article 60: A Scarlatti Urtext of 1823

For my 70th birthday Breitkopf & Härtel sent me their own big birthday album, celebrating the 2019 tricentennial of the world’s oldest music Verlag. Among the many bits of new and fascinating information, one was especially surprising.

Beginning around the year 1800 the company were pioneers in collected editions of deceased composers, and strove from the beginning to produce source-based editions without editorial interference. Urtext is the word now in use for such efforts. J. S. Bach and W. A. Mozart were obvious early candidates. (B&H were involved with the Bach Gesellschaft from the start.) But I was amazed to see Domenico Scarlatti listed among those honored with retrospective prints.

Online antiquarians offered two slim volumes which looked like they might belong to the right era. One of vendors gave a date: 1823. The other said: ?1850. The latter arrived first. The back page was full of advertisements for PIANOFORTE-WERKE ZU ZWEI HÄNDEN, mostly by composers now so obscure that they aren’t even in “New Grove”. The latest pieces I could locate were published around 1865, so that was my terminus post quem for the volume. The cover looked odd, as if it had been composed at two different times – one of them earlier and more elegant. But the four pages of keyboard score were even more puzzling. They were engraved with punches that looked very different from what one would expect in 1865 – more primitive, in fact.* I knew from my birthday present that B&H had only gradually switched to that method in the early 19th century, abandoning the famous, improved movable type which had helped make them the world’s leading music publishers in the 18th.

Except for sensible fingerings added to nearly every note, this “Sonata per il Pianoforte composta da Domenico Scarlatti” was presented without any editorial aids: phrasing, dynamics, accents, ritardandi, accelerandi, added octaves...the usual 19th-century arsenal. Such respect for an 18th-century composer – and one who, at that point, wasn’t on many radar screens – astounded me. I wondered where the anonymous editor could have found the piece (number 113 in the Kirkpatrick catalog, which happens to have been the opening piece on my 1992 Teldec Scarlatti album). And what possessed him (or her; let us not jump to conclusions) to offer it to the public so bare of all such accessories?

Only two things besides the fingerings bar it from being called a thorough Urtext: a handful of added slurs at hand crossings in the first half, and the substitution at other crossings of gauche and G for the original M, an abbreviations for manco – Spanish for “left hand”. (Strange to tell, the French Heugel edition by Kenneth Gilbert, the one I always used, also has G.) The B&H gauche at first reminded me of how the old Senator and his wife speak French at the beginning of Buddenbrooks, and I thought it might simply be a reflection of that era. But then I checked Kirkpatrick’s Scarlatti biography and found two French prints, ca. 1780, of mixed keyboard works containing only one sonata by our man: K113. One of them groups it with four orchestral overtures arranged “pour le Clavecin ou Forte-Piano”. And indeed, the overture-like character of the work was what inspired me to use it as such on my CD. There were manuscripts of Scarlatti sonatas in circulation, especially in England where he had been something of a cult, but gauche leads me to suspect the Paris agent of B&H sent a copy of one of these potpourris to Leipzig.

A few weeks later, held up by accursed Brexit customs duties, the other volume arrived from England. There were no adverts on the back, and the cover design was more of a unity. The later one had apparently retouched the plate with larger, coarser letters, and its price was changed from six Groschen to 75 Pfennige. There was no date on this new arrival, supposedly from 1823, but the music was printed from the same plates in both issues, series number 3709. When I emailed the vendor Colin Coleman for the source of his dating, he kindly replied that it was based on archived B&H publication numbers. So it was true – in 1823 somebody had wanted to present a Scarlatti sonata in its original form, when the composer’s reputation was near its lowest ebb. Could this little edition have awakened Carl Czerny’s interest in Scarlatti? In any case, Beethoven’s palladin published 200 sonatas in 1839 , and even composed a sonata “in the style of Scarlatti” as his op. 788.

All I could complain about was the lack of the word “Cembalo” on the B&H cover – but Pianoforte was acceptable. The early instrument was already present at the court of Spain when Scarlatti was there.

I tried to get a price comparison between 1823 and ca. 1865, but it was almost impossible to unravel the many shifts in currency. The Kingdom of Saxony where Leipzig was located joined the new German customs union, the Zollverein, in 1834. There was a money reform in 1857, and in 1871 the new Reichsmark appeared. In Saxony the silver Groschen was divided into ten Pfennige, the small copper coin comparable to a Euro or US Dollar cent. So the price apparently rose from 60 Pfennige to 75; but taking inflation, generally falling prices for music, and the reuse of the old plates into account, I imagine that K113 was easily available for domestic music-making around the time of the unification of Germany under Bismarck.

*The last German master of this noble craft recently retired here in Würzburg.

July 12, 2022

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