Arcangelo Corelli (Fusignano, February 17, 1653 – Rome, January 8, 1713) was an Italian teacher, conductor, violinist and composer.
Little is known about his life. He received training in Bologna and Rome, and in this city he developed most of his career, being sponsored by great aristocratic and ecclesiastic patrons. Although his entire production is summarized in only six published collections – five of them of sonatas for trio or solo and one of concertos grossos, with twelve pieces each – their reduced number and the few genres he dedicated himself to are in radical inverse proportion to the vast fame they brought him, crystallizing models of wide influence throughout Europe. Of the six collections, the sixth and last, of the concertos grossos, is the one that has won the longest lasting critical favor, although the fifth is also highly appreciated.
His writing was admired for its balance, refinement, sumptuous and original harmonies, rich textures, majestic effects of the ensembles, and his clear and melodious polyphony, qualities considered a perfect expression of classical ideals, even though he lived in the baroque atmosphere and employed resources more typical of this school, such as the exploration of dynamic and affective contrasts, but always tempered by a great sense of moderation. He was the first to fully apply, with expressive and structuring purpose, the new tonal system that had just been consolidated after at least two hundred years of preliminary tests. He was regularly hired as conductor or solo violinist for performances of operas, oratorios and other works, besides actively participating in the evolution of the standard orchestra. As a virtuoso violinist, he was considered one of the greatest of his generation, if not the greatest of all. He contributed to place the violin among the most prestigious solo instruments and to the development of modern techniques, besides making many disciples.
He was the dominant personality in Roman musical life until his last years and was highly esteemed internationally. He was disputed by the courts and admitted to the most prestigious artistic and intellectual society of his time, the Academy of Arcadia, being called “the new Orpheus,” “the prince of musicians” and other similar adjectives, generating great folklore. His work has been the subject of a voluminous critical bibliography, the discography is growing unceasingly, and his sonatas are still widely used in music academies as didactic material. His position in the history of Western music is now firmly established as one of the leading masters of the transition from the 17th to the 18th century, and as one of the first and greatest classicists.
Origins and early years
Arcangelo Corelli was born on February 17, 1653 in the village of Fusignano, then part of the Papal States, as the fifth child of Arcangelo Corelli and Santa Raffini. His father died a little over a month before his birth. Old biographies have constructed for his family illustrious genealogies going back to the Roman Coriolano or the powerful Venetian patrician Correr, but they lack foundation. Nevertheless, they were documented in Fusignano from 1506, where they joined the rural patriciate, coming to acquire wealth and considerable landholdings. Their family was turbulent and proud, and for a long time disputed with the Calcagnini family to be invested with the fief of Fusignano, which the other held, without achieving it.
Tradition has it that his musical vocation was revealed very early on, when he heard a violinist priest, but the idea of his pursuing music as a profession was not in the family”s plans. The Corelli family had already produced several jurists, mathematicians, and even poets, but no musicians. This art was cultivated by the elites of his time more as a pastime and a dilettante pleasure and signaled a refined education and taste, but the professionals belonged to the lower classes and did not enjoy great social prestige. Thus, his widowed mother allowed him to receive the rudiments of art, with teachers whose names history has not recorded, as long as he did not abandon the formal education expected of a patrician, which he began to receive in Lugo and then in Faenza.
At the age of thirteen he was in Bologna, where his vocation was defined and he decided to dedicate himself entirely to music. It is not known what he had learned in Lugo and Faenza, but according to the testimony of the learned Father Martini, until this time his knowledge of music was mediocre. In Bologna he came into contact with famous teachers, among them Giovanni Benvenuti and Leonardo Brugnoli, and perhaps also Giovanni Battista Bassani, and his preference for the violin began to manifest itself. His progress in his studies of the instrument was so rapid that only four years later, in 1670, he was admitted to the prestigious Philharmonic Academy, one of the most selective in Italy, although his patrician birth may have had some influence on the process. It is unknown to what extent his choice of teachers was intentional or merely the product of circumstances, but judging from a remark he left in 1679, they seemed to him the best masters available in the city, there being no others who could offer more refined instruction, even if limited to certain aspects of the art. In any case, they were in line with a new current which placed greater emphasis on brilliance in execution, to the detriment of the traditions of the old counterpoint school, in which instruments were given more or less similar weight in ensembles. In fact, in his maturity Corelli would be one of the great agents of the rapid rise of the violin as a solo instrument and one fit to display the virtuosity of the performers. The style he consolidated in this first phase shows special influence of Brugnoli, whose playing was described by Martini as original and wonderful, being excellent also in improvisation.
Only a sonata for trumpet, two violins and double bass, and a sonata for violin and bass, which were only published years later, can be attributed with some certainty to the Bolognese period. Aware that his training was precarious in counterpoint and composition, he decided to seek further training in Rome, where he placed himself under the guidance of Matteo Simonelli, but the date of his move is uncertain. He may have arrived there as early as 1671, but it is not documented until 1675. Nothing is known of what he did in the interim. A trip to Paris, where he would have come into contact with the celebrated Lully and aroused his envy today is taken as part of the folklore that formed around him after he gained fame. Older biographies also mention trips to Munich, Heidelberg, Ansbach, Düsseldorf, and Hannover, and likewise have been dismissed as unlikely, but he may have spent some brief time in his native Fusignano.
Rome: maturity and consecration
Simonelli was a classicist and an excellent counterpoint player, and it had an important influence on his maturation as a composer and on the development of the compositional style that would make him famous, which moved away from the simple virtuosity he had inherited from Bologna to a remarkable balance between instrumental brilliance and a more equitable distribution of roles among the voices in the orchestra, which would reveal itself masterfully in his twelve concerto grossos, his masterpiece.
His first secure record in Rome, March 31, 1675, shows him among the violinists in the performance of a group of oratorios in the Church of Saint John of the Florentines, including the work San Giovanni Battista by Alessandro Stradella. On August 25 he was on the payment list for the execution of works at the Feast of St. Louis held in the Church of St. Louis of the French, in the presence of the nobility and the diplomatic corps. Between 1676 and 1678 he is documented as second violin in the same Church. On January 6, 1678 he was first violin and conductor of the orchestra that performed Bernardo Pasquini”s opera Dov”è amore è pietà at the opening of the Capranica Theater. This performance signified his consecration in the Roman musical world. He became first violin of the orchestra of San Luigi and in 1679 entered the service of the former Queen Cristina of Sweden, who had settled in Rome and held a brilliant court there.
In 1680 he completed and publicly presented his first organized collection of works, printed in 1681: Sonate à tre, doi Violini, e Violone, o Arcileuto, col Basso per l”Organo (two violins and cello or archialaude, with organ as bass), which he dedicated to Cristina. In the authorship, he made reverence for his early studies, signing as Arcangelo Corelli of Fusignano the Bolognese. However, this nickname was soon abandoned. In this collection his style was already showing signs of maturity. The following years would see the appearance of a relatively small but regular series of works where he was polished to perfection. In 1685 came his Opera Seconda, composed of twelve chamber sonatas, in 1689 the collection of twelve church sonatas, in 1694 another series of twelve chamber sonatas, in 1700 his twelve sonatas for violin and bass, culminating in 1714 with his Opera Sesta, the series of twelve thick concertos, already published posthumously.
Throughout this period his prestige only grew and grew, becoming internationally known as a conductor, composer, and violin virtuoso, having his works reprinted and admired in many cities in Europe. From August 1682 until 1709 he was always at the head of the orchestra of São Luís. In 1684 he left the court of Cristina, who was not regular in the payment of his salary, and went into the service of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, who in 1687 made him his music master and would be a friend and great patron. In the same year he was listed among the members of the prestigious Congregazione dei Virtuosi di Santa Cecilia al Pantheon. At this time he began to take pupils, among them Matteo Fornari, who would also be a faithful secretary and assistant to him for the rest of his life. In 1687 he organized a great concert in honor of King James II of England on the occasion of the embassy he had sent to Pope Innocent XI, conducting an orchestra of 150 musicians. Thanks to the intervention of Pamphili, who in 1690 was transferred to Bologna, Corelli became director of music at the court of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, nephew of Pope Alexander VIII. He was a personage of great influence in the Church and engaged in intense patronage, another eminence to whom he owed friendship and great benefits, and in whose palace he came to live. His friendship would extend to Corelli”s family, welcoming his brothers Ippolito, Domenico and Giacinto into his court. There, the composer would have total freedom of action, without the pressures that other musicians suffered from their powerful patrons.
Apart from the opulence of these courts, his personal life was modest and discreet, and he only had the luxury of acquiring a collection of paintings. His Roman period was a sequence of artistic and personal successes, being disputed by other courts and considered the most distinguished violinist of his time, and also many attributed to him the title of best composer. Crowning his career, in 1706 he was admitted to the Academy of Arcadia, the highest glory for an artist, where he adopted the symbolic name Arcomelo Erimanteo. Pamphili had returned from Bologna in 1704 or 1705, requesting the musician for various performances, and by this time he also began conducting the orchestra of the Academy of Design Arts.
However, he was not without a few criticisms and embarrassments. His Opera Seconda received criticism from the Bolognese Matteo Zanni for alleged errors in composition. The author wrote an indignant defense that gave rise to an epistolary polemic that lasted for months. It became famous for an episode that occurred during a trip to Naples, where he would have been summoned by the king, who wished to hear him. The episode may be fanciful and its date is uncertain. In any case, tradition says that the visit was filled with misfortunes. First, the performance of his works by the local orchestra did not please him. Then, when he performed an adagio from a sonata before the court, the ruler reportedly found it tedious and left in the middle of the performance, to the musician”s mortification. Finally, during a recitative of an opera by Alessandro Scarlatti, where he acted as violin soloist, he made several mistakes. Also according to a tradition that may be spurious, during a recitation of a work by Händel, during the latter”s stay in Rome, his performance did not please the author, who would have snatched the violin from his hands and shown him how it should be interpreted.
In 1708, news circulated that he had died, causing grief in several European courts. It was false news, but in the same year, a letter he wrote to the elector of the Palatinate to clarify that he was still alive, seems to say that his health was no longer good. In it he also stated that he was already engaged in writing his last collection of works, the concertos grossos, which he would not see published. In 1710 he stopped appearing in public, and was replaced by his disciple Fornari as director of the orchestra of San Luigi. Until 1712 he resided in the Chancellery Palace, and at the end of this year, perhaps foreshadowing his end, he moved to the Palazzetto Ermini, where his brother Giacinto and his son lived.
On January 5, 1713, he wrote his will, which included a relatively small estate, consisting of his violins and sheet music, and a pension. He died on the night of January 8, with no known cause of death. He was not sixty years old.
His death caused a large-scale commotion, which gives a measure of the esteem he had earned. Cardinal Ottoboni wrote a letter of condolence to the family in which he placed himself as their perpetual protector. He had him buried in the Pantheon, a privilege never granted to a musician, and got the elector of the Palatinate to confer on the family of the deceased the title of Marquises of Ladenburg. His obituaries were unanimous in recognizing his greatness, and for many years the anniversary of his death was solemnly celebrated in the Pantheon. His musical legacy influenced an entire generation of composers, among them geniuses such as Georg Friedrich Händel, Johann Sebastian Bach, and François Couperin, as well as many others of lesser renown.
Corelli never married and is not known to have had any amorous relationship other than with his art. It has been speculated that he may have been the lover of his disciple Fornari, with whom he lived in the palaces of his patrons, but there is no sure basis for stating this. His personality was generally described as shy, regimented, austere, servile, and quiet, an image of serenity and unvarying sweetness, but when he was at his work he was energetic, demanding, and decisive. Händel, who kept in touch with him in Rome, left a comment: “His two dominant characteristics were his admiration for paintings, which it is said he always received as a gift, and an extreme thrift. His closet was not large. He usually dressed in black, and used to wear a dark cloak; he always went on foot, and protested vigorously if anyone wanted to force him to take a carriage. A description of the time says that when he was soloist on the violin his figure would transmute, squirm, his eyes would tint red and turn in their sockets as if in agony, but this may also be a folkloric elaboration.
Corelli flourished at the height of the Baroque period, a cultural current that was characterized by flowery and luxuriant artistic expression, loaded with drama and sharp contrasts. His music developed from Renaissance polyphony, but in this period he began a transition to greater independence among the voices. New sociocultural and religious factors, as well as a strong influence from theater and rhetoric, determined the elaboration of a renewed musical idiom that could better express the spirit of the time, and with this a wide range of new harmonic, vocal, and instrumental techniques were developed. It is the period when the tonal system is definitively consolidated, abandoning the old modal system, having its most typical expression in the writing style known as continuous bass or figured bass, where the bass line and the upper line are written in full, leaving to the interpreter”s discretion the harmonic filling assigned to the other parts, indicated by the author briefly by means of agreed upon ciphers. The great importance given to the upper voice, which began to conduct a main melody, relegating the other parts to a subordinate role, led to the emergence of the virtuoso soloist.
Tempered tunings were also introduced, melody sought popular sources, and dissonance began to be used as an expressive resource. Polyphony remained omnipresent at least to some extent in Baroque music, especially in sacred music, generally more conservative, but the complexity that characterized it in previous centuries, which could often leave the sung texts incomprehensible, was abandoned in favor of much clearer and simplified writing, often, again, under the primacy of the upper voice. Furthermore, in the field of symbolism and language, of great importance was the development of the doctrine of affections, where specific and standardized figures, melodies, tones and technical resources came to constitute a musical lexicon in general use, a doctrine that had its main expression in opera, the most popular and influential genre of the period, exerting decisive influence also on the directions of instrumental music, a language that Corelli contributed significantly to articulate and fix. In terms of form, the Baroque consolidated the suite and sonata forms with several movements, which gave rise to the church sonata, the chamber sonata, the three-part sonata (trio-sonata), the concerto grosso, the concerto for soloist, and the symphony. Taken together, the changes introduced by the Baroque constituted a revolution in music history perhaps as important as those brought about by the emergence of the Ars Nova in the 14th century and contemporary music in the 20th century.
Bologna, where Corelli first performed, then with 60,000 inhabitants, was the second city in importance within the Papal States, home to the oldest university in the world and a center of intense cultural and artistic life. There were several large churches that maintained orchestras, choirs and permanent schools, three large theaters hosted dramatic and operatic performances, several publishing houses published scores, and there were at least half a dozen academies maintained by the nobility and the high clergy in their palaces, which set trends and aesthetic standards, some devoted exclusively to music, among which the most famous was the Philharmonic Academy, founded in 1666 by Count Vincenzo Maria Carrati. In this city, an outstanding violin school was formed, founded by Ercole Gaibara, whose principles Corelli assimilated.
Rome, on the other hand, had quite different traditions and a much greater wealth and importance on a variety of levels, starting with the fact that it was the seat of Catholicism. Moreover, it was a cosmopolitan capital that welcomed artists from all over Europe, eager to succeed on such a rich, diverse and influential stage, where the great patrons of the Church and the aristocracy competed with each other by organizing sumptuous performances and sponsoring numerous artists. However, few churches and brotherhoods maintained stable musical bodies, and there was great traffic of professionals between them on the occasion of celebrations and festivities. Also different from Bologna, in Rome the Church had a decisive influence on cultural life, and guidelines in this aspect varied according to the preferences of each pontiff. Clement IX, for example, was himself a librettist of operas and oratorios and promoted profane music, while Innocent XI had a moralizing nature and determined the closure of public theaters, causing opera to wither away, although he authorized sacred oratorios. Corelli apparently entered this environment without any difficulty, although it is not known who introduced him. In any case, he soon won the favor of patrons who were among the city”s leading ones.
As already noted, Corelli learned the basics of his violin technique in Bologna, following the lines laid down by Ercole Gaibara, regarded as the founder of the Bolognese school, and being a disciple of the virtuosos Giovanni Benvenuti and Leonardo Brugnoli. He later instructed many students and spawned a school of his own, but despite his fame in this field, surprisingly few inaccurate descriptions of his technique survive, generating considerable controversy among critics, a gap which is compounded by the fact that he wrote no manual or treatise on the subject. In his time there were several schools of violin playing in Italy, which proposed different playing methods and even ways in which the player should hold the violin. There is considerable iconography depicting these differences, where violinists hold the instrument under the chin, over the shoulder or close to the chest, in various inclinations. Naturally, these differences implied different left hand and bowing techniques and to some extent defined the style and complexity of the music they were able to perform.
During the 18th century he was hailed as a great virtuoso, but 20th century critics have sometimes doubted the ancient testimonies. Boyden, for example, claimed that “Corelli cannot claim a prominent place in the history of violin technique”; Pincherle considered him “inferior to the Germans and even the Italians in terms of pure technique,” and McVeigh said that “he was hardly one of the great virtuosos of his time.” However, according to Riedo, in their reservations they rely on what can be gleaned from the technical requirements in his compositions, but this method is not entirely faithful to reality, since the score offers only a pale idea of what a live performance is. Furthermore, he notes that the style Corelli developed was characterized more by sobriety than extravagance. There are also indications that his works in their published version aimed at a diverse audience and not only the specialists and virtuosos, and this would be another reason not to make too many demands on the performers. At the same time, his own works cannot be a reference for his performance of works by other authors, where he may have taken a different approach. The failures of the Naples recital and the confrontation with Händel in Rome, where he allegedly said that he was not versed in German technique, are also often cited, but these episodes are firstly not solidly proven, and secondly may only reflect particularly unfortunate days in a successful career.
According to Riedo”s research, which synthesizes the studies on this aspect, Corelli probably held the violin against his chest and projected forward, being supported by an engraving and a drawing in which he is represented in this way, and by evidence from other origins, including descriptions about the performance of other violinists who were among his pupils or were influenced by him. This stance was largely common since before he emerged, was almost dominant in the Rome of his time, and was common until the 19th century. Francesco Geminiani, who was probably his pupil, in his The Art of Playing on the Violin (1751) wrote that “the violin should be supported just below the collarbone, inclining its right side slightly downward, so that there arises no need to raise the bow too much when it is necessary to play the fourth string.” Walls stated that hardly any virtuoso in the first half of the 18th century used any other position. It provided an elegant posture for the performer, which is also important in Corelli”s case due to the fact that he was a patrician, but it somewhat hindered the playing of the highest notes on the fourth string, since moving the left hand to the highest positions could destabilize the instrument, and several treatises of the time warn of the risk of it even falling over. It should be noted that Corelli”s music rarely requires positions above the third.
Geminiani, who was also a virtuoso, gave voice to a widely held view of what was expected of a good violinist: “The intention of music is not only to please the ear, but to express feelings, to touch the imagination, to affect the mind, and to command the passions. The art of playing the violin consists in giving the instrument a sound that rivals the most perfect human voice, and in performing each piece with accuracy, propriety, delicacy, and expression according to the true intention of the music.” In Riedo”s words, “Geminiani”s ideological and aesthetic views seem to correspond exactly to Corelli”s compositions: he valued textures, no acrobatic passages with extreme changes of (hand) position and no virtuosic effects. In this respect, the judgments of Boyden, Pincherle and McVeigh need to be reconsidered, since this kind of acrobatic virtuosity does not seem to have been a goal for Corelli.” A description of the time reports that his interpretation was “erudite, elegant and pathetic, and his sonority, firm and uniform.” Bremner wrote in 1777 saying that “I am informed that Corelli would not accept in his orchestra any violinist who was not able, in one bow, to create a uniform and powerful sound, like that of an organ, by playing two strings at the same time, and to maintain it for at least ten seconds; even so, they say that in those days the length of the bow did not exceed twenty inches.” Raguenet at the same time left another testimony: “Each bow has an infinite duration, expressing itself as a sound that gradually decays until it becomes inaudible. These passages suggest that his main concern was the mastery of bow technique, responsible for the overall sonority produced and the nuances and subtleties of dynamics and phrasing, which is also consistent with the statements of the time about Corelli”s ability to express to the violin the most varied emotions in their fullness, making his instrument “speak” as if it were the human voice.
Among the advances he promoted in technique are the more intense exploration of double strings (including figurations on a pedal note), the G string (until then little used), harmonics, arpeggios, tremolo, tempo rubato, staccato, scordatura, rapid figurations on thirds, chords with more than two notes, and was the main inaugurator of the bariolage technique (rapid oscillations between two strings). Although Corelli wrote nothing about it, the treatises published by Geminiani, Francesco Galeazzi and others who came under his influence probably closely reflect the master”s principles. His work in the various spheres related to the violin – virtuoso, teacher and composer – left an indelible mark on the history of this instrument and laid one of the foundations of its modern technique.
He was known to have had many pupils, but who they were remains a great unknown, and few are those who certainly passed through his discipline, among them the aforementioned Fornari, Giovanni Battista Somis, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, Gasparo Visconti, Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli, Francesco Gasparini, Jean-Baptiste Anet, and even of Francesco Geminiani, traditionally considered his most gifted disciple, it is sometimes doubted that he actually learned from him.
Little is known about his performance as a conductor except that he successfully performed this function for many years at the head of the orchestras of the Church of São Luís and of the Academy of the Arts of Design, and of numerous ensembles formed for specific occasions, such as recitations at the private Academies of the nobility, civic festivities and diplomatic receptions. The reviews he received were always very complimentary, being praised for the great discipline of the musicians he commanded, resulting in vigorous interpretations, with great precision in the attack of the notes and powerful ensemble effect. Geminiani reported that “Corelli considered it essential that the whole ensemble of the orchestra move their bows exactly together: all up, all down; so that in his rehearsals, which preceded the performances, he would stop the music if he saw any bow out of position.
On the other hand, he actively participated in the process of transforming the standard orchestra. In the previous generation, ensembles were usually quite small even for operatic performances, and large groups were only recruited on very exceptional occasions, especially for open-air festivals. The orchestras at the St. Louis Feasts in the church of the same name throughout the 1660s, for example, as a rule did not exceed twenty members, even on pompous occasions, and most often numbered around ten or fifteen. Inheriting the old polyphonic practices, the ensembles made use of varied instruments in balanced proportions, which were grouped into “choirs,” each composed of various types of instruments. Corelli”s generation began to alter this balance of power toward a growing predominance of the string section, with an emphasis on violins, while significantly increasing the number of players, grouping the instruments into homogeneous suits, and separating the singers from the orchestra. Its spatial arrangement also changed, adopting a distribution that favored the typical language of the concerto grosso, with a small soloist ensemble, the concertino, separated from the large group of the ripieno.
In addition to conducting and being first violin at the same time, Corelli was responsible for recruiting musicians to form ephemeral orchestras, taking care of transporting the instruments, paying their salaries, and performing all the tasks of a modern event producer. On some occasions he employed a huge number of musicians, up to 150, far above all the standards of his time. According to Crescimbeni”s testimony, “he was the first to introduce into Rome ensembles with such a vast number of instruments and such diversity that it was almost impossible to believe that he could make them all play together without fear of confusion, especially since he combined wind instruments with strings, and the total very often exceeded a hundred. Although the number of musicians varied greatly at each performance, the balance of Corelli”s orchestras was constant, with half the musicians playing violins, and a third to a quarter being occupied with bass strings of various kinds, including cellos, violones, and double basses. The remaining fraction was filled by a varied instrumentation of violas, woodwinds, lutes, thiorbas, organs and others, which depended very much on the character of the music of the occasion. His intense activity on a variety of levels in the field of orchestral music dominated the Roman scene, and his role as organizer, energizer and standard-setter, in Spitzer & Zaslaw”s opinion, can be compared to that of Jean-Baptiste Lully at the court of Louis XIV. “In a very real sense, every Roman orchestra between 1660 and 1713 was ”Corelli”s orchestra.””
Despite the typically baroque love for the extravagant, the bizarre, the asymmetrical and the dramatic, Corelli”s production departs from this pattern, favoring the classicist principles of sobriety, symmetry, rationality, balance and expressive moderation, as well as formal perfection, repeatedly appreciated by contemporary and contemporary critics, formulating with remarkable economy of means an aesthetic that is among the foundations of the neoclassical school of music. In the description of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, “no doubt others before him showed more originality, but no one in his time exhibited more noble interest in balance and order, or in formal perfection and a sense of grandeur. Despite his Bolognese training, he embodies the classical era of Italian music, and owes much to the Roman tradition. Even if he did not invent the forms he used, Corelli gave them a nobility and perfection that make him one of the greatest classicists.”
Corelli”s works were the result of long and deliberate planning, and he would only publish them after careful and multiple revisions. It seems that his last collection took more than thirty years to complete, and a statement he left in a letter of 1708 attests to his insecurity: “After so many and extensive revisions I rarely felt confident to deliver to the public the few compositions I have sent to press. Such a rigorous method, such rationally organized and structured collections, such a strong yearning for ideal perfection, are other characteristics that make him a classic as opposed to the rapturous, asymmetrical, irregular and improvisational spirit of the more typical Baroque. In Franco Piperno”s words, “his printed work has an exceptionally well-finished and cohesive structure, deliberately planned to be didactic, model-like, and monumental. Not by accident that one of the figures on the frontispiece of his Opera Terza is writing the word ”posterity”-that is, as posterity would see him: as an authority on composition, performance, and pedagogy, a source of ideas rich in potentiality.” He made rather strict choices and did not venture beyond a few genres: the three- and solo sonata, and the concerto grosso. Except for one example, all his output is for strings, with a continuous bass accompaniment, which could be performed by a varying combination of organ, harpsichord, lutes, and
In his time the cycle of fifths was established as the main driver of harmonic progressions, and according to Richard Taruskin, Corelli more than anyone of his generation put into practice for expressive, dynamic and structural purposes this new concept, which was fundamental to the sedimentation of the tonal system. Manfred Bukofzer, in the same sense, says that “Arcangelo Corelli deserves the credit for the full realization of tonality in the field of instrumental music. His works auspiciously inaugurate the Late Baroque period. Although closely tied to the counterpoint tradition of the old Bolognese school, Corelli handled the new idiom with impressive assurance.” On the other hand, chromaticisms are rare in his music, but dissonances are relatively common and used as an expressive element, although they are well prepared and well resolved. Also highlighted by critics was his harmonious integration and balance between polyphonic and homophonic elements, with the polyphony unfolding invariably within a tonal framework. There is in his work an abundance of forms of polyphonic expression, the most common being fugatti, simple counterpoints, and imitative writing, with motifs repeated in succession by the various voices alternately, usually called fugues, but authentic fugues are rare, and as a rule their development deviates from conventional patterns for the form, exhibiting a great variety of solutions. According to Pincherle, one of the most significant aspects of Corelli”s genius lies in the coordinated movement of these voices that intertwine, avoid and meet each other developing varied motives, establishing a unity by the kinship between the motives of the various movements, a method that Torrefranca compared to the unfolding of “a frieze that runs along the walls and facades of a temple.
Among its sources primarily are the masters of the Bolognese school, such as Giovanni Benvenuti, Leonardo Brugnoli, and Giovanni Battista Bassani. The influence of Jean-Baptiste Lully, attested to by Geminiani and stylistic evidence, has also been pointed out, as well as the Venetian school, including such names as Francesco Cavalli, Antonio Cesti and Giovanni Legrenzi. Buelow said that the influence of Palestrina in developing the polyphonic style of his music, an influence received mainly through his teacher Simonelli, who was a cantor in the choir of the Sistine Chapel, where Palestrina”s work was one of the flagships of the repertoire, has been largely overlooked.
His “canonical” production comprises six collections, each with twelve works:
The small size of his published work, together with literary accounts of the composition of many pieces that are not identified in the contents of the six collections, has led some researchers to imagine that a large number of works have been lost, and it has been supposed that it may be as many as a hundred or more, but this impression may be exaggerated or even entirely erroneous. There are, for example, descriptions of the performance of several “symphonies,” a genre that at the time was cultivated both as stand-alone instrumental music and integrated into operas, oratorios, and ballets as overtures or interludes. However, the word symphony had a very imprecise usage at that time, and such works may indeed be avulsely presented sections of what has come down to us as his thick concertos. Moreover, Corelli”s slow methods of composition and his acute scruples about perfection, which led him to polish his inventions at length, may indicate the opposite – that what he deemed worthy of presentation to the public was exactly what he printed, and that nothing was actually lost, or at least nothing important. In recent decades a number of manuscript pieces have appeared, complete or fragmentary, whose authorship has been disputed. Several are possibly authentic, but seem to have been rehearsals for later modified works, or pieces written ad hoc for some specific event, and then abandoned as unimportant. Others, published at least once, may be adaptations by other authors from authentic Corellian material.
In a separate category is the collection of thick concertos that Geminiani published in London between 1726 and 1729, adapting material from the Opera Quinta, and giving due credit to Corelli as the author of the originals. This series fell into popular favor and had numerous reissues, and was directly responsible for Corelli”s lasting fame in England. In addition, many others have made more or less successful adaptations of his pieces, for various formations, including voice.
The first four collections bring a series of church sonatas and chamber sonatas, instrumented for three voices: two violins and cello, and accompanying continuous bass. Despite the indications of instrumentation left by the author, the practice of the time allowed for significant changes according to the occasion and the availability of musicians. The first type, as the name implies, was suitable for use during the celebration of Mass, as background music during the Gradual, Offertory, and Communion sections. In the offices of Vespers they could be performed before the Psalms. The form was an evolution of the Renaissance polyphonic canzona, and in the Baroque it was fixed with four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast, also recalling the old formal pair of prelude-fugue. The more elaborate polyphonic part was generally in the fast first section. Its character, suitable for worship, was austere and solemn. The second type was suitable for elegant salons, had a more extroverted character, could be more ornamental, and was an evolution of the old popular dance suites, sometimes stylized and purified, of bipartite structure with ritornelli, and with a more ceremonial slow prelude, generally set in four movements. Despite these basic schemes, his chamber pieces show great variety, about half of them deviating from the four-movement pattern, a richness that no simple sampling can reflect. Some, for example, open with florid expressions from the violin of an improvisation-like character over long pedal notes sustained by the bass. Others open with movements of a dense symphonic character, often of high expressiveness and poignancy, that make them suitable for independent performance.
The successive collections use a lot of material from the previous ones in new combinations, which for certain critics, like Geminiani himself, was a sign of a limited inspiration, saying that “all the varieties of harmony, modulation and melody in Corelli could perhaps be expressed in a short bar”, but for Buscaroli “the examination of the sonatas reveals that the reuse of harmonic material is closely linked to a strict program of methodical experimentation with the incipient tonal system. The technique of self-imitation is part of a progressive idiomatic and formal systematization.”
The genre of the Baroque sonata – typically the three-part sonata – had begun to be articulated in the early years of the 17th century and proved extremely fruitful and long-lived, with many masters leaving important collections, such as Giovanni Bononcini, Antonio Caldara, Giovanni Battista Vitali, Giuseppe Torelli, and Francesco Antonio Bonporti, so that Corelli did not innovate in terms of form, but renewed its substance, structure, and vitality. Although no direct precursors to his works are known, Buelow pointed to probable Roman and Bolognese influences. Indeed, the Bologna school was notable for its importance in the history of the three-part sonata, establishing a standard, in contrast to soloist performance practices, where moderation of virtuosity was sought in the name of greater balance between the parts, while also emphasizing lyrical phrasing and an overall elegant expression, a model that corresponds closely to what Corelli accomplished. These collections, together with Opera Quinta, created a highly appreciated and imitated pattern for the genre of the solo or trio sonata, and more than one model among many, they constituted the founding model of the genre as it developed in the first part of the 18th century.
His Opera Quinta, twelve sonatas for solo violin and bass, is where his style reaches full maturity, being remembered today mainly through his last piece, a series of variations on the popular aria La Folia di Spagna, where he reaches the verge of fully homophonic music (without polyphony). With this collection his reputation was definitively established in Italy and Europe. Charles Burney said that it took Corelli three years just to review the print proofs, and from what is known of his habits, he must have started composition much earlier. Zaslaw surmises that he may have started working on the series as early as the 1680s. The collection was appreciated as a classic in its genre and as a landmark in the history of composition for the violin as soon as it came to light in 1700, and no other had such an enthusiastic and widespread reception as it did in the 18th century. More than 50 reprints were made by 1800 by various publishers in several countries, and hundreds of manuscript copies survive, attesting to its enormous popularity. The collection stands out from earlier ones for its greater technical and formal complexity and harmonic variety, with many passages featuring sophisticated and daring progressions, modulations, and tonal relationships.
Besides being esteemed as chamber music in its own right, today it seems clear that it was also used as teaching material, an additional factor to explain such a wide diffusion. Its pedagogical value is manifest in the fact that much of what the collection contains is technically accessible to students in their early years of violin playing, without losing any of its very high aesthetic value. For Buelow, their success derives mainly from their formal perfection and the intense lyricism of the slow movements. They are also exemplary in structuring the sonata form, serving for students of composition, and in addition, the simplicity of the melodic line assigned to the violin in some movements makes it exceptionally apt to be ornamented, serving for display by virtuosos. In fact, several manuscript copies and printed editions survive with ornamentations that do not appear in the princeps edition but give valuable clues about the practices of their time, when ornamentation was an integral part of both composition and performance, though often not noted in the score but added at the performer”s discretion. One ornamented version has been attributed to Corelli himself. Its authorship is now highly controversial and the edition received criticism as spurious as soon as it appeared, but reviewing the issue Zaslaw concluded that the authorship is plausible. Taken together, the chamber works represent a complete school of the violin, with pieces ranging from the most elementary to the most demanding technical levels.
The Opera Sesta, the series of thick concertos, is seen as the pinnacle of his compositional efforts, and his posthumous fame mainly rests on it. In 1711, even before it was finished, it had already been praised by Adami as “the wonder of the world,” prophesying that “with it he will make his name forever immortal.” This genre had its apogee in the last three decades of the 17th century, and was already beginning to go out of fashion in several important centers of Italy when Corelli”s collection appeared, and its survival for many years is due to his influence, as the output of a whole subsequent generation proves.
The first eight employ the solemn form of the church sonata, and the others the form of the chamber sonata, with lively dance rhythms in various movements. Polyphony occurs in all of them, to a greater or lesser degree. The number and character of the movements vary in each concerto, but the balance between the parts remains invariable. Emerging as a direct derivation of the three-part sonata, in concertos, as was the characteristic practice of this genre, the orchestra is divided into two groups: the concertino, consisting of two solo violins and a cello, and the ripieno, with the remaining musicians. Each group had a separate continuous bass accompaniment. This arrangement favored the development of lively and expressive dialogues between them, uniting and separating their strengths, aligning with the Baroque preference for contrasts and rhetoric, and at the same time allowed for the exploration of a variety of sound effects and textures, and for the soloists allowed room for the display of some virtuosity, albeit moderate. The use of the figured bass is economical, and all string parts are fully written, leaving the ciphers for the organ or the lutes and thiorbas to complete. The slow movements are generally short, serving more as pauses and links between the longer fast movements. Most have no defined theme and are primarily homophonic in writing, drawing their effect from a sensitive use of dissonances and textures, but are often characterized by a powerful harmonic progression that creates effects of tension and surprise. The final chord is almost always a cadence that leads directly into the tonality of the next movement.
According to Distaso, the internal variety of the concertos avoids monotony, but in the end a remarkable unity and homogeneity of style emerges in the collection as a whole. The polyphonic style that characterizes these concertos has long been praised as paradigmatic for its clarity and for its melodicism at once sober and expressive, the quintessence of Archaic good taste. Georg Friedrich Haendel, Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Muffat, Georg Philipp Telemann, Giuseppe Valentini, Benedetto Marcello, Pietro Locatelli, Antonio Montanari, Giuseppe Sammartini, Giorgio Gentili, Francesco Geminiani, and countless other respected musicians mirrored his model to produce their own works in the concert genres. In Rome his influence was so preponderant that no composer of the next generation could avoid it at all. Along with Giuseppe Torelli and Antonio Vivaldi, Corelli was one of the key figures in establishing the concerto as a genre whose popularity endures to this day.
A music dictionary of 1827 still repeated what Burney had said more than thirty years before: “Corelli”s concertos have withstood all the assaults of time and fashion, more firmly than his other works. The harmony is so pure, the parts so clearly, judiciously and ingeniously arranged, and the effect of ensemble, played by a great orchestra, is so majestic, solemn and sublime, that they disarm any criticism and make one forget all that has ever been composed in the same genre.” In the contemporary opinion of Michael Talbot, writing for the volume The Cambridge Companion to the Concerto, it is difficult to explain the enduring popularity of this collection. Recalling the old commentaries extolling its qualities of purity and balance, he considers that this cannot be considered the simple cause of its popularity, but only a precondition. He continues:
Called during his lifetime “the greatest glory of our century” and “the new Orpheus,” Corelli was the dominant figure in the musical life of Rome despite his withdrawn personality and the enormous number of highly qualified professionals in activity, and had his work spread on an unprecedented scale throughout Europe. His artistic stature is accentuated by the fact that his output is small, exclusively instrumental, and that he never dedicated himself to opera, the most popular genre of his time and the one that made the biggest celebrities. According to George Buelow, no 17th century composer gained comparable fame based on such a small number of works, and he was also one of the first to become famous only for instrumental music. Charles Burney said that “he more than anyone else contributed to seducing music lovers by the simple power of his bow, without the aid of the human voice. Rarely did any distinguished figure visiting Rome leave the city without first meeting him in person and paying tribute to him. Roger North, an English commentator of the time, wrote that “most of the nobility and aristocracy who traveled to Italy sought to hear Corelli, and returned home having as high a regard for Italian music as if they had been in the Parnassus. It is wonderful to observe how there are traces of Corelli everywhere – nothing tastes of anything but Corelli. This is not surprising, since the Great Master made his instrument speak as if it were the human voice, and would say to his pupils, “Have you not heard him speak?” Shortly after his death eloquent eulogies continued to appear, Couperin composed an Apotheosis of Corelli, and copious folklore was formed about him, which colored the older biographies and filled in the surprising paucity of solid factual information about his life, and even today often circulates as if facts were but an indirect attestation of his great fame.
Within a few decades his style sounded too old-fashioned for the Italians themselves, but in other countries his works circulated for almost a hundred years, providing formal and aesthetic models for a legion of other composers. He remained long-loved in England, where the more typical Baroque was never very popular.
The decisive step in the contemporary recovery of his work was the publication in 1933 of Marc Pincherle”s study, which, although brief and incomplete, drew attention to him. In 1953 Mario Rinaldi published a substantial monograph, which was another important milestone. Pincherle criticized this work and in response published in 1954 an expanded and revised version of his earlier study, notable for eliminating much of the folklore that had attached itself to the composer”s figure by appealing to reliable primary sources, as well as discussing in detail each of the six collections, analyzing their context, and establishing the lines of the irradiation of his international influence. More than that, he clarified aspects of Baroque musical practice that had been lost, among them the traditions of ornamentation, how little practical difference was perceived at that time between the church sonata and the chamber sonata, and how it was up to the performer to omit or add movements from the sonatas in various movements. In judging his work, he saw Corelli as less original and inventive in technical and stylistic terms than others of his generation, but possessed of an admirable ability to gather and direct the forces of musical discourse. Following in his footsteps, Peter Allsop deepened the analysis by taking advantage of the discovery of much manuscript material concerning him, further defining Corelli”s position in the fixing of musical forms. William Newman, in the same vein as Pincherle, drew comparisons between Corelli and his contemporaries and was primarily concerned with the analysis of form and the importance of each genre in his complete work.
In 1976 another milestone appeared, a complete catalog of Corelli”s output produced by Hans Joachim Marx, which for the first time included and systematized the works attributed to the composer that were not published in the six canonical collections. Willi Apel devoted himself in depth to formal analysis and compositional techniques, and Boris Schwarcz, in a brief study, traced the musician”s professional connections. According to Burdette, these works constitute the most essential critical bibliography, but today studies on the composer number in the thousands. Corelli”s critical fortune over the centuries, in fact, has been more positive than most of his contemporaries, as Pincherle pointed out. There is also a large discography and countless reissues of his scores. In the field of performance, since the mid-twentieth century research into ancient musical practices has multiplied, and with the emergence of orchestras dedicated to historically informed interpretations, Corelli”s work has gained new visibility, placing him once again among the most popular composers of his generation.
Today his prominent position in the history of Western music as one of the most influential and respected composers, teachers, and virtuosos of his generation is firmly established, his works admired, studied, and imitated for their variety and consistency, their solid polyphony, their expressiveness and elegance, their harmonic richness, his style of writing for strings, their form and structure, and their overall impact, and held up as models of perfection. Lynette Bowring observed that “it is easy to understand why his works had such an impact. Their perfect finish conveys the impression that they possess an easy grace, when in fact they are the result of years of refinement.” He was a key element in the history of writing for the violin, and for Manfred Bukofzer his writing is better suited to the characteristic features and potential of this instrument than anything that had come before him. His activities as a virtuoso, teacher and composer contributed significantly to laying the foundations of modern violin technique and raising the prestige of the instrument, until recently more associated with popular music and despised for its more strident sound than the violas, which dominated the strings in the 16th and 17th centuries. According to David Boyden, “with Corelli”s work the violin invaded the church, the theater, and the salons.” Carter & Butt, in the preface to Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Music, stated that his concerto grosso No. 8 “For Christmas Eve” forms part of “a small but extremely significant group of hits that have become an essential part of pop culture.” Georg Buelow pointed out that lay audiences may often think that everything in Baroque music boils down to a series of familiar chord sequences and repetitive motifs and figures, and a profusion of other clichés that although pleasant have become worn out over time, but they are unaware of the great role that Corelli played in the development of this sonic language that became the lingua franca of its time, and how innovative, surprising, exciting, and effective in its emergence it was in conveying the whole rich universe of ideas and feelings that define human nature. In the words of Malcolm Boyd, “Corelli may not have been the only composer to be hailed as the Orpheus of his time, but few have so powerfully and vastly influenced the music of his contemporaries and immediate successors,” and according to Richard Taruskin, writing for the Oxford History of Western Music series, his historical importance is “tremendous.”