Peloton, Apple Fitness+, Yoga with Adriene: home workouts have flourished in the pandemic. Forsaking the latest gadgets and gurus, I’ve been sticking to the Scarlatti exercise program at the living room piano—a regimen three-centuries old and as effective today as it was when it put baroque bodies to the test.
Hand-crossing was the domestic keyboard workout of choice for the eighteenth-century virtuoso and amateur. The most flamboyant purveyor of the technique was Domenico Scarlatti, born in 1685, the same year as Bach and Handel. An Italian who spent most of his career on the Iberian Peninsula, Scarlatti outlived his celebrated contemporaries. Maybe his keyboard calisthenics gave him the edge in the longevity race.
The apparatus of choice the harpsichord, the piano still the new kid on the keyboard block. Either apparatus—or the organ—worked for Scarlatti’s self-improvement schemes. His collection of thirty sonatas (opening the catalog of his works as K. 1-30) were published as the Esserzici (exercises) in London in late 1738 or early 1739. For those who had the money to buy this sumptuous volume, here was a hand-crossing workout regime graduated in difficulty from the almost relaxed to the downright sadistic.
Scarlatti’s keyboard exercises are not the treadmill drudgery of nineteenth-century piano pedagogues Hanon and Czerny. Instead, Scarlatti’s workouts are full of irreverent humor, bizarre ideas, and exotic touches. His sonatas require not only dexterity but a level of physical fitness literally out of reach of some, perhaps even the composer himself in his later years. One devotee claimed that Scarlatti eventually grew “too fat to cross his hands as he used to do.” But the portrait of Scarlatti painted around the time of the publication of the Essercizi when he was in his fifties shows him trim enough to get through his own workout regimen.
So capricious and obsessively “un-idiomatic” were the uses to which Scarlatti put these techniques that in some cases he introduced them as arbitrary feats of virtuosity rather than for musical considerations. For the fleet 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 tossed off without such contortions. In this way the easy is made difficult, the exertions remaining imperceptible—it is hoped—to any listener unable to see the player.
My CD The Great Contest summons these three hotshots born in 1685 to the King of Instruments. Unseen up in the organ loft I do my best to answer Scarlatti’s challenge by tying my arms, hands, and fingers in knots, yet still squeeze and pitch them over and under each other according to the smirking composer’s fabulously absurd workout directions. You’ll have to take my word that, invisible on record, I didn’t cheat and take the easy way out.
Hand-crossing spread north at least a two decades before the publication of the Essercizi. Many touring musicians met Scarlatti in Italy before his removal to Portugal in 1719. 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.
The German Handel faced off against Scarlatti in a famous contest at the harpsichord and organ in Rome in 1708 or 1709. Handel’s published works offer only a glimpse of his activities as a keyboard virtuoso, and provide but a single example of hand-crossing. These tricks don’t span a great distance, but Handel does make things difficult for the player by placing the hands in tight quarters at high velocity.
From the middle of the 1720s the Bach family also set about exploring the potential of this crowd-pleasing technique. J. S. Bach finished off his first published keyboard piece—the Partita in B-flat (BWV 825) of 1726—with a joyous and gimmicky gigue dedicated to hand-crossing.
Bach’s sons and students were soon practicing and composing pieces that reveled in kindred hijinks.
In 1728 Jean-Philippe Rameau, the towering figure of eighteenth-century French music, published his Nouvelles pièces de clavecin (New Harpsichord Pieces), which include a celebrated instance of hand-crossing—Les trois mains (The Three Hands). The title conjures physical feats (or deformities) that pushed far beyond the everyday. The piece begins with the hands on top of each other and soon breaks into a spate of vaulting, though the approach is more poised than the unbuttoned exuberance of Scarlatti’s efforts.
Four years earlier in 1724 Rameau had introduced some lively hand-crossing into Les Cyclopes, where the left ricochets back-and-forth over the right, perhaps evoking the flailings of the blinded Polyphemus trying to fell the fleeing Odysseus. The difference is that the harpsichordist must hit the mark each time. Rameau beat J. S. Bach into print by two years with his take on the newest keyboard agility drills.
Even though the Essercizi were not published until 1738 or 1739, they were most likely composed fifteen or more years earlier—that is before the composition of Bach’s first partita or Rameau’s three-handed crowd-pleaser.
By mid-century these keyboard calisthenics had spread the length of Europe, all the way to Sweden, where the German-born organist in Stockholm H. P. Johnsen produced a set of six sonatas which contains numerous hand-crossings and other technical idiosyncrasies strongly indebted to Scarlatti. Versions of the workout routine continued to be cultivated in Spain, too, where Scarlatti’s pupil Antonio Soler continued to explore these musical aerobics with great, calorie-burning originality.
The initial examples of hand-crossing that appeared within a few years of each other in the 1720s and the 1730s could not have been independent, isolated events. The experiments with this awkward idiom by northern Europeans like the Bachs took inspiration from the same “ingenious jesting with art” flaunted by Scarlatti in the preface to his Essercizi. The keyboard workouts logged from Leipzig to London to Madrid to New York, and from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, prove the irresistible appeal of outlandish musical challenges for mind and body.