With the Eating Season heaving into view it’s time to try and get fit in advance. In the 18th-century drawing room this meant going to the harpsichord for some of Scarlatti’s sonatas and their beneficial effect on the upper body. Hand-crossing was the work-out routine of choice of the 18th-century virtuoso and amateur. It is the technique most closely associated with Scarlatti, whose collection of thirty sonatas (opening the catalog of his works as K. 1-30) published as the Esserzici in London in late 1738 or early 1739, constituted a hand-crossing workout regime.
Scarlatti’s “Exercises” are not the treadmill drudgery of 19th-century piano pedagogues Hanon and Czerny, who still numb would-be virtuosos to this day. By contrast Scarlatti’s studies but are full of irreverent humor, bizarre ideas, and exotic touches of Naples and Iberia. Scarlatti’s sonatas require not only dexterity but a level of physical fitness literally out of reach of the old, infirm, and corpulent. One devotee of his music claimed that that in later years Scarlatti “was too fat to cross his hands as he used to do.” But the portrait of Scarlatti painted around the time of the publication of his Essercizi shows him as trim enough to manage them when in his fifties.
So capricious and obsessively “un-idiomatic” were the uses to which Scarlatti put this technique that in some cases he introduced it as a purely arbitrary feat of virtuosity rather than for any musical considerations. For the famous, or perhaps infamous, parallel thirds of the penultimate number of the Essercizi (K. 29), Scarlatti specifically demands that they should be played with the hands crossed, when they could far more easily be done without such contortions. In this way the easy is made difficult, the exertions of the player remaining imperceptible—it is hoped—to any listener unable to see his or her hands. (Shameless pitch: this keyboardist’s equivalent of a game of Twister with the arms can be heard on my CD The Great Contest, which pits the three great keyboardists Scarlatti, Handel and Bach—all born in the same year of 1685—against one another at the King of Instruments.)
The idea of approaching the keyboard with crossed hands was not a new one when Scarlatti came on the scene. More than a century before Scarlatti, the Englishman John Bull was known for his flamboyant, not to say intemperate, personal and musical style. Among his bravura acts was that of hand-crossing. This master of the Elizabeth keyboard instrument, the virginal, was hardly virginal himself. Bull escaped England days before Christmas 1607, claiming persecution as a Catholic. In fact he was fleeing the results of his philandering and other hot-blooded acts—“incontinence, fornication, adultery, and other grievous crimes,” according to the disapproving English envoy to the Low Countries where Bull sought refuge. Hand-crossing features in one of Bull’s thirty variations on the popular song Walsingham, where it is as unnecessary from a technical point of view as that in Scarlatti’s K. 29. It is an impressive party trick—perhaps good as a prelude of seduction leading to the above-mentioned activities that sent Bull fleeing his homeland.
But it was not until more than a century later, that a new and far more acrobatic approach to hand-crossing became the rage in Europe. Around 1730 the Bach family set to exploring the potential of this crowd-pleasing technique. J. S. Bach finishes off his first published piece, the Partita in B-flat, BWV 825, with a gigue dedicated to calorie-burning hand-crossing. Bach’s sons and students were soon practicing and composing pieces involving this newly ascendant gimmick. In 1728 Jean-Philippe Rameau, the towering figure of mid-century French musical culture, published his Nouvelles pièces de clavecin (New Harpsichord Pieces), which include one of the most celebrated instances of hand-crossing in the first half of the 18th century, Les trois mains—The Three Hands. The very title draws attention to the technique and its imposition on the player, conjuring up physical feats (or deformities) that pushed far beyond the everyday. It is only midway through the first half of Les trois mains that the piece breaks into a full-on hand-crossing blitz. Four years earlier, in the Pièces de claveçin of 1724, Rameau had introduced some lively hand-crossing into his display piece, Les Cyclopes, where the left ricochets back-and-forth over the right like the blinded Polyphemus flailing desperately after Odysseus. The main difference, however, is that the harpsichordist must hit the mark each time. With his Cyclops, Rameau beat J. S. Bach into print with the new musical aerobics by two years.
The thrill of the 18th-century variety of hand-crossing is often predicated on using only one manual. Unlike the harpsichords available to many of the northern European buyers of the Essercizi, Scarlatti would have played his sonatas on a single manual harpsichord, and the technical conceit which closes both halves of K. 29 is merely dyslexic when played on two manuals, rather than what it should be—downright sadistic when mercilessly crowded onto one keyboard. In variation 29 of the Golberg Variations, Bach’s main exploration of hand-crossing, Bach gives the player a choice: if not willing to confront the ungainly constrictions of a single keyboard seek the relative ease of two.
From 1720 on—that is, during the time when Bach published his partitas and Rameau his first two collections of harpsichord pieces—Scarlatti was living on the Iberian peninsula, and although he was preempted by his northern counterparts in bringing hand-crossing into print, he wrote the book on hand-crossing. Even though the Essercizi were not published until 1738 or 739, they were most likely composed some fifteen or more years earlier—that is, at about the same time as Bach’s first partita and Rameau’s Les trois mains.
But hand-crossing and other techniques associated with Scarlatti could—and probably did—come north long before the publication of the Essercizi. Many German musicians of the early 18th century met Scarlatti in Italy, and these travelers would have brought back reports of his astounding virtuosity at the keyboard, and perhaps, too, some of his music, as apparently Thomas Roseingrave did when returning to England after his encounter with Scarlatti in Venice around 1710. German musical travelers to Rome met Scarlatti there before his removal to Spain. There were simply too many German witnesses of Scarlatti’s virtuosity for Bach to have remained oblivious of his contemporary’s reputation and perhaps his music as well.
The most famous cosmopolitan composer of the early 18th century was the German Handel, who, according to his first biographer Mainwaring, met Scarlatti in a famous contest in Rome in 1708 or 1709. Handel’s surviving oeuvre offers only a glimpse of his activities as a keyboard player, and among his works there is only one example of hand-crossing, published in London 1727—again, at about the time of Bach’s first partita—but probably composed by 1719. Handel does not span a great distance in his use of hand-crossing, but makes things difficult for the player by placing both hands in such tight quarters and at high velocities, requiring utter control in order to prevent one hand from knocking the other off course.
By mid-century the technique had spread the length of Europe: from Sweden in the North, where the German-born Stockholm organist H. P. Johnsen composed a set of Sei sonate per il cembalo (c. 1754) which contains numerous hand-crossings and other technical idiosyncrasies strongly indebted to Scarlatti, to Spain in the south, where Scarlatti’s pupil Antonio Soler continued to explore these musical aerobics with great originality.
The initial examples of hand-crossing which appeared within a few years of each other in the 1720s and the 1730s could not have been independent, isolated events. That the earliest remnants of the practice fall within such a close period suggests that the surviving manifestations of hand-crossing in Paris, Leipzig and elsewhere were related indirectly—or even directly—through the busy paths of musical travelers and curious tourists. The experiments with this awkward idiom by northern Europeans like the Bachs could well have been a distant echo of an “ingenious jesting with art” referred to by Scarlatti in the preface to the Essercizi—evidence not only of certain unities within European keyboard practice of the time and the newfound physical joy to be had at the keyboard, but of the sometimes irresistible appeal of outlandish ideas and of a workout regime that involves the mind as much as the body.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com