From the Middle Ages, Italy’s Medici family was a magnet for artists and artisans, who created extraordinary works under the family’s generous patronage. In 1688, Florence’s Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici hired Bartolomeo Cristofori, then 33 years old, to look after his collection of harpsichords. This was an important position: Cristofori was paid as much as any court musician.
The harpsichord of Cristofori’s time was a well developed instrument, responsive and flexible. But it lacked one feature: variable dynamics. The harpsichord’s mechanism plucked the strings of the instrument. There was no practical way (then) to make it pluck them more gently. The only way to vary volume was to change stops or combine manuals. The possibilities for dynamic variety were fairly limited.
Some time in the 1690s, Cristofori had a brainstorm. He realized that if he replaced the harpsichord’s plucking mechanism with one which struck the string instead, the force of the strike — and thus the volume of the sound — could be under complete control of the player.
The idea of a keyboard instrument that struck the strings rather than plucking them wasn’t really new. The clavichord had existed since at least the 15th century. A clavichord had tangents fastened to the keys. Instead of controlling jacks and quills which plucked the strings, the tangents themselves struck the strings inside the instrument’s case.
The problem with the clavichord was that while it was capable of extraordinarily sensitive dynamic expression, its volume range was from almost inaudible to barely audible. Let’s face it, the force that a keyboard player can transmit through his or her fingers is limited. The clavichord’s tangents couldn’t strike its strings hard enough to make a sound that could be heard, say, in a church sanctuary. This meant that the clavichord wasn’t suitable for anything other than the most intimate music-making. (It made a magnificent instrument for late-night keyboard practice, however.)
Cristofori solved this problem by adding a mechanical action. It multiplied the player’s string-striking force by four (eight, in his later instruments) and used that force to drive a hammer against the string. He also added an escapement mechanism. The escapement allowed the hammer to fall back after striking the string, so the string would keep vibrating.
(Think of the way a fine crystal goblet rings when you tap it with a spoon — as long as you don’t keep the spoon touching the glass after you tap it.)
Cristofori called his invention arpicimbalo che fa il piano e il forte — harpsichord with soft and loud. Today, we shorten that name a bit. We call it the piano.
Maybe you’re expecting me to say here that Cristofori’s piano "took Europe by storm" (or some similar cliche’!) and almost immediately eclipsed the harpsichord.
That didn’t happen. Truth to tell, keyboard players didn’t like the touch. The Florentine piano was harder to play, and the keys just didn’t feel right when pressed. They didn’t like the tone, either; it was too soft, too muffled. Besides, who really needed that much variety in volume anyway?
It would remain for later piano makers to solve these problems. But Cristofori had begun the process of breaking the harpsichord’s lock on public keyboard performance. It’s not hard to imagine that without the financial and moral support of the Medici family, Cristofori probably couldn’t have pushed keyboard technology ahead — but that’s another story for another day.
Now back to 1700, and over to Naples. That’s when and where Domenico Scarlatti, one more musical member of a hugely talented musical family, was named organist and composer of the Royal Chapel. He was even granted a special additional salary for his work as chamber harpsichordist.
Domenico Scarlatti was only 15 years old.
Two years later, Scarlatti and his father Alessandro made the first of two visits to Florence. Their host was none other than Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, Cristofori’s patron. Did Domenico play one or more of Cristofori’s Florentine pianos on these visits? Perhaps. History doesn’t tell us. So far no documentation has surfaced — no letters home raving about (or excoriating!) the new-fangled instrument, no eyewitness reports, no newspaper articles.
By 1708, Domenico had joined his father in Rome. There he attended the weekly concerts originated by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. In 1709, Prince Ferdinando sent the Cardinal a lavish gift from Florence: one of Cristofori’s pianos. Did Scarlatti play or hear that instrument? Again, history doesn’t tell us.
In 1719, Scarlatti left Rome, ostensibly for England. In actuality, he was on his way to Lisbon, Portugal, where he had a job offer — he was to be master of the Royal Chapel there. In Lisbon he encountered an exceptionally talented royal youngster — the infanta Maria Barbara, who, as a contemporary report said, “Surprise[ed] the amazed intelligence of the most excellent Professors with her Mastery of Singing, Playing and Composition.”
In January of 1729, Maria Barbara married Ferdinando, the Spanish infante. It was a rather uncomfortable union whose purpose was entirely political. Maria Barbara soon found herself in the hostile company of the jealous Queen Isabella of Spain. Isabella even refused to allow Maria Barbara to bring along her personal servants — all but one, that is: her music teacher, Domenico Scarlatti. During the remaining 28 years of his life, Scarlatti composed and catalogued over 550 keyboard exercises for Maria Barbara — from 1746, queen of Spain.
Scarlatti and the Florentine piano are linked (if only circumstantially) at several other times and places, but what’s undeniable is that Maria Barbara herself was a point of intersection.
Maria Barbara owned pianos. We know this because she died just over a year after Scarlatti did, and at her death, her instruments were inventoried. Of her dozen (!) keyboard instruments, three were pianos, and two more were harpsichords which had been converted from pianos (perhaps because their actions failed, or because they were judged unsatisfactory as pianos). It thus becomes rather difficult to deny that Scarlatti was acquainted with the piano.
But did he play them? Did he intend for Maria Barbara to play his sonatas on them?
Ralph Kirkpatrick didn’t think so. Kirkpatrick was an American harpsichordist (1911 – 1984). He had a distinguised career as a performer, but his magnum opus was his biography of Domenico Scarlatti. It occupied him for 16 years, from 1937 to 1953. When it came to Scarlatti’s sonatas, Kirkpatrick’s views in that 1953 publication were enormously influential, guiding the performance practice of a generation of historically-oriented keyboard musicians.
Kirkpatrick pointed out that 73 of Scarlatti’s 550-some sonatas required more keys than the queen’s pianos had. This is pretty hard to argue with! It seems very unlikely that either Maria Barbara or Scarlatti played those 73 sonatas on any of the pianos to which they had known access. That’s a carefully qualified statement, but it’s about as definitive as we can really get in this discussion.
Kirkpatrick thought that was sufficient evidence to declare that Scarlatti probably had the harpsichord in mind for playing all of his sonatas. There is more to his argument, but it’s mostly conjectural, related to what he saw as the musical suitability of the piano of the time to the sonatas. What else can one do without definitive surviving documentation?
But from 1970, other historically-oriented musicologists and performers began to question Kirkpatrick’s assessment. Their re-evaluation of the evidence, sketchy as it was and is, led to harpsichord maker David Sutherland’s 1995 article in Early Music magazine, “Domenico Scarlatti and the Florentine Piano.”
Sutherland argued that, in making his recommendation, Kirkpatrick should have given more weight to the circumstantial evidence connecting Scarlatti and the early Florentine piano. Sutherland also questioned Kirkpatrick’s judgement of the Florentine piano as unsuited to Scarlatti’s sonatas, but in all honesty it’s difficult to see Sutherland’s view of this matter as any less subjective than Kirkpatrick’s. Finally, he took issue with Kirkpatrick’s argument that the piano was mostly used at court for accompanying singers. Sutherland’s evidence here seems about as persuasive as Kirkpatrick’s. Stalemate.
Who’s right? I don’t know.
Keyboard isn’t my instrument, so maybe I’m able to view this whole discussion with a bit of detachment. We’ve invested over 70 years in poring over what little documentation exists (reckoning from when Kirkpatrick began his research for Domenico Scarlatti). We have more informed opinions than ever (and thank goodness for that), but informed as they are, they’re still opinions. We don’t have a definitive answer as to whether Scarlatti intended his sonatas for the harpsichord or the piano. Perhaps he intended some of them for one and some for the other, but we have no way of knowing that. If he did, the 73 I mentioned before are the only ones which we currently have much hope of assigning. Actually, we don’t know whether Scarlatti even cared which instrument they were played on. We may never know. There just isn’t enough evidence to say.
Meanwhile, players of the modern piano, from Dame Myra Hess to Vladimir Horowitz — and countless others since — have never stopped playing Scarlatti. Why should they? For them, I suspect that the question of what instrument Scarlatti had played was pretty much academic. His music worked for them on their chosen instrument. They gave Scarlatti a voice, and also found their own expressive nuances in the sonatas. Audiences loved it. I imagine that was enough for them.
What I do know is that I’ve heard successful and musically enlightening performances of Scarlatti sonatas on harpsichords, Florentine pianos, and modern pianos. But don’t take my word for it; compare for yourself. Here are three short clips from Scarlatti’s Sonata in f minor, K519 — played on modern piano, a reproduction of Cristofori’s Florentine piano, and harpsichord.
Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on modern piano (Beatrice Long)
Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on Florentine piano (David Schrader)
Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on harpsichord (Colin Tilney)
I’ve also heard some pretty good Scarlatti on other instruments, including harp and guitar. His music seems to suit many different instruments, and I for one am glad that one more avenue of timbre and style has opened up for interpreting Scarlatti sonatas.
Domenico Scarlatti. Ralph Kirkpatrick, 1953 (1983 revision).
Domenico Scarlatti and the Florentine Piano. David Sutherland, Early Music, 1995 (Note: JSTOR access is required to read this article. A public-access computer associated with a university or library will usually connect immediately, but most home or business computers will not.)
A Florentine Piano c.1730 for Early Piano Music. Denzil Wraight.
Domenico Scarlatti, a brief biography. Chris Whent, Here of a Sunday Morning, WBAI, New York.
Cristofori, Inventor of the Piano. Roy E. Howard, Cantos Para Todos.
This article was originally published in WKSU Classical on 17 July 2008.