings together music by two great Baroque composers, one French, one Italian, whose harpsichord music lends itself superbly to these transcriptions for the guitar. Whereas the strings of the piano are struck, harpsichord strings are plucked with a plectrum-like device, creating a technical and audible relationship with the guitar. Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was influenced by Couperin, who pioneered the style luthé or ‘lute style’ of harpsichord playing, and Domenico Scarlatti (1865-1757) lived in Spain for much of his life; he was greatly influenced by the Spanish guitar, and his use of repeated notes in his sonatas was intended to emulate the instrument.
Music for the keyboard has dominated much of Western music history, with works for the harpsichord and its relatives forming a hugely significant portion of Baroque repertoire. Yet alongside the development of keyboard music, the guitar enjoyed a rich and varied evolution of its own. The Baroque guitar was particularly prominent in Spain, France and Italy, while romantic depictions of guitarists appeared in paintings by the likes of Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer. This programme brings together music by two great Baroque composers, one French, one Italian, whose harpsichord music lends itself superbly to these transcriptions for the guitar. Whereas the strings of the piano are struck, harpsichord strings are plucked with a plectrum-like device, creating a technical and audible relationship with the guitar. Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was influenced by Couperin, who pioneered the style luthé or ‘lute style’ of harpsichord playing, and Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) lived in Spain for much of his life; he was greatly influenced by the Spanish guitar, and his use of repeated notes in his sonatas was intended to emulate the instrument.
Rameau was a very private man. Relatively little is known for certain about the first 40 years of his life, which were spent in the French provinces, and the composer himself saw to it that his background was a well-kept secret. According to Michel-Paul Guy de Chabanon, who wrote of his interactions with the composer, Rameau “never imparted any detail of it to his friends or even to Madame Rameau – his wife”. We know that Rameau did not come from a long line of musicians; his father was the first in their family to pursue music, and he taught notation to his children even before teaching them to read or write. Rameau was the seventh of eleven children, and he left the Jesuit school he attended without completing the course. He later claimed that his love of opera began at the age of 12.
Rameau’s discretion about his background may have stemmed from a certain embarrassment about the inelegance of his education; the story goes that at 17 he fell in love with a girl who admonished him for his inarticulacy, after which he exerted himself to improve his grammar. Aged 18, Rameau briefly went to Italy, but did not stay for long; Chabanon wrote that Rameau later wished he had stayed longer as it might have “refined his taste”. We also know from Chabanon that Rameau was tall and rather gaunt, “resembling more a ghost than a man”; the playwright Piron would liken him to “a long organ pipe”.
Rameau worked extensively in provincial French churches, including a contract at Clermont starting in 1715 and meant to last for nearly 30 years. Eight years in, Rameau got restless and deliberately played the organ terribly in order to get himself sacked. Rameau then moved to Paris in 1722 at the age of 40, and his reputation as a theorist, teacher, keyboardist and composer, especially of opera, grew steadily, eventually recognised by numerous wealthy patrons, including royalty.
Rameau wrote about 60 Pièces de clavecin in total; he did not refer to them as ‘suites’, but grouped them together by key. The two suites of Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin appeared in 1729-30, including a number of ‘genre’ pieces, a type of piece intended to reflect the mood or character of a person or animal, in the composition of which Rameau was particularly influenced by Couperin. In Rameau’s Treatise on Harmony of 1722 he wrote of performers inhabiting the characters portrayed in genre pieces:
“A good musician should surrender himself to all the characters he wishes to portray. Like a skilful actor he should take the place of the speaker, believe himself to be at the locations where the different events he wishes to depict occur, and participate in these events as do those most involved in them. He must declaim the text well, at least to himself, and must feel when and to what degree the voice should rise or fall, so that he may shape his melody, harmony, modulation, and movement accordingly.”
On this programme we hear the second suite, in G major/minor, which opens with Les tricotets. ‘Tricoter’ means ‘to knit’ and in this dance, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, the tap of heels and toes on the floor resembled the clicking of needles, a rhythmic effect accentuated by Rameau’s alternation of groupings of two and three. L’indifferente (‘The casual lover’) was a popular musical and artistic subject, appearing in a famous Watteau painting just over a decade before Rameau’s piece, which takes the form of a minuet. A pair of untitled Minuets follows; the first, in G major, was reused by Rameau in his opera, Castor et Pollux (1737).
Soon after he settled in Paris, Rameau was introduced to the “birdsongs noted in Kircher” by his friend Jean Castel. Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (1650) is an extraordinary volume on music, encompassing diagrams of musical instruments and notations of birdsong. Rameau responded with a number of pieces, including La poule. Rameau’s chicken does not directly emulate Kircher’s notations but is immediately recognisable from the music’s clucking motif. This miniature masterpiece would inspire Poules et coqs, part of The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, who also produced the first modern edition of Rameau’s keyboard works, published in 1895.
A ‘triolet’ is a type of medieval verse form that enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 17th century. Rameau’s Les triolets is a haven of tranquillity after the dramatic portrayal of La poule. On 10 September 1725, Rameau attended a performance at the Théâtre Italien given by two Louisiana Indians; he was inspired to write the vibrant, contagiously rhythmical Les sauvages in response to their dancing. Rameau frequently referred to Les sauvages in his correspondence with the dramatist Antoine Houdar de Lamotte. In a letter dated 25 October 1727, Rameau attempted to persuade Lamotte that he was a capable composer worthy of being employed as a writer of opera, but to no avail. He later reworked Les sauvages as part of his balletic opera, Les Indes galantes (1735).
Rameau’s brilliance as a theoretician is reflected in his daring explorations of musical convention, such as L’enharmonique, during which he toys with the possibilities of ‘changing’ a note to its enharmonic equivalent (C-sharp ‘becomes’ D-flat, and even though the notes sounds the same to the ear, they may be treated differently harmonically). As Rameau explained: “The effect experienced in the twelfth bar of the Reprise of L’enharmonique may not perhaps be to everyone’s taste right away; one can nonetheless grow accustomed to it after a little application, and even grow to awareness of all its beauty… The harmony which creates this effect has by no means been thrown in haphazardly; it is based on logic…” Yet for all his “logic”, Rameau maintained that “true music” is “the language of the heart”.
The suite ends with a piece inspired by the dance of a gypsy girl, L’égyptienne (Rameau was not alone in lumping together different groups of people under a generic, sometimes imprecise title to imply the exotic). The dance is rapid and exhilarating, closing the suite in a spirit of breathless excitement.
Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples in 1685; the same year as J.S. Bach and Handel. Scarlatti was part of a musical dynasty; his father, Alessandro, was also a celebrated composer. Domenico Scarlatti was prodigiously able and began his first organ apprenticeship at the age of 15. It seems likely that Alessandro was a domineering father, as indicated in a letter of 30 May 1705 to Ferdinando de’ Medici: “I have forcibly removed him from Naples where, though there was room for his talent, his talent was not for such a place. I am removing him also from Rome, because Rome has no shelter for music…” Yet Alessandro also acknowledged the need to step back in order to allow his son to flourish, referring to him as “an eagle whose wings are grown; he must not remain idle in the nest, and I must not hinder his flight”.
Domenico made his way to Venice, then in 1709 to Rome. He crossed paths with Handel, and the two were pitted against each other, but became mutual admirers; Handel is said to have valued Scarlatti’s character as well as his gifts: “besides his great talents as an artist, he had the sweetest temper, and the genteelest behaviour”. Scarlatti found royal patrons both in Rome and in Lisbon, where he took up residence in 1719, returning to Rome in 1727. Two years later, Scarlatti moved to Spain, remaining there for the rest of his life. In 1733 he settled in Madrid, where he wrote most of his keyboard sonatas.
Scarlatti’s sonatas are one-movement works, often in two contrasting parts. The major-key sonatas are generally more outgoing, with the minor-key works reserved for moments of passion or contemplation. Within this concise, one- movement framework, Scarlatti encompassed all manner of colourful effects, including remote modulations, Spanish and Portuguese idioms, and guitar-like textures that are heard to their full effect in these transcriptions.
The Sonata in D, K.491, is a triumphal procession full of dramatic gestures and surprising tonal shifts, its resonant chords in particular lending themselves to the guitar. In contrast, Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K.213, is an introspective piece, unfolding a plaintive soliloquy full of questioning motifs and appoggiaturas creating twingeing dissonances. The second half of the sonata is more resigned, and the piece ends on another delicious cadence.
The Sonata in E major, K.380, is a work of remarkable tenderness, almost childlike in its gently-cascading scales and delicate ornamentation, contrasted with a marching figure. Scarlatti’s F minor Sonata, K.466, exudes an aching, lyrical romanticism ahead of its time, while the D major Sonata, K.118, is an excitable piece, its motifs bubbling and spilling over, often in unusual harmonic directions, Scarlatti eventually reining them in to end the sonata with understated elegance.
© Joanna Wyld, 2020
Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757)