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Popular since their publication, Corelli's two sets of chamber sonatas are a pinnacle of Baroque Italian instrumental music. They demonstrate a superior level of craftsmanship; they are of the highest quality, exquisitely refined and a good example of perfection in music.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Corelli was born on 17 February 1653 in Fusignano, a small provincial town, less than a month after the death of his father and in whose memory he was named. He studied the violin locally before he moved to Lugo and then to Bologna no earlier than 1666; by 1675 Corelli had relocated to Rome where he worked for a series of patrons. His first patron was Queen Christina of Sweden, to whom he dedicated his 1681 Op 1 trio sonatas. After a change in her financial circumstances, Corelli had no option but to leave Queen Christina’s service and by 1684 had entered the employment of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. Pamphili, who had inherited his wealth from his parents, was of a more worldly nature than one would expect of a cardinal. Much to the Pope’s disapproval, Pamphili was a regular patron of the theatre and held extravagant parties at his family villa in Cecchignola. Additionally, he was also well known for his investments in the arts. Corelli performed in Pamphili’s orchestra and honoured his illustrious benefactor through the dedication of his 1685 Op 2 sonatas, in which he described Pamphili as a ‘worthy…protector of the Muses.’
In 1690 Pamphili relocated to Bologna and Corelli entered into the service of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, the grand-nephew of Pope Alexander VIII. Ottoboni lived at the magnificent Palazzo della Cancelleria where he was able to indulge his love of the arts, particularly music. His court quickly became a stopping point for European musical virtuosi, and many travellers recalled their experiences at Ottoboni’s musical parties in their letters and diaries. In one such letter, dated 2 November 1695, James Drummond, Earl of Perth, recorded his visit to the Cancelleria. He said that Ottoboni ‘ has the best musique in the world, and is glad when strangers go to his house to take the pleasure of his diversions. Yesterday… he invited us to partake of the pleasure of musique and opera when we pleased; he has one who is known by the severall names of le Bollognese Archangeolo (for his name is Michael or Corelli), a fidler, but who waits on him as a gentleman here; the best player on the fidle that ever was, and the greatest master for composeing; he with one he has bred, who plays litle worse than he, and three eunuchs with the others to compleat the company, sing and play every night at the Cardinall’s, and certainly nothing can be finer.’
In addition to his role as a performer, Corelli acted as musical director at the palace; he also led the orchestra and authorised payments to the other musicians. Ottoboni’s relationship with Corelli was close; in truth, the cardinal was more a friend than an employer. In a letter, Ottoboni expressed that he had ‘such love for Signor Arcangelo that I do not distinguish the passion of my own interest from that of so worthy a subject.’ The poet and cleric Giovanni Crescimbeni likewise said that Ottoboni treated Corelli with ‘distinct honour in his presence, and loved him tenderly.’ Corelli honoured Ottoboni through the dedication of his Op 4 sonatas, which appeared in 1694.
Corelli died suddenly on 8 January 1713. In his will, dictated only three days before his death, he bequeathed to Ottoboni a painting of his choice from his substantial collection and requested that the cardinal bury him ‘wherever he most desires.’ Ottoboni expressed his profound grief in a letter written to Corelli’s family and spared no expense in the funeral arrangements. Corelli’s body was embalmed, placed in three coffins of lead, cypress, and chestnut, and interred in the Roman Pantheon in a tomb of marble.
The origin of the trio sonata is somewhat ambiguous yet, by the time of Corelli’s birth in 1653, it was a well-established and popular genre. The form itself, which is written for two or three melody instruments with continuo, originated in the early 17th century; the first published examples were by Salamone Rossi and Giovanni Paolo Cima issued respectively in 1607 and 1610. Numerous other Italian musicians wrote similar works, amongst whom we can include the Venetians Dario Castello and Biagio Marini, and the Bolognese composers Maurizio Cazzati and Giovanni Battista Vitali. Both Cazzati and Vitali exerted a particularly strong influence on the young Corelli. Cazzati’s five publications of dance movements are among the significant precursors to Corelli’s Opp 2 and 4 sonatas, while Corelli’s Op 2 No 12 Ciaccona appears to have been influenced by Vitali, who published a similar chaconne as part of his Op 7 in 1682.
Like his predecessors, Corelli wrote two different types of sonatas. The first type, which has become known as sonata da chiesa (church sonata) form, is based on a four-movement slow-fast-slow-fast pattern; such works consist of ‘abstract’ movements, including fugues. The second type, sonata da camera (chamber sonata) form, is also based on a four-movement model, this time an introductory Preludio followed by a series of dances. Nonetheless, there was some convergence between the two types, a trend that became more pronounced as subsequent sets appeared. Corelli’s opening Preludio movements are modelled on the opening slow movement of the church sonata, while Sonatas No 4 and No 5 in the Op 2 set contain other movements borrowed from church sonata form. More ‘abstract’ movements are included in the Op 4 collection; the tenth sonata in this set has only one dance movement described as such.
The tradition of combining dances into groups dates from the early 14th century and had become commonplace by the 16th century. Originally such groupings would be formed entirely of a single variety of dance. However, different types of dances eventually became paired together; for example, the Allemande and the Courante began to appear in succession. Over the course of the 17th century, these pairs were frequently expanded into suites of three or four dances. In France, this developed into the allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue pattern, which was to become Corelli’s model. The succession of dances usually observes the basic rules of variety. Slow movements are followed by fast and triple time movements by duple. Most of the dances are in binary form, although few are symmetrical and contain irregularities that prevent them from being used for actual dancing.
Although the very name ‘trio’ sonata indicates three parts, most trios are performed by four instruments, a pair of violins, a cello or bass viol, and a chordal instrument such as the harpsichord, organ, or lute. Corelli’s Opp 1 and 3 church sonatas were intended for performance by four players, but the same is not true for the Opp 2 and 4 which were originally conceived for three instruments. The title page to the first editions, which classifies them as Sonate à trè, also records that they are scored for two violins, and violone or cimbalo. Nevertheless, it became commonplace to perform these sonatas with four instruments and numerous publishers after 1700—particularly those in Holland and England—issued them in four parts in order to avoid the need for the cellist and keyboardist to share a score.
Soon after the Roman publication, Corelli’s Op 2 was reissued in both Venice and Bologna; however, less than two months after its first publication a dispute erupted in Bologna that has become known as the ‘affair of the fifths’. The cause of consternation was Corelli’s alleged transgression of a rule that forbids the use of consecutive fifths in music. Some composers adhered to this rule more rigidly than others, but Corelli was particularly conspicuous in his actions. In the Allemanda from the third sonata, the first violin and bass part descend in parallel fifths, emphasized by the series of figure 5s in the bass part.
According to Giovanni Paolo Colonna, the matter was soon being ‘ hotly disputed in piazzas and shops with rising interest…prompting many in Italy apart from virtuosi to write giving their opinions, and many letters have appeared all of which condemn the passage by Corelli.’ The dispute began when Colonna instigated an acquaintance of Corelli, Matteo Zani, to write a polite letter to Corelli requesting an explanation of the passage. Corelli, however, took the request poorly since, in his view, the fifths were separated by rests and therefore justifiable. He was initially dismissive of his critics, and thought that the understanding of the Bolognese ‘virtuosi…hardly goes past the first principles of composition and harmonic modulation.’ Corelli was not without his supporters, but many condemned the passage. Over a century after the original 1685 argument, Charles Burney recalled the quarrel and, despite his praise for Corelli, wrote ‘that the base [sic] is indefensible in the passage which has been condemned by Colonna, and was not likely to have passed uncensored, even in an age much more licentious than that of Corelli.’
The ‘affair of the fifths’ did little to damage Corelli’s reputation. John Hawkins wrote in 1776 that the ‘second opera carries with it the evidence of a genius matured by exercise.’ In Italy, the Op 2 had gone through thirteen printings by 1710, and the Op 4 ten; the first French imprints appeared around 1710. However, it was in England that Corelli’s music had the most profound impact and he ultimately became venerated as a cult figurehead.
The popularity of Corelli with the British is evident from the writings of the former London lawyer and amateur musician, Roger North. He wrote in c1710 that ‘ it [is] wonderfull to observe what a skratching of Correlli there is every where – nothing will relish but Corelli.’ North held Corelli in particularly high esteem, and went on to refer specifically to the Opp 2 and 4 when he said that the ‘ incomparable Corelli hath shewed the most that can be made of that species of musick’. The British editions of Corelli’s trios began to appear in c1701-2 with John Walsh and John Hare’s publication of the Op 4; this was followed by the Op 2 in 1703. These two sets were frequently reissued over the subsequent decades and appeared in numerous adaptations, including transcriptions for piano. In 1789, Corelli’s music was still held in high esteem; in that year Burney wrote that though Corelli’s works ‘are thrown aside as antiquated lumber by some…[they are] regarded as models of perfection by others.’
Corelli’s two sets of chamber sonatas have many points of interest, one of which has become known as the ‘Corelli clash’. A Corelli clash occurs when the late resolution of the leading note at a cadence coincides with the anticipation of the tonic note in the companion upper part; this produces a major and/or minor second clash. Such a device was not new at the time Corelli composed his sonatas, and he rarely used it outside the Op 2; nevertheless, he came to be associated with the device through the violin music of his pupils and their successors, a school of violin playing that was also named after him. Corelli clashes in the Op 2 can be found, for example, in all three movements of the second sonata, including the affecting Sarabanda and rousing Gavotta of the eighth.
Some of the movements, such as the vigorous Giga of Op 4 No 7, are written in moto perpetuo; this particular movement is also unusual in that the first violin part is written in compound 6/8 time while the lower parts are in common time. Gigues are traditionally written in compound time, yet the Giga of Op 2 No 9 has four beats in a bar. The most common dance form in Corelli’s trios is the Allamanda, which are also the most diverse stylistically. All opening allemandes are slow, while those in the second or last position are fast. Some of the movements in individual sonatas are linked thematically, such as in Op 2 No 8 in which all four movements feature a conjunct three-note motif.
The twelfth sonata in the Op 2 stands apart from the rest as it is formed from one large movement, a Ciaccona. The Ciaccona or ‘chaconne’, which is similar to a passacaglia, stems from a late 16th-century dance imported into Spain and Italy from Latin America. It features a bass ostinato over which the uppers parts perform a series of variations. Corelli’s stunning Ciaccona begins with an introductory Largo followed by an energetic Allegro, although Corelli varies the bass ostinato along with the violin parts. Other famous chaconnes were written by Henry Purcell, J S Bach and Handel.
Corelli’s trio sonatas are a pinnacle of Italian Baroque instrumental music. Even though there was nothing particularly new in these works, what distinguished them from those by Corelli’s contemporaries was the superior level of craftsmanship; they are of the highest quality, exquisitely refined and a good example of perfection in music. Unlike others, Corelli did not write an ostentatious violin line to demonstrate the dexterity of the performer. Instead, his violin parts are simple, but beautifully constructed and designed to accentuate Corelli’s archangel-like demeanour.
The polished nature of Corelli’s music imbued in it a timeless quality which has ensured that it has never endured a period of neglect. Even in the early 18th century, there were men, such as North, who did not doubt the longevity of Corelli’s music. He wrote that ‘if musick can be immortall, Corelli’s consorts will be so.’ (The word ‘consort’, in 16th- and 17th-century England, could either refer to an instrumental ensemble of between two and eight players, or to a piece of music written for such a group.)
Simon D. I. Fleming © 2013