Arcangelo Corelli

Arcangelo Corelli was a 17th century Italian composer and violinist. His compositions, though modest in number, highly influenced future composers such as Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel in terms of form, style and technique. His output consisted of only three genres—solo sonata, trio sonata, and concerto­—in six collections. His work as a violin teacher and pedagogue was equally as important and influential.

Corelli was born in the small village of Fusignano and raised by his widowed mother; Corelli's father died one month before his birth. Despite this unfortunate circumstance came from a family of wealthy landowners with a respectably high social status. Not much is known about Corelli’s early years, though many stories have been told, many of which must be taken with some reservation. Crescimbeni, a leading member of the Arcadian Academy who must have been well acquainted with Corelli, claimed that Corelli first began music lessons in Faenza with a priest, continued his studies in Lugo, and later studied in Bologna, home to many promising composers such as Cazzati, Perti, Colonna, G.B. Vitali, and later Torelli. A testimony from Charles Burney cited that Corelli studied violin with B.G. Laurenti, however Padre Martini claimed that Corelli studied with Giovanni Benvenuti and Leonardo Brugnoli. Part of the confusion results from the tendency of 18th century historians to pair famous musicians with teachers they deemed worthy.

In 1670, at the age of 17, Corelli was admitted to the Accademia Filharmonic of Bologna. Sometime between 1671 and 1675 he moved to Rome; it is unclear when he arrived. While in Rome, he received the nickname ‘Il Bolognese’, which can be seen on some of his works from the time. Corelli became one of the foremost violinists in Rome and performed in the Lenten Oratorios in San Marcello, among other concerts. Corelli wrote, in a letter in 1679, that he had become a chamber musician in the court of Queen Christina of Sweden; she was, at the time, his greatest patron. He composed sonatas for her first academy and supplied the court with a sonata for violin and lute. In 1681, he finished and presented his first opus, 12 Trio Sonatas, dedicated to Queen Christina. These sonatas, which Corelli declared as “the first fruits of his studies,” were of the church style.

Corelli became a member of the Congregezione di Santa Cecilia, along with Alessandro Scarlatti, where he later became the lead of the instrumental section. Eventually, Queen Christina’s patronage was replaced by that of Cardinal Pamphili; however, on special occasions the Queen was able to call upon his services. During this period, he performed regularly at Pamphili’s academies, which were among the most important musical events in Rome. His first set of chamber trios (op. 2), dedicated to Pamphili, was performed at the academy. Concerns about a few bars of his Allemanda from the third sonata, heard at this concert, became an inter-city dispute which began when Matteo Zani wrote a letter to Corelli asking him to explain his use of parallel fifths. Corelli was angered by the letter and believed his usage to be legitimate as the fifths were indirect. The dispute lasted several months.

Corelli became one of the foremost violinists in Rome.

It was in 1687 that he was promoted to music master in Pamphili’s court, where he lived together with violinist Matteo Fornari and cellist G.B. Lulier. The three would often perform together as a trio, or as the soloists in a concerto grosso setting. Lulier was also a composer and examples of their cooperation can be seen in the oratorio, Santa Beatrice d’Este, in which Corelli wrote the Introduzione and Sinfonia. The oratorio was premiered in 1689 at Pamphili’s palace during the visit of Cardinal Rinaldo d’Este. Also in 1689, Corelli finished his third opus, which consisted of twelve Sonate di Chiesa, (church sonatas) and was dedicated to Francesco II, Duke of Molena.

Corelli began working for Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni in 1690, after Pamphili moved to Bologna. He lived at Ottoboni’s palace, the Cancelleria, where academies were also held. Corelli’s fourth opus, a second set of chamber trios, was completed in 1694 and dedicated to Ottoboni, who treated him more as a friend than employee. In this period, Corelli collaborated again with Lulier, with his contribution of several concerti to Applauso musicale a Quattro voci. For the Feast of the Translation of the S Casa, he composed several parts which became well-known, including a concerto and sinfonia. By this time, imitations of Corelli’s work began to appear, including by German composer Georg Muffat in Armonico tributo. Corelli began conducting performances at the Cancelleria and also at the Teatro Tordinona. He later came into contact with Handel after being admitted to the Arcadian Academia in Rome, together with Pasquini and Scarlatti.

Corelli retired from public view in 1708 and focused not only on the composition of new works, but also on the editing of old works. Corelli wanted these works, originally sinfonias for church or theater, to be up to par with the concertos of Torelli, Albinoni, and Valentini, among others.

...focused not only on the composition of new works, but also on the editing of old works.

Corelli’s influences as a conductor include the insistence of unanimous bowing for each part, a tradition Lully had begun earlier. His legacy as a violin teacher was also far-reaching. He had an impressive number of students, many of whom were very talented. Some have said that “the paths of all of the famous violinist-composers of 18th-century Italy lead Arcangelo Corelli.” His influence as a composer is equally important.

The boom in music publishing at the beginning of the 18th century and his fame as a teacher led to numerous reprints. No composer before Haydn had had as many reprints as Corelli. His first opus went through 39 editions between 1681 and 1790 and his fifth through 42 editions by 1800. His sixth opus of concertos was even more popular and preferred in England than the concertos of Handel. Some of his most widely recorded works are his Concerto da camera in B flat, Op. 6 No. 11, Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 6, No. 1 and No. 4, as well as Concerto Grosso in B-Flat Major, Op. 6.

Arrangements of Corelli’s music were frequent. Geminani rearranged the sixth sonata of opus 3, along with opus 5. Bach borrowed the second subject of the second movement of opus 3 number 4 for his organ fugue, BWV579. Other composers, such as Tartini, borrowed themes to create variations. Even much later composers, such as Rachmaninov, borrowed themes and paid tribute to Corelli. His style was also imitated by Vitali, Vivaldi, and Reali. Although Corelli’s style seems very common and simple today, it was considered quite original at the time. A cross between Bolognese and Venetian styles is evident and extremes of register are avoided. Corelli popularized walking bass rhythms and solidified the difference between the church and chamber sonata; he also popularized the concerto grosso form. A notable feature of his music, leading to a modern sense of tonality, was his use of ‘leap-frogging’ between 2 instruments (violins), which became a standard method in the 18th century.

Corelli died in Rome on 8 January, 1713. He was buried in the Pantheon (Santa Maria della Rotonda), where performances of his work took place for several years on the anniversary of his death.

Antonio Vivaldi

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