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Penelope Roskell: Pillars of Piano Technique

Penelope Roskell: Pillars of Piano Technique

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Do you want to learn more about perfecting the Scarlatti Sonata In E Major? In this blog post, we’ll share more about specific ways for you to approach the Scarlatti Sonata and master the techniques necessary to play with precision.

If you’d like to see the lesson this blog post is based on, click here to watch it for free — otherwise, read on!


In the vast sea of Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas, the E major K. 380 has risen to the fore as one of the most popular. 

Pianists are often introduced to the work by Vladimir Horowitz, who revealed its tenderness and charm in his many different recordings of the work. In the associated lesson, tonebase Head of Piano Ben Laude sets the scene of the Sonata as an antiphonal dialogue between imagined instruments of a courtly procession. 

Exploring its character and design in meticulous detail, Laude also offers practical advice on executing ornaments and fingering figurations, while exploring interpretive possibilities for bringing the work to life. 


Historical Setting

This unassuming work, one of Domenico Scarlatti’s 555 keyboard sonatas, was turned into pure magic by Vladamir Horowitz, whose performance inspired Laude to fall in love with the piece.

The opening resembles a call to order, a sort of antiphonal fanfare in the brass. 

Imagine the following setting: it’s Madrid, in the 1730s. Prince Ferdinand VI and his wife Barbara of Portugal (one of Scarlatti’s keyboard students earlier in her life) sit together observing Scarlatti as he performs a keyboard sonata for their delight. Scarlatti imitates two brass choirs, one nearby, and one far away, in the opening four bars.

The main technical challenge stems from needing to clearly differentiate the two voices. Practice the second measure by bringing out the top voice and shortening the notes in the bottom voice:

Don’t take any notes with the left hand in bar two! 

The thumb should be the anchor, and the hand must move in and up slightly toward the fallboard. You can conceive of the downbeats as a chord (B and G♯)  followed by a three-note triplet – starting with a noticeable pause between the chord and triplet, then gradually making the pause shorter as your fingers become more comfortable. Often, simply thinking about a passage in a different way can solve technical difficulties.

When the left hand enters in bar 5, it resembles a new instrument, or a second brass choir positioned farther away from you, giving the illusion of softness. 

In this analogy, Scarlatti is transporting the listener into the physical space of a court in the 1730s. Use the same articulation in bar 5 as you did in bar 1.

Make sure you shape measure 9 - don’t play it like a technical exercise! 

The notes should be on the edge between legato and non-legato, without overlapping between successive notes. You can detach the last four notes for added movement or detach the first note to highlight the leap.

The left hand in measure 11 should resemble bars 2 and 4, but you can roll the chords in bars 12-17 for added motion.

Editions of Scarlatti’s music don’t require as scrupulous cross-referencing as do those of Beethoven; performance practice was freer in the Baroque era. Scarlatti was pretty exploratory in his use of dissonant harmonies, resulting in the frequently played chord in bar 15. If you choose to play this rather intense-sounding clash, be sure to make a big moment out of it. An alternative is to omit the A♯.

scarlatti sonata e major

For even more crunchy left-hand cluster chords, listen to Martha Argerich’s performance of the scintillating Sonata in D Minor, K. 141!

The trill in m. 18 is challenging! If your wrist is too low, it’s hard to have the necessary dexterity. End the trill in and up with the wrist:

Measure 19 features the entrance of a pompous new motif. 

The brass and timpani are now playing together, and Scarlatti continues the antiphonal texture with a trombone choir in bar 20 in the left hand. The result is more contrapuntal, with the trumpets continuing to play a line.

For the repeated notes in m. 22, it’s okay to use the same finger on the repeated notes, as long as your two-note slurs have a sense of down-up motion. Take extra time at the end of measure 23, lingering on the tritone between the top and bottom voices. 

The resolution is a tender gesture; slow down on the first beat of measure 24 as if it’s the end of the motif, not the start of a new one.

In the music of Scarlatti, it isn’t that important to make the repetition of the A section drastically different. The repetition is part of the balance of proto-sonata form in the early 18th century. Take care not to over-ornament since brass fanfares don’t typically involve trills! Be mindful of the scene you’re setting up.

Development Section

Scarlatti’s development section takes the triumphant fanfare motive introduced in m. 19 and looks back on it, as if a day has passed since the courtly procession. 

Instead of cadencing back to E major, he takes us on a journey around the circle of fifths: the relative minor, C♯, through F♯ minor, and finally to B minor, where we return to familiar music. 

It’s as if the characters snuck out at night and got into some trouble, but eventually found their way back home.

Understanding harmonic progressions can help you memorize the music more easily! It need not be exhaustive in scope, but if you know what key you’re in, this connects muscle memory to conceptual memory. 

Use your knowledge of harmony in tandem with the physical memory of the location of your hands, and a keen eye to where passages are repeated and transposed!

Frequently check your shoulders and elbows to make sure they aren’t locking up! Learn to let go of tension in these joints, feeling solid contact in the fingertips and connection up the entire arm. 

You can ornament the last beat in bar 56 with fingers 3 and 5. Be careful not to twist too far to the right (check out Robert Durso’s Taubman Master Classes for an insightful approach to wrist angle).

Be sure to segment your trills: separate the first note from the trill that follows, then practice shrinking the gap.

In m. 64, you can add a C♯ to the first two quarter notes, and a C♯ and an E to the third beat. This fills out the chord more to be consistent with the rest of the measures.

scarlatti sonata e major


Laude usually prefers not to repeat the B section because the ending is so decidedly emotional and triumphant. 

However, if you adhere to the historically accurate form and repeat the B section, you have options for how you interpret it. If you play the second B section the same as the first one, the first ending cannot be too dreamy. 

Alternatively, the second B section could be played like an extended dream state. 

Experiment on your own, listen to recordings for context, and decide on an arrangement that resonates with you! Use imagery if it inspires you, but also aim to get familiar with the music on its own terms. 

Pay attention to sound production, ornaments, and good technique. Enjoy how the music feels, and work at your own pace.

If you’d like to watch the lesson on this topic for free, just click here.

If you’re ready to learn more about pieces like Ligeti’s etudes and get to the next level on the piano, start your tonebase membership with a free 14-day trial. 

Inside tonebase, you’ll find 100s of in-depth lessons and structured courses, LIVE weekly workshops, and tons of digital PDF scores and workbooks to help you become the pianist you’ve always dreamed of being. 

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