NOVEMBER 2023 | Liszt and the Rediscovery of Scarlatti’s Sonatas by Ray Picot

NOVEMBER 2023 | Liszt and the Rediscovery of Scarlatti’s Sonatas by Ray Picot

 The impact Domenico Scarlatti had on Hispanic music, despite his Italian nationality, is well documented, not just during his life but over the succeeding centuries. Scarlatti’s sonatas also played a part in the development of the ‘classical’ style and keyboard technique through Clementi and his contemporaries. However, the performance of Scarlatti’s music was non-existent by the 19th century, with very limited printed editions in circulation. This all changed through a little known chance encounter by Franz Liszt.

During the 1830’s Liszt had been developing and refining his pianistic style having spent some time out of the public eye during the early years of his affair with Marie D’Agoult. During one of his sojourns in Italy, during August 1837 Liszt was shown some scores of Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas. He was immediately captivated by them and set about adapting several for performance in his future piano recitals.

Liszt returned to the public eye sensationally in May 1838 with a series of forty private and public concerts in Vienna. His performances created a furore, through his now matured pianistic style and astonishing virtuosity, also playing everything from memory. These concerts marked the start of a decade of touring and ‘Lisztomania’!

However, it was not just Liszt’s playing that attracted attention; at his 6th concert on 14th May, held at the Vienna Musikverein, Liszt performed a Fugue in E minor by Handel followed by a work dubbed The Cat’s Fugue by one Domenico Scarlatti (identified as his Sonata in G minor, later catalogued as K30) to an astonished audience. Historically this was probably the first time Scarlatti’s music had been performed in public since the composer’s death in 1757.

Amongst the audience was Liszt’s former teacher, Carl Czerny, who lived and worked in Vienna, and he was immediately struck by this “antique” music and the audience’s positive reaction. Realising there could be a ready market for this music, he persuaded the publisher Tobias Haslinger, to open a subscription for the first modern “complete” edition of Scarlatti’s music, which Czerny himself would edit. The new edition was a great success, having been published during 1839 in two volumes; in the preface Czerny acknowledged the importance of Liszt’s discovery, saying “It was Liszt who gave the first impulse to this undertaking”.

Liszt continued to include these sonatas in his recitals, but never published any of his arrangements, though several decades later his pupil, Carl Tausig, arranged and published 6 of Scarlatti’s sonatas. In the meantime, not to be outdone, rival pianists sought out their own “antique” compositions to resurrect!

It was later discovered that the arrangements included in Haslinger’s edition of Scarlatti Sonatas were not entirely original. It seems that Czerny based them on or simply copied from  an earlier collection by Abbé Fortunato Santini (1778-1861) which became known as the Wien Collection. Santini is believed to have made copies of the sonatas from autograph manuscripts several decades earlier, and these included some “artistic” alterations, which were perpetuated by Czerny. Some years later, Johannes Brahms, who was becoming a key figure in 19th century musicology, particularly with early music collected editions, highlighted some of these inaccuracies. However, in the case of Scarlatti the musical world had to wait for Ralph Kirkpatrick to publish truly authentic editions.

Czerny himself went on to write a Sonata In the Style of Domenico Scarlatti Op.788 in 1847. It should also be noted that two of Liszt’s contemporaries, Frederic Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn were both interested in Scarlatti’s sonatas but appear not to have played them in public.

The Hispanic connection came full circle, with Enrique Granados who had a lifelong fascination in life and art of 18th century Spain. Encouraged by his teacher Felip Pedrell, the young composer transcribed 26 Sonatas for piano solo. In the edition Pedrell claims that Granados transcribed these for the modern piano from an unpublished source. Notwithstanding some artistic licence these arrangements are very interesting and worth investigating in the new critical Edition Boileau.

In conclusion I would like to acknowledge the research and publications by Alan Walker in his three volumes on Franz Liszt (pub. Cornell) and the program notes by Douglas Riva that accompany his recording of the Granados transcriptions for Naxos.



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