Tremolos versus Repeated Notes in Domenico Scarlatti’s Keyboard Music:

Should Ornamenting the Tremolos be of the Harpsichord Style, or the Piano Style?

Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757) is an Italian Baroque composer who lived in Florence for 34 years. Between his travels from the Iberian peninsula to the Italian peninsula, Scarlatti encountered many types of keyboards. He was lucky enough to be well-travelled at this period of time, unlike J.S. Bach, and gained the respects of many notable persons who owned these rare and diverse keyboards. Some of these historical figures include Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal (later Queen of Spain), a music aficionado and avid keyboard collector, Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of piano, Farinelli, the most famous castrato singer ever lived, as well as strings master Vivaldi.

Ralph Kirkpatrick’s thorough compilation of Scarlatti’s output provides music historians with ample evidence that Scarlatti, while at Florence, was using the Florentine piano, called cembolo col pian’e forte, which translates into the pianoforte — the most primitive and original of its kind. A major distinction between the pianoforte and the harpsichord is that the strings are not plucked, such as the harpsichord), but has hammers to hit it. As a result, the piano can create dynamic levels of soft and strong. This invention of the cembolo col pian’e forte was the game changer in keyboard history.

Many of the articles I researched pointed back to Donald Sutherland’s research into the connection between Scarlatti and Cristofori’s pianoforte — with the implication that Scarlatti not only had access to harpsichords, but also the pianoforte. Therefore, can I as a performer assume that Scarlatti’s music is not like the other Baroque composers, because it was meant for the pianoforte, or at least did Scarlatti have this futuristic technology in his mind while composing for the harpsichord? Does this give the performers, such as I, the license to interpret dynamics pianistically?

Here is an example of clear evidence that Scarlatti was not only a harpsichordist, but also a pianist: like most musicians of his time, Scarlatti benefitted from the Queen’s patronage. Any instrument in her possession would mean that Scarlatti had those instruments in his music court and therefore, he had constant access. In a catalogue of Queen Maria Barbara’s possessions after her death, there were many different keyboards bequeathed to various people, including Farinelli. These catalogues (very tediously) cites the range/compass of a large number of keyboards. Information such as the compass of each and every keyboard, (from G to G3, or C go G3, etc…) as well as details on the matter of the “split-key” option in the keyboard were available in the catalogues. The catalogue also clearly states that there were twelve pianofortes in the Queen’s possession, two of which were converted from harpsichords.

Also important is the immense friendship Scarlatti had with Farinelli. Music historians learned almost everything about Scarlatti from their exchanges. Farinelli’s catalogue of possessions, after his death, states that there was a piano that used to belong to the Queen’s and is a florentine pianoforte. Many historians were divided in how to interpret this evidence. Should one assume that Scarlatti composed keyboard music also to the pianoforte? Or should one assume that Scarlatti did not realize the importance of the pianoforte and kept composing for the harpsichord mainly in mind?

I agree with the historians who appreciate this knowledge about Scarlatti’s involvement with the pianoforte. Scarlatti wrote a “Book of 22 Piano and Harpsichord Pieces” of preludes toccatas and various dances. I believe this is clear indication that Scarlatti is one of the first Baroque composers to have composed for the piano. J.S. Bach was born of the same year, but because he did not get to travel, he did not see this invention.

Ornamentations of Tremolos versus Repeated Notes

Above is an example of Scarlatti’s repeated notes. The fast 16ths require a quick action of the piano in order for it to resound quickly. This Burlesca dance was taken from the Book of 22 Piano and Harpsichord Pieces. He had both instruments in mind, and therefore the repeated notes stop after just one measure. Compare this to a keyboard sonata, quite possibly written for the piano, shown below.

K.141 d minor sonata is famous for its consistent repeated notes. An allegro in 3 8, this sonata would be difficult to pull of on the harpsichord, whose mechanisms for repeating notes are slow because of its plucking action. Only a pianoforte with the hammer action can achieve this tempo. Because this repeating figure is written in, we know for certain that Scarlatti’s keyboard has this ability, which means Scarlatti played it on a pianoforte.

Now let us look at the tremolo markings of Scarlatti. Tremolos were meant to sound like it does on the violin — of a single note, repeated. Therefore, the tremolos of the Baroque era, unlike Romantic Era where tremolos oscillate in octave unisons, are relatively similar to written out repeated notes.

Figure 3 is K. 118 in D major

Notice that Scarlatti creates different ornamental markings with the trills. Trills have a neighbor note, tremolos do not. Instead of writing out the repeated effect of the tremolos, Scarlatti simply wrote out the word tremolo. I would assume that the tremolos stop after this bar of quarter notes. However, the decision making does not stop there.

A performer must also ask, are these continuous tremolos? Does this notation mean for the repeated figures to be played for the entire length of the quarter note, or does it mean for the repeated figures to be a short triplet, garnished on top of each quarter note, statically held for

the rest of the quarter note length, as shown in figure 4 (an example from another sonata, k.96)?

These are questions a performer must ask. If you believe Scarlatti wrote these sonatas for the Harpsichord, then you might only play this second option of triplets tremolo. If you believe that Scarlatti wrote these sonatas for the pianoforte, then you might repeat the note all the way through — creating a busier and more virtuosic atmosphere.

In conclusion, my own opinion is that of the piano tremolos is the true solution, rather than the harpsichord tremolos, because it is evident to me that Scarlatti came in close contact with the hammer florentine pianos. Not only did he have access to the pianofortes, but his written out notation of repeated notes (like that of figure one and two) dictate long lengths of these repeated articulations — which is impossible to do on the the harpsichord. Therefore, when ornamenting, my first choice for the tremolos is to roll it all the way through the length of the note. My musical intuition will tell me if that is appropriate at that spot. A performer might check whether or not his/her piece was written prior to his friendship with Cristofori and the Queen, as that might point to whether or not Scarlatti meant for the tremolos to be harpsichord-like or piano-like.

Works Cited


Boyd, Malcom and David Sutherland. “Scarlatti and the Fortepiano in Spain.” Early Music 24, no.1 (1996): 189–190.

Meer, John Henry van der. “The Keyboard String Instruments at the Disposal of Scarlatti.” The Galpin Society Journal 50, (1997): 136–160.

Sachs, Barbara. “Scarlatti’s Tremulo.” Early Music 19, no.1 (1991): 91–93.

Sutherland, Donald. “Domenico Scarlatti and the Florentine Piano.” Early Music 23, no.2 (1995): 243–246, 249–256.


Scarlatti, Domenico. “Book of 22 Piano or Harpsichord Pieces.” Giuseppe Buonamici. New York: G. Schirmer, 1895.

Scarlatti, Domenico. “Sonata in D major, k.96.” Montréal: Les Éditions Outremontaises, 2013.

Scarlatti, Domenico. “Sonata in D Major, k.118.” Montréal: Les Éditions Outremontaises, 2013.

Scarlatti, Domenico. “Sonata in d minor, k.141.” Montréal: Les Éditions Outremontaises, 2013.