Analysis of Scarlatti Sonata in C

What better remedy for a memory lapse than learning a little Scarlatti sonata?

Scarlatti wrote an astonishing 555 keyboard sonatas over the course of his life (1685-1757). Although hugely diverse in character, they have an energy and rhythmic vitality that keeps them fresh and appealing nearly 300 years later. I’ve played four Scarlatti Sonatas to date –  including the wonderful, but challengingly fast, G major K427 – and for me, one of the essential traits that connects the dozens of Scarlatti sonatas I’ve learnt, sightread or listened to is a satisfyingly clear structure, making them relatively easy both to listen to and memorise.

With this in mind, I recently decided to learn the effervescent Sonata in C major K159. Mostly for my own benefit, thought I would write down a little analysis – DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A MUSICOLOGIST! The piece races along in 6/8 Allegro time, with a distinctly  Spanish flare, and follows what became standard sonata form, starting with a clear theme in the tonic (C major), modulating via the dominant (G major) into a development section, then returning to the tonic for the recapitulation. The structure is actually a rounded binary form, which at a basic level can be described as A-B but with repeats is, more revealingly, AA-BA’-BA’. The proportions of the piece are mirrored.

figure-3-equalized-time-comparisons-in-wave-formI found an interesting analysis of the piece in the International Symposium on Performance Science,* which compared the audio traces of numerous recorded performances of the piece (normalised to be the same length). This is quite fascinating for two reasons. First, I think the binary AB structure is quite clear in all of them, and a more detailed look reveals that the full AA-BA’-BA’ structure is also apparent in most. Second, I found the volume differences between the performers quite remarkable! Clearly there are a number of different options for how one might play such a piece on a modern piano, with choices to be made about which elements to highlight and what dynamic range to use.

Delving deeper into the details of the score, the structure inside each of the sections is also very clear. Each section begins with a clear, repeated statement of the theme, followed by development and elongation of that theme, followed by a different figuration, which is then also repeated and elongated to the end of the section. The actual memorisation work, in terms of notes to learn, is therefore substantially less it appears at first glance, as so much of the piece is repetitive.

Harmonically, the first section is initially in C major modulating to its dominant G major; the middle section is a fiery mixture of G major, F minor and C minor; and the final section is entirely in C major. There are several important ‘crux’ moments (identified by Scarlatti scholar Ralph KirkPatrick), pivotal points after the main thematic material approximately half-way through both the A and A’ sections that serve as important melodic, harmonic and structural markers. These need extra care and attention to ensure that you either do or don’t modulate – essential to avoid either going round in a never-ending loop, or finishing abruptly skipping most of the piece!

This is a fun piece to play, and a quick piece to memorise. Deciding how to produce a convincing performance may take me some time, but hopefully it can now be informed by the knowledge of the underlying structure that Scarlatti so carefully created.

*Performing Musical Structure: crux-phi perceptions in Domenico Scarlatti’s sonata K. 380 (PDF Download Available). Available from:’s_sonata_K_380 [accessed Oct 25, 2016]

About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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