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Corelli the Godfather
with Richard Egarr
March 8-11, 2018

Bruce Lamott

Arcangelo Corelli

There are hardly four degrees of separation between Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) and virtually every composer of the “High” Baroque of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and yet we know much more about his influences than we do of his life. Lacunas in his life story have been filled in with imaginative anecdotes by music historians ever since his death in 1713. Although Corelli’s reputation and musical influence spread as far as the imperial court of China, his known works are very few: four publications of trio sonatas and one each of solo sonatas and concerti grossi.

In a musical culture preoccupied with opera, Corelli became the paragon–if not the godfather– of the Italianate style in instrumental music. François Couperin placed him in Parnassus with the avatar of the French style, Jean-Baptiste Lully,  composing a pair of harpsichord pieces entitled Le Parnasse, ou L’apothéose de Corelli and L’apothéose de Lully. And Corelli’s contemporaries so esteemed him that he was entombed in Rome’s Pantheon–now the church of Sancta Maria ad Martyres, where he now rests with the likes of Raphael and King Victor Emmanuel II.

Even looking back from the vantage point of the Classical style period, Dr. Charles Burney marveled at his instrumental prowess, saying he “contributed longer to charm the lovers of Music by the mere powers of bow, without the assistance of the human voice, than those of any composer that has yet existed. John Hawkins called him “the author of new and original harmonies, and the father of a style no less noble and grand, than elegant and pathetic.”

Corelli’s harmonies were the most appreciated quality appreciated by his contemporaries and posterity alike. On the one hand, it is the clarity and regularity of progression, the musical escalator known as the “circle of fifths,” in which a segment of melody is repeated in keys either five notes higher or four notes lower than the original statement (called a “sequence”). On the other hand, it is the audacious harmonic surprises of the sustained slow movements that conveyed the melancholy of what Hawkins calls “pathetic.” The passing excursions from major to minor and back raised and lowered the spirits of the listeners with suspensions (sustained notes which at first create harmonic instability–dissonance– against changes of harmony) that release the momentary tension they create by resolving, much to the relief of the listener.

Another widely imitated aspect of Corelli’s work was his allocation of forces in the concerti grossi of op. 6. The etymology of the term concerto (as well as its attendant concertato style) is debatable, somewhere between the concept of separate forces “in dispute” or “playing together.” Fundamental to the genre is the contrast between a group of soloists (the concertino) and the full orchestral complement (the ripieno or concerto grosso). As Corelli biographer Peter Allsop puts it, “The telling distinction in Corelli’s title is not ‘concerto’ but ‘grosso’, for it is this which informs us that the works were primarily orchestral.”

In the Corelli works on this program, the concertino consists of two violins and cello, with the harpsichord providing the harmonies over the bassline (basso continuo). This was also the same instrumentation for four of his five publications, opera (pl. of opus)1, 2, 3, and 4, each of which contained twelve trio sonatas. There is less differentiation between the music given to the concertino and that of the ripieno than will be found in later concertos such as Handel’s. In the twelve concerti grossi that make up Corelli’s op. 6, the concertino trio also plays in unison with the ripieno, making those concerti convertible to trio sonatas simply by leaving out the ripieno players and making a few modifications for the viola part. The function of the ripieno, therefore, is more to add a fourth dimension of sonority to the solo trio than to contrast with it. This quality is captured by Corelli’s contemporary Georg Muffat: “For by exactly observing this opposition or rivalry of the slow and the fast, the loud and the soft, the fullness of the concerto [grosso] and the delicacy of the concertino, the ear is ravished by a singular astonishment, as is the eye by the contrast of light and shade.”

Corelli and Muffat

Georg Muffat

Georg Muffat was a cross-pollinator of the flashy Italian concerto style with the sophisticated court dances of the French, resulting in the hybrid German style of Handel and J.S. Bach. Having first studied with Lully and others in France, he then went on to posts in Strasbourg, Bavaria, and the very Italo-centric cities of Vienna, , Prague, Salzburg, and Passau. In 1678 he became organist and chamber musician to the Archbishop of Salzburg, who granted him leave to study in Rome, where he encountered Corelli’s concerti grossi and composed works for performance in Corelli’s home. This created an opportunity for stylistic exchange between the two composers. Upon returning to Salzburg, Muffat published Armonico tributo (1682), five concerti grossi (he called them “sonatas,”) clearly the product of his Italian sojourn.

Muffat’s Sonata V demonstrates his assimilation of French and Italian style. It opens with a stately Allemanda in which the characteristically French dotted rhythms are interrupted by interjections of Italianate solos. The “light and shade” described by Muffat is heard in the Adagio, full of Corelli’s slow-moving harmonies and ending with a long chain of suspensions.

The Fugue which follows contrasts the gravity of strict contrapuntal writing with whimsical flights by the solo violins. The second Adagio introduces another trait of Corelli: the continuously moving bass under a chain of languid suspensions. The concluding Passacaglia reflects the French penchant for ending works with an elaborate set of variations over a repeating bass line. The congenial melody which alternates with the variations (en rondeau) features a fluid triplet phrase repeated in echo. What follows is a pageant of passions: a melancholy meltdown, an episode of jerky figures (saccadé), a perpetuum mobile, a lively gigue, and a final juxtaposition of stodgy French dotted rhythms with florid Italian passagework.

Corelli and Handel

George Frideric Handel

The popularity of Corelli in England was in part due to gentlemen amateurs on the Grand Tour taking a lesson or two, a situation described by Roger North (spelling sic):

Add to this, that most of the young Nobility and Gentry that have travelled into Itally affected to learne of Corelli, and brought home with them such favour for the Itallian musick, as hath given it possession of our Pernassus. And the best utensill of Apollo, the violin, is so universally courted… that some say England hath dispeopled Itally of viollins.

Handel, no gentleman amateur, had considerable opportunity to meet and hear Corelli in Rome when he lived, played, and composed in Italy from 1706 to 1710. According to his biographer Mainwaring, Handel, in his twenties, had a great admirer in the 22-year-old Cardinal Ottoboni, “a person of refined taste and princely magnificence.” Corelli was the Cardinal’s first violinist, sharing an apartment in the palace with his student, second violinist,  and lifelong companion, Mateo Forni. Handel published two sets of concerti grossi (op. 3 in 1734 and op. 6 in 1739) which still reflect his admiration of Corelli over twenty years later.

Like Corelli, Handel does not adhere to the three movement fast-slow-fast configuration of his contemporaries, nor does he bring the concertino to the fore with flashy virtuosity. The melancholy Larghetto Affetuoso which opens Concerto No. 4 is replete with sigh figures over a descending throbbing bass. The Largo e Piano features hushed suspensions à la Corelli over a gently walking bass, and the Allegro which follows is enlivened by snappy corta (short-short-long) figures. The syncopated bass line has rests where the downbeat should be. The two violin soloists overlap with interruptions like panelists on CNN.

There is more interplay of parts in Concerto No. 1, which again begins with a moderate introduction, not a burst of violinistic display. The breezy Allegro is followed by a plaintive Adagio in E minor, in which the soloists leap-frog, each player rising higher than the preceding one. This is used to almost comic effect in the fugal Allegro, when the solo violins outdo one another in a sequence which rises for a whole octave.

Handel’s organ concertos were “intermission features” between the acts of his oratorios featuring the composer as soloist. Unlike the magnificent organs of North Germany that he played in his youth, English organs were rather modest instruments, lacking a chromatic pedalboard and with a more limited variety of stops. The D minor Concerto, sometimes called No. 15, may have first been played at the premiere of The Occasional Oratorio on February 14, 1746. It is unusually incomplete, consisting of two movements for the organist to improvise an Adagio  movement and fugue ad libitum. In these performances, Richard Egarr will improvise these movements, as Handel did, in real time.  If the final movement sounds familiar, it’s because Handel borrowed the melody from Part I of Telemann’s Tafelmusik, which opened our current season.