Syncopation in Scarlatti’s E Major Sonata

By: Yosef Rosenfield  |  April 30, 2021

By Yosef Rosenfield, Features Editor

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), an Italian composer from the Baroque period, was most famous for his keyboard sonata compositions, among them Sonata in E Major (K.380). Written for the harpsichord – as opposed to pianoforte, the predecessor of the modern piano – this sonata does not feature the dynamic nuances that are written into the scores of later composers, such as Beethoven and Schubert. It instead relies on rhythmic variation, accompanied by the usual chord progressions and modulations, to drive the music forward in three-four time. Scarlatti employs an interesting technique of using syncopation to foreshadow key change, which is demonstrated by a couple of noteworthy examples in the sonata.

Following the opening eight measures and a few scales establishing the key of E Major, measure 12 breaks the chain of sixteenth notes with a dotted sixteenth, a thirty-second and an eighth, tied to an eighth, quarter and another eighth. This rhythm repeats in the right hand between mm. 12-16, after which mm. 17-18 end with a fermata. During these seven measures, the harmonic progression continues as follows: m. 12) E, m. 13) F#7, m. 14) E/G#, m. 15) a#ø7, m. 16) B, 3 17) c#7/E – C#7/E, m. 18) F#sus4-3. As m. 17 will later confirm, the first F# differs from the second F# in that the third of the chord, A#, is merely a passing chromatic tone between the G in the previous root-position E major triad and the B in the succeeding first-inversion E major. Measure 15’s a#ø7 chord marks a modulation into B major, found in the next measure, as it represents a standard leading-tone progression. Understanding mm. 13-16 now in the key of B, we can label F#7, E/G#, a#ø7 and B respectively as V7/V, IV6/V, viiø7 (modulation) and I (new key). Accordingly, the c#7/E that begins m. 17 is a ii7 in the key of B major, while the C#7/E in the latter half of the measure — having become a major chord by the sharpening of E to E# — ultimately changes the label to V65/V. This is because C#7/E tonicizes the following measure’s F#, which — unlike the F#7 in m. 13 — becomes a half cadence in the key of B. Thus, the syncopated rhythms throughout these measures leading up to the fermata help destabilize the key of E and usher in the new key, B major, toward the end of the phrase.

A similar use of syncopation appears in mm. 41-44, which begin a new phrase back in the original key of E major with the following chordal sequence: m. 41) B – E/B, m. 42) B7 – E/B, m. 43) B7 – E/B, m. 44) B. Since the E major triad remains in second inversion, this musical sentence is simply a dominant prolongation, more importantly featuring a couple of syncopated rhythms: mm. 41 and 44 are composed of an eighth, two sixteenths and four eighths, while mm. 42-43 share a pattern of an eighth, two sixteenths, eighth, quarter and an eighth — with a rhythmic tie in the upper hand between both mm. 41-42 and 43-44. These measures lead up to a curious d#°7/A in m. 45 and a G# that lasts from mm. 46-49 before giving way to a b#°7 in m. 50 and c#/E in m. 51. Although there is technically no modulation here, because the music continues uninterrupted by a structural cadence, this phrase does use tonicization. The emphasized G# strongly suggests a V-i resolution to c#, whose key is in fact reinforced by the b#°7-to-c#/E LTIP (Leading Tone Inverted Progression), which is a commonly used voice-leading technique similar to the leading-tone cadence from m. 15-16. The d#°7/A therefore acts as a pivot chord — it is the vii° chord in the key of E major, but it functions as a predominant substitute in C# minor. The chord labels for mm. 45-51 thus read as follows: m. 45) ii43/vi (pivot), mm. 46-49) V (repeated dominant in new tonicized key of C# minor), m. 50) vii43, m. 51) i6. In this way, the rhythmic disparity in mm. 41-44 prepares the listener for the temporary key change that comes immediately afterward.

These two prominent examples in Scarlatti’s piece demonstrate that syncopation is associated with key change in this sonata. Weakening of the key via rhythmic alteration, present in mm. 12-18 and 41-51, exemplifies a recurring compositional theme for Scarlatti. Appearing many more times in the piece, Scarlatti’s strategic juxtaposition of these two musical elements creates a unique relationship between rhythm and harmony that is indeed motivic throughout his E major sonata.