Sal's flamenco soapbox

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Domenico Scarlatti 1685-1757

Borrowed flamenco riffs
Considering the flamenco sounding ideas in Scarlatti's music, the burning question is, "did he borrow from the gypsies?" or was it the other way around? An un-educated simpleton like myself is tempted by simple puzzles like this, but the real answer is probably even simpler. Although gypsies had been in Spain for over three centuries when Scarlatti came along, it would be fair to say that there were enough folkloric songs and dances available to the general public to fire Scarlatti's imagination.

I've heard some people say that some song forms like Tangos and Bulerias are pure gypsy flamenco, as if to imply they dreamed it up out of thin air. Much as I would like to believe in this sort of spontaneous magic, the truth is that nothing on Earth is truly original. If you were to say that Bulerias evolved slowly from a blend of existing gypsy rhythms and adapted local music I might believe you. Why not extend the same courtesy to Scarlatti? Any similarity between Scarlatti's sonatas and gypsy flamenco melodies can be safely attributed to a coincidence of expression based on the same musical roots. It doesn't take a genius to come to the conclusion that raw musical idioms (or "riffs") that we recognize as 'flamenco' were already a common part of the popular musical culture, and could be borrowed and adapted by anyone who felt the urge to do so.

Moorish flamenco?
Historically, flamenco as we know it did not exist pre 1492 (the Christian reconquest). And yet Moorish and Serphadic influence survives in today's flamenco. How we interpret this depends on how poetic you want to be. Humans have a unique tendancy to think in retrospect and come up with romantic notions that have little or no substance. It feels good and helps us to escape the daily grind but we can easily get lost in the legend. For example, if we could be transported back to the time of the Moors to listen to their music, are we going to say; "Hey, listen to that, I heard a passage from Paco de Lucía's latest CD in that song. Therefore, the Moors played flamenco." No. That's silly. It's not uncommon to find this sort of historical "influence" in today's flamenco. Given that Scarlatti came along two and a half centuries after the Moors, we can safely speculate that he also influenced flamenco music in some way or other, just as the Moors did.

The interesting thing about the references I cite below is that there are enough people out there in the music world who have made the flamenco connection on their own, probably on the basis that some Scarlatti sonatas have a 'Spanish' or 'flamenco' flavor. Are they misguided? Perhaps. To my knowledge, the word 'flamenco' did not exist in the Spanish vocabulary as a common term to describe folkloric or gypsy dances in Scarlatti's time. So it's unlikely he would have thought of calling a piece 'flamenco D minor sonata for mandolin and continuo'. Besides, not only is Madrid miles away from the flamenco heartland of Andalucia, but flamenco as we know it didn't hit the streets until a hundred years later.

Retrospective song titles
The reference below to the "flamenco d minor sonata" performed by the Edinburgh Barock group is therefore a bit of a puzzle to me. It's probably going a bit far to suggest that Scarlatti set out to consciously compose flamenco music. I don't think I've ever seen Scarlatti sonatas called anything but a number. Yes, I know. It's boring as hell. Mind you, if he was Chinese he might have been inspired to give them names like "Peacock of the Golden Sunrise sonata" or "Temple of Heaven sonata". While we're on this subject, here's a piece of useless information for you. Did you know that Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata was known to Beethoven simply as Opus 27, No. 2? The Moonlight bit was an invention of publishers after his death. I doubt if they would have taken such liberty while he was alive. Nobody cares anymore. These composers decomposed long ago. You are now free to call their music whatever you like.

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