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The Tenenbaum Sonatas

Toby Tenenbaum, piano

18 Original Sonatas
in the Style of Domenico Scarlatti

Notes from the Composer

Suppose a copyist-monk had misplaced 18 of Scarlatti’s Sonatas and they were discovered by some lucky musicologist sifting through ancient vellum in a musty Spanish monastery. Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), an Italian transplanted to Spain, composed music of such immediacy and felicitous inspiration that his 550 Sonatas are as fresh today as the day they were conceived and written down. Could eighteen new sonatas be composed in homage to the Baroque master? Little did I imagine the scope of this task set with an almost blithe innocence five and half years ago!

I wanted to create not just an homage but practical and durable keyboard music as well. It was satisfying, after a decade of choral composing, to return to my piano and shape the counterpoint literally hands-on, through rehearsing and revising my own sonatas until every note sounded—and just as importantly—felt right to the hands as well as the ear. It was not until they had left the realm of notes on paper and had been thoroughly absorbed into my mind and fingers that I felt they were ready to be entrusted to disc. This transformation was long and at times frustratingly slow—wouldn’t you think a composer would automatically know his music by heart? Through this process however I became the interpreter my Sonatas deserved, and I hope this lengthy gestation has polished them into vehicles deserving of other discriminating performers!

I sought to conform to the harmonic language of the 18th century, while remaining rooted in my own times as a pianist and interpreter. My sensibilities naturally align themselves with the sensual, life-affirming warmth of the southern climes. In seeking my muse I’m drawn to that place that is elegant, sunny, proportioned and filled with human and natural beauty—Italy, specifically Baroque and Renaissance Italy.

The Sonatas on this recording were conceived in groupings of three. They were composed organically in the sequence in which they appear on the CD. Divided into 2 books of 9 sonatas each, all but the third set of three shares the ‘Italian overture’ pattern of Allegro-Adagio-Allegro or fast-slow-fast.

Comprised of two parts, the binary sonata form uses the simplest of means. Opening material is presented, a brief development occurs and finally the material repeated in the home key to round out the two halves. Each half of the sonata is repeatable: on the second go-around the performer can vary the dynamics, ornamentation, and phrasing, highlighting different aspects of the same notes. I like the ‘take two-ness’ of this, to use Glenn Gould’s term for the option to play either or both halves of the piece again. Sometimes the simple act of repetition alone creates a new context of meaning for the musical phrases. This act of generosity gives insight into how repetition is related to matters of the heart.

The overall form uses the magic number of three but divided in two: the start, journey and return home. I ‘rediscovered’ the binary sonata structure explored so thoroughly and exquisitely by the great Italian master in the early 18th century, and to my delight found plenty of ideas left over floating out there, 250 years later!

My Sonatas take Scarlatti’s inimitable writing for the harpsichord as a jumping off point. Exploiting the use of dynamics, touch, and pedaling they utilize the resources of the modern piano in all its tonal and textural variety.

A love-letter to pianists, these Sonatas celebrate the origins of our keyboard tradition. I remain firmly attached to music of the romantic and impressionist eras, at the core of our piano literature, while honoring its roots in the Baroque. Composing in this language was practice on many levels. What an embarrassment of riches, the shoulders of giants to stand on when we survey our good fortune— this keyboard terrain of the past 300 years scattered with masterpieces of every length and description! Why not express my appreciation by returning to the source in sincere emulation?

These Sonatas were intended to accompany the busy lives we live in the mechanized 21st century—so little time for the important things like sitting down to home cooked meals, being with each other!—and also to reward focused listening and study on their own terms.

They distill years of piano study and teaching; through careful consideration and adjustment of every note and phrase they have been crafted into enjoyable performance pieces. That was the litmus test, and what I can vouch for: they are challenging and engaging to play, and stand up to rigorous practice. It is finally time to share them.

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