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Trills and Domenico Scarlatti (Video)

In a separate writing about crossed hands, large leaps, and other keyboard acrobatics, I’d discussed trills which permeate Domenico Scarlatti’s music. Perhaps these precious ornaments evoked the gypsy wails in the surrounding Madrid countryside, or they were part of the performance practice of the Baroque period. I would hedge my bets that hunting horns, in K. 159 enter center stage as soon as the music begins and the trills decorate a progression of harmonic 3rds, 4ths and 6ths. The same applied to Scarlatti Sonata, K. 96, tagged “La Chasse.”

From having studied a small portion of Bach and Scarlatti’s works, I’ve come to the conclusion that Domenico liked trills more than J.S. In the Inventions, Bach had shorter decorations like mordants, and if he trilled, it was a slower, prolonged affair, not requiring the player to have a man size dose of adrenaline.

Most of my piano students avoid trills like the plague, particularly the long ones found in Mozart’s C Major “Drawing Room” sonata, first movement. They are confounded by how to precisely end them, and besides, it’s hard for these kids to coordinate the trill figure in the right hand with what’s happening in the left. I can commiserate.

I tend to believe that the ability to produce a very rapid, crystal clear trill is genetic, though that doesn’t mean it can’t be learned if a student commits to a form of trill related rehab. It takes, time, patience and dose of disciplined practicing.

Scarlatti probably handed players the most challenging trills in the Baroque literature by floridly decorating principle notes in short intervals as are found in his Sonata, K. 159 in C Major. For God sakes, every few notes, there’s a trill.

Perhaps a musicologist would refuse to categorize these quick splashes of color as bona fide trills since they may be brief and “ornamental,” but in the last analysis, a trill is a trill is a trill, and it’s a big order for the performer, regardless of label.

At the Oberlin Conservatory, Professor Freeman Koberstein, was obsessed with trills and various ornaments to the point of being POSSESSED. “Kobie,” (not to be confused with the basketball player) spent the whole class time lecturing about how to execute intricate figures with silly looking symbols. He’d even banter with students about performance practice as he turned red in the face if anyone disagreed with him.

In the universe of trills, there was always the question of whether to begin them on the primary note, or the note above. Add to the mix, the distance departure above or below what was being decorated. That issue could ignite a full-blown controversy about which way to turn. Oh and “turns” are another type of ornament, that differ from trills. Truly dizzying!

So depending on the composer, and historical era, trills, ornaments, turns, you name it, followed a certain set of rules, until someone came along in the musicology field with a revolutionary new theory.

In Scarlatti Sonata K. 159, the performer might be left to his own devices, having to make difficult choices that could offend a vast body of scholars who’d torn their hair out concerning the last find in a remote Spanish mission or castle.

But in the last analysis who cares? I say, just play the darn sonata as best you can, and dig deep down to your adrenaline reserves. There’s nothing worse than a trill dying on the vine before its time.

Post script: I discovered a Texas University professor, Stephen Slottow who published a paper on this very C Major sonata and I asked him a few pointed questions about the hunting horn entrance, no less.

His answer:

“I’m sure that Scarlatti was aware of the hunting horn motif, as it was in wide practice, but I don’t know if he personally added “Chasse.” I think that you would need to look at the earliest printed sources.” (More of the same?)


In conclusion, Sonata, K. 159 has a lot of substance, and I’ve only skimmed the surface by examining the trills. The middle or B section transitions to the minor key, with a brief exposure to sobbing gypsies. A stream of fiery 16th notes preceded by an ear catching dissonance embody the Spanish style along with its native flamenco elements. While Scarlatti may have been Italian, he had lived and worked in Madrid for most of his life so we can all feel lucky that he produced 550 sonatas to fuss over.

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