Zen for Ten Post 2: A Taste of Baroque

Welcome to Zen for Ten: Storytelling and Sound. New posts go up every Thursday and include a short piano-performance video, commentary about the piece and composer, and (often) a storytelling thought-exercise to go with the music. Take ten minutes, enjoy some music, and refresh your mind. If you like today’s post, please SUBSCRIBE to the blog (the button on the right), SHARE, and invite others to come check it out!

Today’s feature: Sonata in E Major, K. 380, by Domenico Scarlatti

About the music:

Domenico Scarlatti was born in 1685. Also born in the same year were Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel, two other legendary powerhouse composers. It was a great year for music.

Scarlatti, along with Bach, Handel, and their contemporaries, belongs to the Baroque era in music history. This period dates from about 1600 to 1750. We consider 1750 as the end of it because that was the year in which Bach died: he had such a huge influence on music, and developed many of the musical forms and ideas of the period so exhaustively, that the generation of composers that followed him had to learn how to write music a different way. (That’s a story for another post.)

Bach and Handel were both German composers and were two great proponents of the German Baroque style. German Baroque writing tends to be dense and intricate, using complicated ideas and creating elaborate musical structures that the average listener isn’t expected to follow. Many of Bach’s solo keyboard works in particular seem like puzzles he created for himself, exercises he wanted to work through mostly for his own enjoyment.

Domenico Scarlatti, on the other hand, gives us a taste of Italian Baroque writing, which favors elegance and lightness. (For another example of a great Italian Baroque master, check out Antonio Vivaldi.) Today’s featured sonata by Scarlatti is an excellent example of this other kind of Baroque writing.

When we think about the word “sonata,” we usually think about long pieces of music that often involve several sections (called movements). This typical structure for a sonata didn’t exist during Scarlatti’s time. In the Baroque era, the word “sonata” – from the Italian suonare, “to play” or “to sound” – could mean anything the composer wanted.

Scarlatti wanted to write pieces that borrowed from dance music. Popular dances of the time included the allemande, the sarabande, and the gigue. Each of these dances was short, featuring two sections of music: an “A” part and a “B” part. Scarlatti used this two-part form for his solo keyboard sonatas. (In the recording, you’ll see when we move from the A section to the B section, because that’s when I turn the page.)

The Sonata in E Major is one of my favorite pieces by Domenico Scarlatti. Please listen and enjoy!

Thought exercise:

This piece has no “story” attached to it; in Scarlatti’s time, composers generally didn’t think about attaching narratives to instrumental music. I’ve always loved this particular sonata, though, because to me it’s so evocative of another time and place. As you listen to it, focus on that word “place,” and think about what kind of place or setting the music creates in your imagination. Put yourself there and describe what you see, being as specific and detailed as you can.




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