Enhanced Program Notes – Glories of the Italian Baroque

Arcangelo Corelli by Hugh Howard (1697)

Portrait of Francesco Geminiani
(c) Royal College of Music; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Engraving of Telemann by Georg Lichtensteger

Engraving of Vivaldi by François Morellon de La Cave, from Michel-Charles Le Cène’s edition of Vivaldi’s Op. 8, 1725

Beyond Borders

As Arcangelo Corelli’s reputation spread throughout Europe his music was imitated directly or used as source material by his contemporaries and successors. His legacy was perpetuated long after his death in 1713; there were some 17 editions of his music published between 1714 and 1790, with further editions issued in the 19th century.

As shown by their (rather long) title—Concerti grossi con duoi Violini, e Violoncello di Concertino obligati, e duoi altri Violini, Viola e Basso di Concerto Grosso ad arbitrio, che si potranno radoppiare—Corelli’s opus 6 concertos required two violins and a cello, but left optional the addition of other strings in a larger ensemble. Corelli also wrote that the number of instruments in the larger ensemble could be doubled so that there would be more to a part.

In the opening of his Concerto in F major, op. 6, no. 2, Corelli gradually builds excitement from the harmonically stagnant Vivace through the Allegro, in which chords are changing at a faster rate and figures are passed back and forth.

The latent energy is released in the Adagio; however, this only a brief respite as Corelli begins the whole process anew. With the arrival of the Largo andante, the soloists reach the highest pitches of the concerto; from here Corelli allows the tension to unwind a little further.

Corelli then returns to the patterns with which he began the concerto, ushering in a new series of movements. There is a feeling of urgency as Corelli carefully controls the interaction between soloists and ensemble, between the soloists themselves, in addition to changing the tempo of each movement.

As a young musician, the organist and composer Georg Muffat, who remarked he had heard Corelli’s concertos in Rome “performed with the utmost accuracy,” traveled to Paris in order to learn the French style of composing. Whether or not he studied with Jean Baptiste Lully in Paris in the 1660s has been debated; however, scholars believe that he did know and perhaps even influenced Corelli while visiting Italy twenty years later. His first two collections of instrumental music reflect his association with Corelli in their texture (two violins plus a bass instrument playing in alternation with a larger ensemble). In the preface to his second collection, Muffat specifies that these works have multiple uses at court, whether as entertainment for nobility and their guests or “at state banquets, serenades, and assemblies of musical amateurs and virtuosi.” He is equally adamant that these works are not appropriate for use in church. The movements of the Concerto grosso No. 12 in G major, Propitia Sydera (Favorable Stars) are based on the composer’s earlier compositions. The subtitle is practical and not necessarily descriptive: Muffat provided each concerto in this set with a distinctive, if cryptic, title in order to suggest the occasion for which the work could be played.

The violin virtuoso Francesco Geminiani also commented on the “uncommon accuracy” of performances lead by Corelli, who not only demanded rehearsals before any public performance but also required unison bowings, in which all players bow in the same direction at the same time. Geminiani’s father, who was also a violinist, probably introduced his son to the instrument; Geminiani later studied with Corelli and possibly Alessandro Scarlatti in Rome.

In 1714, Geminiani moved to England, where his reputation as a student of Corelli was soon superseded by the merits of his own compositions. A member of several musical societies, Geminiani’s importance to cultural life in London was acknowledged when the Philo-Musicae et Architecturae Societas organized the publication of his concertos based on Corelli’s Sonatas for Violin, op. 5.

Dedicated to the king and subscribed to by nobility, the first six concertos published in 1726 were a commercial success. More importantly, they are an homage from a student to his teacher. In the Concerto grosso in G minor, after Corelli op. 5, no. 5, Geminiani deftly interprets Corelli’s original sonata for solo violin, highlighting his teacher’s own compositional subtleties. In the first movement, Adagio, Geminiani divides the original solo violin line between first and second violins, exposing the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in Corelli’s melody.

But not all the movements are elaborations. In the final movement, Allegro, Geminiani is content to leave his model virtually untouched.

Georg Philipp Telemann, a contemporary of Bach and Handel, was one of the most famous musicians and composers of his day. He held many prominent positions throughout Germany, including Leipzig, Frankfurt, and Hamburg. He was a prolific composer, equally adept in instrumental and vocal writing, comfortable with sacred and secular styles. While in Hamburg, he organized the Concert Spirituel, public concert programs that included a wide range of musical styles and compositions. Like so many other composers in the early 18th century, Telemann acknowledged Corelli’s influence with his six Sonates corellisantes of 1735.

Telemann’s Concerto for Three Violins, TWV 53:F1, comes from his Musique de table. This concerto is from the second of three sets of instrumental works, each set containing some of the most popular genre of the day (overture and suite, quartet, concerto, trio sonata, and solo sonata). Although in a major key, Telemann explores the dramatic sounds of minor keys in much of the first movement, so that the return to major feels like a breath of fresh air.

The second movement is built on a repeated melody first heard in the bass.

Over this the violins weave intricate patterns until the bass melody winds it way to the solo part. The opening of the final movement feels light-hearted but is actually constructed as a fugue, a strict technique of melodic imitation.

Telemann tried to play every instrument for which he composed in order to understand how the instrument felt and spoke. He wrote his Viola Concerto in G major, TWV 51:G9, between 1716 and 1721, while working in Frankfurt. Telemann’s penchant for writing lyrical melodies with clearly defined phrases can be heard in the first movement of the concerto, which recalls a stately dance.

In the second movement, Allegro, the soloist interrupts the ritornello by playing part of the ensemble’s opening. With its next entrance, the solo part expands and elaborates on that same idea. The third movement, Andante, presents a contrasting minor key. The final movement, Presto, contains two halves, each of which repeats, suggesting a dance. The second half of the movement takes a wonderful turn to minor (recalling the third movement) before returning to the opening idea.

When Johann Georg Pisendel, a virtuoso violinist with the Dresden court, came to Venice in the early 18th century, he met Antonio Vivaldi and the two soon became close friends. One account of Vivaldi’s regard for the virtuoso explains that while out walking together Vivaldi suddenly guided Pisendel to his house because he noticed they were being followed. Vivaldi asked his friend if he had done anything to arouse the suspicion of the city authorities. When Pisendel said no, Vivaldi investigated further and discovered that Pisendel happened to look similar to someone the authorities were investigating.

During his visit, Pisendel collected scores to take back to Dresden. From Vivaldi, he received the autograph manuscripts and subsequent dedications for five sonatas and six concertos, including the Concerto in D minor, op. 8, no. 7. Vivaldi titled his opus 8 set Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The intersection of harmony and invention), suggesting that each work was grounded structurally, which, in turn became the foundation for his compositional imagination. Vivaldi’s concerto structure is codified in opus 8: three movements in a fast-slow-fast pattern with each movement highlighting the soloist-ensemble interaction. From the syncopation in the first movement

to the arpeggios and double stops (playing more than one note at the same time) in the third movement of op. 8, no 7, we hear the intersection of structure and imagination that characterizes this collection.

The Violin Concerto in E-flat major, op. 8, no. 5 is subtitled La tempesta di mare (The Storm at Sea), a title shared with a Vivaldi concerto for flute. The soloist’s passages in the first movement soar and dive

while the exchanges between soloist and ensemble in the second movement sound operatic.

The leaping octaves of the ritornello in the third movement are exciting and leave room for elaboration by the soloist, including a return to the plummeting lines reminiscent of the first movement.

Both Corelli and Vivaldi codified the concerto as compositions featuring the alternation of larger and smaller musical forces. Using the title concerto grosso indicated that there was more than one player needed for the solo sections. It was also a way to differentiate members of the larger ensemble (grosso) from that of the smaller (concertino). The number and configuration of movements within a concerto grosso was variable, giving the genre a wonderful sense of surprise and contrast. Those same qualities are also heard in a different context in solo concertos, with some of the most dramatic moments resulting from the interplay of the soloist juxtaposed with the full ensemble. Both exciting to play and to hear, it is no wonder the concerto has never gone out of fashion.

Teresa M. Neff | 2019