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The Cat's Fugue

The Cat's Fugue
Format: CD
Original Release: 2000
Label: Lyrichord Discs
UPC: 744457804322

Program Notes

by Elaine Comparone

If originality were the only criterion of genius, and if it were to be measured by the ability and readiness of a composer to seek out new techniques, to keep abreast of changing aesthetics and to bend accepted rules and conventions to his own ends, then Scarlatti would have to be judged a greater figure than either Bach or Handel.  Malcolm Boyde: Domenico Scarlatti, Master of Music, Macmillan, 1987.

(Giuseppe) Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), like Handel and the Bachs, drew praise from his contemporaries as much for his keyboard improvisations as for his compositions. Son of Alessandro Scarlatti, the renowned Neapolitan opera composer, Domenico was born in Naples on October 26th, 1685. Although no written records of his formal music study survive, we can safely assume that he not only learned, but absorbed, music from his composer/father, three uncles, an aunt, a brother and a sister – all of whom sang, played or composed. At age 16 Domenico was appointed organist and composer at the royal chapel at Naples, where Alessandro served as a maestro. Like his father, Domenico composed music for Neapolitan opera.

In 1709 Domenico entered the service of Polish Queen Maria Casimira, who was exiled in Rome. There he composed at least six operas, a cantata and an oratorio. At the Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni's house, he attended weekly chamber music concerts, where he met Corelli, Handel and Thomas Roseingrave, an English musician who became Scarlatti's enthusiastic fan. Roseingrave helped to disseminate Scarlatti's music throughout the British Isles.

After Maria Casimira left Rome in 1714 Comenico's involvement with Portuguese nobility began: he entered the service of the Marquis de Fontes, Portuguese ambassador to the Vatican. In 1719 Domenico left Rome to become maestro of the patriarchal chapel in Lisbon. His duties included teaching keyboard and composition to the budding virtuosa, Princess Maria Barbara. When she married Crown Prince Ferdinand of Spain and moved to Madrid, the Scarlatti family went as well. During his years with Maria Barbara, Scarlatti wrote 500 or so harpsichord sonatas, his most significant and best remembered works.

When Ferdinand VI and Maria Barbara succeeded Philip V and Elisabetta Farnese to the Spanish throne, the flamboyant castrato Farinelli, who had entertained Philip during his notorious bouts of depression, became director of the royal operas. Scarlatti seems to have been little involved in the court's musical/theatrical activities, concentrating on his duties as musico de clavicordia y compositor. While Farinelli held the courtly limelight, Scarlatti, in the background could develop his improvising and composing. Mutual admiration and respect, however, led to a life-long friendship between the two (When Queen Maria Barbara died in 1758, a little more a year after Scarlatti, she bequeathed Farinelli a generous pension, harpsichords and two sets of the collected keyboard sonatas of Comenico Scarlatti.)

Two months after the birth of Scarlatti's second daughter, his Essercizi per gravi cembalo, a collection of 30 harpsichord sonatas, appeared in London. Scarlatti, with the help of Farinelli's circle in London, dedicated the volume to King John of Portugal, Maria Barbara's father, who had knighted the composer in 1738. His 1739 dedication praises the glories of father and daughter in the self-effacing style peculiar to 18th century musicians allied with royalty: Do not despise, most clement King, this trifling tribute from a humble servant. They are compositions born under Your Majesty's highest auspices and in the service of your deservedly fortunate daughter, the Princess of the Asturias...But how could I possibly express my gratitude for the immortal honour done to me by your royal command to follow this incomparable Princess? The splendor of her perfections...reflects that of the great monarch her father; but a humble servant plays his part, too, through the mastery of playing and composing with which she, to the astonishment and admiration of the most excellent masters, delights princes and monarchs.

In the preface, the composer then cautions the "amateur or professional" who acquires his Essercizi not to expect ...any profound intention in these compositions, but rather an ingenious jesting with art by means of which you may attain freedom in harpsichord playing.

The Scarlatti aficionado gains little insight into the composer's personality and character from his correspondences, since only on letter has survived. In that letter of 1752, Scarlatti responds to a request from Don Fernando, Duke of Alba, for a setting of two 16th century hymns: I have been awaiting your happy return in order to pledge my obedience to you, not only in sending the enclosed manuscripts, but also in any other command Your Excellency may care to make ...I cannot leave my house Your Excellency is great, strong, magnanimous and in good health. Why, then, don't you come and console me with a visit? Perhaps because I am unworthy? That is true, but where do the virtues reside, if not in the hearts of the great?

Furthermore, we have no first-hand accounts or memoirs from Scarlatti's friends or colleagues in the Spanish court. Dr. Charles Burney, who documented 18th century musical life, drew a picture of the composer from his own conversations with Farinelli. Burney describes a fun-loving, irresponsible gambler, who like many men of genius and talent, was so inattentive to common concerns, and so much addicted to lay, that he was frequently distressed in his circumstances...and as frequently relieved in his distress by the Queen of Spain, who was constant in her admiration of his original genius and incomparable talent. (Article on Scarlatti in A. Rees: The Cyclopaedia, xxxi; London, 1819) Burney reports that Scarlatti's death left his wife and daughters in poverty, but inventories of the composer's estate do not support this claim. All sources agree, however, that the Queen granted the bereft Scarlatti family a generous pension. Burney, interestingly, draws a parallel between Scarlatti and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Both were sons of great and popular composers, regarded as standards of perfection by all their contemporaries except their own children, who dared to explore new ways to fame. Domenico Scarlatti...hazarded notes of taste and effect, at which other musicians have but just arrived, and to which the public is but lately reconciled; Emanuel Bach, in like manner, seems to have outstript his age. (P. Scholes, ed.: Dr. Burney's Musical Tours; London, 1959.)

Both composers had to shed the influence of strong fathers before they could fully realize their talent. Harpsichordist and musicologist Ralph Kirkpatrick used this particular psychological approach to build a theory of the chronology of Scarlatti's compositions. While none of Scarlatti's nine children displayed an interest or aptitude in music, his musical legacy inspired a younger generation: Spanish composers Antonio Soler, who studied with him, and Sebastian Albero and the Italians Domenico Paradisi and Muzio Clementi, who lived in England and came to know his music there. (From Spain, word of Scarlatti's music had spread first to England, largely through the efforts of Thomas Roseingrave, whose 1739 edition of 42 Scarlatti sonatas aroused enthusiasm among British music lovers.)

No evidence exists of interest in Scarlatti's music among 18th century Italians or Germans, but the Viennese took to his music with enthusiasm. The interest lasted through the 19th century, in spite of Robert Schumann' negative review of Carl Czerny's edition of 200 Scarlatti sonatas in 1839. Schumann's opinion of Scarlatti did not deter his concert-pianist wife, Clara Wieck, from playing his sonatas (She is said to have almost fallen from her stool in the midst of grappling with a particularly athletic hand-crossing passage!) Brahms genuinely understood and appreciated Scarlatti and treasured the Scarlatti manuscripts in his collection. He quoted Scarlatti in the introduction of his setting of a humorous Goethe poem, working the fragment into the vocal line as well. Chopin assigned Scarlatti to his piano students while Lizst programmed Scarlatti's sonatas in his recitals.

A revival of interest in the harpsichord coupled with Spanish nationalism brought Scarlatti's music to the forefront early in the 20th century. Both Mauel de Falla and Joaquin Nin claimed him as a Spanish composer, while the music of Albeniz and Granads reflects the Andalusian qualities they perceived in Scarlatti's music. 

We don't know if Scarlatti was a cat owner, but Muzio Clementi must have been. It was Clementi who dubbed the last piece in Scarlatti's Essercizi the "Cat's Fugue." The fugal subject, composed of wide, rather surprising intervals, gave rise to the image of a cat picking its way along a harpsichord keyboard.