The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 17th Century: Corelli

“In Italy it was not only the human voice that began to sing. The principle that singing is breathing tool a firm hold on all the music. It is well known how the violin began to sing. Soon there came into being style, and forms, and a special kind of music-making, in which the chief figure was the soloist.” ~ Boris Asafyev

It wasn’t until I started doing a bit of research into this Italian baroque superstar that I began to realise just how talented, influential and virtuosic Corelli really was for his epoch.

Arcangelo Corelli

I knew his work mainly through playing his violin sonata, La Folia – twenty three variations on a theme inspired by the folk music of the people. This final work (sonata number twelve in D minor), of his fifth opus encompasses all the violin techniques that had been used in the sonatas that came before it.

Here is my favourite interpretation of the work by violinist Henryk Szeryng. His technique is clean and smooth but infused with emotion and with baroque style embellishments, I just love it!

To understand the influence and relevance that Corelli still has in classical music, it helps to look back at the zeitgeist that Corelli lived and worked in, that blossoming period of creativity in music, the arts and human evolution – the Italian Renaissance – and the importance of Italian musicians in the development of the violin (and cello) in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Corelli paved the way for his equally brilliant violin and composer compatriots Antonio Vivaldi and Guiseppe Tartini (who I’ll write about in later posts).

Arcangelo Corelli: (17 February 1653 – 8 January 1713)

In the 17th Century the Italian city of Bologna was a flourishing centre for music and the arts, a place where musicians, composers and singers would meet, perform and discuss music, prompting its sobriquet “the Italian Athens” by Carlo Goldoni.

One of the societies in Bologna was the renowned Academia di Filarmonici, founded in 1666, of which Corelli was a member; he passed their admission audition at the tender age of seventeen.

Accademia_filarmonica Bologna

The youngest of five children, Corelli was raised by his mother as his father died shortly before his birth. It is thought that Corelli’s early music tuition was undertaken by a priest in the town of Faenza, When he was thirteen he moved to Bologna.

There can be no questioning Corelli’s violin pedagogy – he hailed from the Bologna Violin School, founded by Ercole Gaibara. Corelli signed his first three Trio Sonatas, “Arcangelo Corelli from Fusignano, called the Bolognese.” I don’t think it was because he liked pasta!

Portrait of Arcangelo Corelli by Jan Frans Douven.

Portrait of Arcangelo Corelli by Jan Frans Douven.

It is thought Corelli may have been an admirer of the French baroque composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully.

During the second half of the 17th century Corelli and his fellow musicians were not concerned with technical possibilities on the violin, they followed a more eloquent path, one with a desire to create deeper emotional content, to typify forms, to adhere to simplicity, clarity and lyricism, as well as bringing together chamber and sacred music in sonata and concerto forms and to explore instrumental music as a means of expression.

12 Concerti Grossi (Opus 6)

Corelli found fame through his violin sonatas and his twelve concerti grossi composed under opus 6. One of my all-time favourites is his Concerto Grosso number 8 in G minor, Fatto per la Notte di Natale (Christmas Concerto), performed here by the Accademia degli Astrusi and Federico Ferri in the Teatro Communale di Bologna:

In celebration of the 300th anniversary of the publication of the Opus 6 concertos in Amsterdam in 1714, Voices of Music recorded this delightful performance of Concerto Grosso number 4 in D Major on period instruments. It explodes with pure joy!

I just recently purchased the ABRSM violin Grade 8 music listing with some scores for the 2016 – 19 syllabus, and one of the pieces on List A is Corelli’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in G minor, Opus 5, specifically the Adagio and Vivace. I might just choose this as one of my three exam pieces. Here is the sonata in its entirety:

Corelli moved to Rome in about 1675 living in the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni until his death. He founded and headed the Rome Violin School, gave violin lessons as well as continuing to compose and play in chapels himself. Two of his students were Francesco Geminiani and Pietro Locatelli, who became great violinists and composers in their own right.

Concerto Grosso No. 1 in D Major, Opus 6 played by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under the baton of Nicholas McGegan:

Corelli’s Opus 6 concertos fall into two broad structural categories. The first stems from the Italian tradition of the sonata da chiesa, or “church” sonata, consisting of a series of movements in alternating tempi (slow and fast), often employing rich contrapuntal textures. In contrast, the sonata da camera, or “chamber” sonata, is assembled as a suite, featuring dances such as the allemande, corrente, sarabanda, gavotta, and giga in addition to instrumental preludes and intervening movements.

Transcriptions based on La Folia

The expressive theme of Corelli’s Folia (already an existing theme that he modified), was to be used later by composers Alexander Alabiev in his ballet The Magic Drum, Franz Liszt in his Spanish Rhapsody and Sergei Rachmaninoff in his Variations on a theme of Corelli.

The inimitable Cziffra:

A Russian affair with Ashkenazy:

Corelli the composer is inseparable from Corelli the performer. According to Corelli’s pupils and other contemporaries, his style of execution was distinguished by exceptional expressiveness and dignity. He could be lyrical, thoughtful and absorbed and at the same time animated, emotional, headlong.

By limiting the compass of the violin to three positions (2.5 octaves), roughly the equivalent of the human voice, and by limiting his bowing technique to the detache and legato strokes, Corelli strove to obtain a greater effect from the expressive means he used so sparingly. His use of polyphonic devices (two voices) and arpeggio bowing and bariole were rather daring for his time.  ~ Dr. Lev Ginsburg

A period instrumental arrangement of la Folia by baroque musician Jordi Savall and his ensemble:

Corelli’s music was published in six opera, each opus containing 12 compositions: Opus 1 (1681), 2 (1685), 3 (1689), and 4 (1694) are trio sonatas; Opus 5 (1700), solo sonatas for violin and continuo; and Opus 6 (1714), concerti grossi for string orchestra.

La Follia by Corelli

Corelli wrote forty-eight trio sonatas made up into four volumes, (Op. 1-4, the last of which appeared in 1694), twelve sonatas for violin and bass (Op.5 published in 1700) and twelve concerti grossi Op. 6 (which were published posthumously).

His legacy extended to the 18th century Italian violin school as well as providing inspiration to the baroque greats, George Frederick Händel and Johann Sebastian Bach. His music continues to influence modern composers, such as 20th century composer Michael Tippett, who wrote Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli:

Corelli was laid to rest in the Pantheon in Rome, (as is the High Renaissance painter Raphael), having collected around 150 fine works of art by the likes of Trevisani, Onofri and Dughet, as well as many fine violins by the time of his death.

Interior of the Pantheon by Giovanni Paolo Panini.

Interior of the Pantheon by Giovanni Paolo Panini.

The Purcell Quartet playing Sonata da Camera, Op. 4 No. 9 in B-Flat Major:

12 Violin Sonatas Opus 5, brought to vivid life by Arthur Grumiaux:

“If you take a violin, you can make it sound 50 different ways. Not just pizzicato and played by the bow, but ponticello, and harmonics, and tremolos. If you take an oboe and play it, there’s about one way you can make it sound: like an oboe.” ~ John Corigliano

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