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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Arcangelo Corelli

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

This music [listen] was written in 1953 by the English composer Sir Michael Tippett in response to a commission from the Edinburgh Festival. It was new music but its inspirations go back a lot further as evidenced in the title: Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli.

Michael Tippett

The Corelli of the title is Arcangelo Corelli, a famous Italian violinist and composer who lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and Tippett's work is based on fragments of one of Corelli's concertos. But it points to one of the most important things about Corelli: his influence on others. In this post I want explore Corelli's life and work, but I also want to touch on the influence Corelli had on many other musicians, of which Tippett was only one.

Arcangelo Corelli was born - on 17 February, 1653 - in a small Italian town called Fusignano. On an east/west axis it lies between Bologna and Ravenna; north/south it's about halfway between Venice and Florence. Corelli came from a family of prosperous landowners whose elevated social status undoubtedly helped him as he sought to not only get a good education but also to get as much good musical experience and teaching as he could.

The young Corelli probably had his first music lessons from a priest in the nearby town of Faenza, which was still some 25 km away. Later studies occurred in Lugo, a little closer to home, before he took the big step in 1666 of going to Bologna, the nearest major centre, when he was 13.

The cathedral of S Petronio in Bologna is one of the largest churches in the Christian world and some fine composers were associated with its famed musical reputation. One of the best known was Giovanni Battista Vitali. This is one of Vitali's sonatas, called "La Sassatelli", which was published not long after Corelli arrived in Bologna. [listen]

Interior of S Petronio, Bologna

Some years later an even more famous composer, Giuseppe Torelli, took up residence in Bologna. This is part of a concerto for four violins by Torelli, the manuscript of which comes from the S Petronio archives. [listen]

Giusseppe Torelli

For his part, Corelli clearly soaked up every influence he could in such a rich musical environment as Bologna in the 1660s. Historians disagree as to who Corelli's teachers actually were, and there are many myths surrounding Corelli's early life, but he developed into a first-rate violinist quickly. In 1670, at the age of only 17, he was admitted into the prestigious Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna.

By 1675 Corelli had relocated from Bologna to Rome - documents attest to his involvement in concerts in Rome in that year - but we are uncertain as to his whereabouts in the four years before this. How long Corelli stayed in Bologna, or how long he was in Rome before 1675, is not absolutely clear. It does seem that, however long he stayed in Bologna, Corelli took with him to Rome a strong association with that city. The nickname "Il bolognese" is found connected with him in a number of documents such as paylists.

Over the second half of the 1670s Corelli rose from being a reliable rank-and-file violinist to one of the most admired violinists in Rome. His name appears increasingly - and in increasingly prominent positions - in documents connected with the major churches and most important patrons of the city. The first glimpse we get of Corelli in his own words comes in a letter written in 1679 to a Tuscan count who had requested a sonata for violin and lute from Corelli. For a start this makes it clear that even before the publication of his opus 1 (in 1681) Corelli had established a reputation as a composer as well as a performer. Corelli's reply states that he had entered the service of Queen Christina of Sweden and was busy composing a set of sonatas for her, after which he would write the requested sonata for the count. In a later letter the same year Corelli reported that the sonata had indeed been written and sent.

Beck: Queen Christina of Sweden (c. 1650)

Corelli's opus 1 was a set of 12 sonatas, published in Rome and dedicated to Queen Christina. These are for two violins and continuo and are of the sort of sonata known as the "church" sonata, or sonata da chiesa in Italian. The church sonata, so called because of its use during church services, in reality often differed very little from the secular variety (known as the sonata da camera or chamber sonata). The church sonata was usually designed to - oddly enough - be more sensuous and touching, in order to create in the listener a heightened emotional response and sense of the sublime. There were usually four movements in two pairs: slow-fast, slow-fast. Here is a complete sonata, the third of the opus 1 set. [listen]

In 1682, the year after the publication of opus 1, Corelli took part in a performance on 25 August at the church of S Luigi in Rome. One of his pupils, Matteo Fornari, played second violin and a strong bond developed between the two. Corelli became devoted to his pupil and Fornari, to quote Grove, "from then on was rarely absent from his side". This, and the fact he never married, has led to understandable speculation regarding Corelli's private life. The evidence such as we have it suggests the likelihood that Corelli and Fornari were in a relationship but, understandably for the times, there is nothing more explicit beyond myths and gossip.

From 1682 until 1708, when old age and illness force him to retire, Corelli returned to play at S Luigi annually, on 25 August. It was clearly a commitment he took very seriously.

Howard: Arcangelo Corelli (1697)

Considering his high public profile and reputation, it is perhaps surprising that Corelli left only a small amount of his own music. Virtuoso performers in the 17th and 18th centuries were usually expected to be composers as well; there was no real distinction between the two disciplines. But apart from a handful of of single pieces, Corelli's entire known output consists of seven collections. The published collections - opp 1 to 6 - each contain 12 works; the other collection, without an opus number, contains 6. I've already mentioned the 12 sonatas of opus 1, published in 1681. This was followed by Corelli's opus 2 in 1685, a set 12 of chamber sonatas which form a neat, secular companion set to the 12 church sonatas of opus 1. The opus 2 sonatas are mostly in four movements like the church sonatas, but the tempo scheme varies and the music is often based on dance forms. This is the first sonata of Corelli's opus 2. [listen]

When Corelli's opus 2 was first played back in his former base of Bologna, one passage elicited a great deal of comment. In the Allemanda movement of third sonata there is a two-and-a-half bar passage in which the first violin and bassline move in a sequence outlining parallel fifths. As any theory student today will tell you, this is a no-no in the formal rules of harmony and it led to a protracted dispute between musicians in Rome (who supported Corelli) and those in Bologna (who opposed him). Acrimonious letters flew back and forth between the two cities for some months. Corelli for his part said that since the fifths were indirect - that is, there were intervening notes in the violin part - they were legitimate. The passage passes without notice in any performance today…

By the time opus 2 was published, Corelli had been accepted as a member of the Congregation of St Cecilia, and he would become the head of their instrumental section by the end of the century.

During the 1680s another patron began to assume a greater role in Corelli's life in Rome, a name more often associated with Handel. Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili was the same age as Corelli and was part of one of the most powerful families in Rome. Pamphili was a noted patron of the arts , and he had some talent as a writer and composer as well. Despite working for Pamphili, Corelli's services were still called upon by Queen Christina from time to time. In 1687, for example, he was engaged by the Queen to direct a huge concert in her Roman palace. 100 singers and 150 instrumentalists were involved and Corelli's work in directing such an ensemble was widely praised. Corelli became the man wealthy patrons called on when important musical events needed to be led. In this way, he became not only one of Rome's leading violinists and composers but also its first star "conductor", although in those days conducting, such as it was, was undertaken from the violin or the keyboard. Conducting as we know it today wasn't to develop for another century.

Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili

Corelli's work for Pamphili included not only playing and eventually directing performances, but also engaging and organising the payment of players. Pamphili was the dedicatee of the opus 2 collection, and by 1687 he had engaged Corelli as his music master. Corelli - and Matteo Fornari - went to live at Pamphili's palace, taking a servant with them. If Corelli and Fornari were indeed lovers then they would have found safe haven in Pamphili's domain; the cardinal himself was almost certainly gay and many of Rome's influential homosexuals were present at his social gatherings and concerts. Also employed by Pamphili at this time was the cellist Giovanni Battista Lulier, and it was this trio - Corelli, Fornari and Lulier - which played together regularly in trio sonatas (such as Corelli's opus 1 and 2) or as a group of soloists in concerti grossi.

In 1689 Corelli published his opus 3, another set of 12 church sonatas, and dedicated these to Francesco II, Duke of Modena. These sonatas are again for two violins and continuo; this is the seventh sonata of the set. [listen]

In 1690 Pamphili temporarily relocated to Bologna which gave another important Roman patron - Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni - a chance to secure Corelli's services. Only 22 and a nephew of the Pope, Ottoboni held regular musical evenings and sought to be one of the major artistic movers and shakers in Rome; Corelli remained in Ottoboni's service for the rest of his life. His opus 4, another set of 12 secular chamber sonatas for two violins and continuo, was dedicated to Ottoboni when published in 1694.

Trevisani: Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (1689)

Opus 4 shows a greater freedom in the structure of movements, breaking away from the strict four-movement structure of most of the previous three collections. Dance movements return - the obvious marker of the set's secular nature - and there is a sense of greater freedom and individuality. Some of the sonatas only have three apparent movements, but in many cases single movements contain numerous changes of tempo. There's more the feeling of fantasia than sonata about these pieces, and as such they constantly engage the attention.

The sixth sonata of opus 4 is a perfect example. There are three movements, the first being a prelude containing five different tempo sections: slow-fast-slow-fast-slow. [listen]

By this point in his career - the mid-1690s - Corelli was internationally famous. He travelled often and from time to time contributed orchestral movements to larger works by other composers. He was one of the busiest musicians in central Italy and his reputation was enhanced by the wide dissemination of his publications.

In 1700 Corelli published his opus 5, a set of twelve sonatas for one violin and continuo. They were dedicated to Sofia Carlotta of Brandenburg, yet another keen patron of the arts among the nobility, who was the younger sister of Georg, Elector of Hanover (later George I of Great Britain). Opus 5 proved immensely popular and financially lucrative for Corelli. It was reprinted again and again across Europe over the next 100 years. Each of the sonatas is a unique creation of individual beauty, form and sentiment. The freedom of structure evident in opus 4 is here continued and expanded, with an immense variety of tempo and movement combinations across the twelve sonatas. The final sonata of opus 5 is one of Corelli's most outrageous inventions: an entire sonata in several movements which is in fact a single set of variations on one theme, the famous tune La Folia, used by countless composers as the basis for variations. [listen]

In 1706, when he was 53, Corelli was admitted into Rome's Arcadian Academy. The first decade of the 18th century was marked by Corelli's continued involvement - as orchestral organiser as much as leader and soloist - in major musical events in Rome. He was officially employed by Cardinal Ottoboni but was clearly permitted to work freelance for other patrons as well. He played for performances at Cardinal Pamphili's palace after the Cardinal's return to Rome, and also played for Prince Ruspoli. All three of these powerful men supported the young Handel when he was in Rome from 1707 to 1710, and it was in these circles that Corelli and Handel (in his 20s at the time) would have met.

In 1707 Corelli played in performances of Handel's secular Italian oratorio Il trionfo del tempo at Ottoboni's palace. The text had been written by Pamphili and there was apparently tension between the old Italian master and the young Saxon with new ideas. The following year at Ruspoli's palace the two clashed again when they collaborated in Handel's oratorio La resurrezione. Handel did take care, though, to provide the famous violinist with some ingratiating solos, something Corelli must have appreciated. [listen]

The performances of Handel's La resurrezione were among Corelli's last appearances. After 1708 he retired from public view and devoted his time to composing and revising orchestral concertos for his next publication. Many of the concertos which found their way into his opus 6 had been in existence for some time, including the famous "Christmas" concerto. By 1712 he had formalised an agreement with the publisher Étienne Roger in Amsterdam for a set of twelve "large concertos" (or in Italian, concerti grossi). Roger was one of the most important music publishers in Europe, one of the first non-Venetian music publishers to attract international business, and he was later an important publisher for Antonio Vivaldi.

Corelli's opus 6 is is his greatest legacy. These twelve concertos place a small group of soloists (two violins and a cello) against a larger body of strings and they too are cast in the free, multi-sectional, multi-movement form which had developed in opp 4 and 5. They influenced (and in some cases challenged) composers for decades, among them Handel. Handel's twelve "grand concertos" (his English version of concerto grossi) of 1739 are his attempt to capitalise on and, if possible, eclipse Corelli's achievement in his final opus. It shows that Corelli's concertos were still well-known decades after their publication, and I don't think it's a coincidence that Handel's own set was his opus 6. JS Bach also knew Corelli's music and based on his organ works (BWV579) on a theme by the Italian master. The endlessly inventive Georg Philipp Telemann clearly knew and admired Corelli's music. In Hamburg in 1735 he published his own set of six sonatas which are his take on the older Italian's style. He called them Sonates Corellisantes. In the case of Sir Michael Tippett, who I mentioned at the start of this article, the influence of Corelli lasted much longer. This is the second concerto of Corelli's opus 6, the concerto from which Tippett garnered his ideas for the 1953 Fantasia Concertante. [listen]

Engraving of Corelli from the title page of the first edition of his Opus 6 concertos

Sadly, Corelli didn't live to see the publication of opus 6. He died in Rome on 8 January 1713, five weeks before his 60th birthday. Opus 6 didn't appear in print until the following year.

In his will, made three days before his death, Corelli left a couple of his paintings to two of his noble patrons, but by far the bulk of his estate went to his trusted pupil and companion Matteo Fornari. Fornari received all Corelli's violins, his manuscripts, the plates of one his publications and the 100 copies of opus 6 which were being sent to Corelli to sell on his own terms once they were published.

Corelli was buried in the church of S Maria della Rotonda, the Roman building better-known as the Pantheon. For many years the congregation marked the anniversary of his death by performing his concertos in the church.

The Pantheon (S Maria della Rotunda), Rome. (Photo taken by me in 2019)
Plaque commemorating Corelli in the Pantheon, Rome. (Photo taken by me in 2019)

Corelli was described by those who knew him as serene and modest; his playing was described as "learned, elegant and pathetic" by one writer ("pathetic" meaning full of pathos, of feeling). Portraits of the composer emphasise his angelic qualities, something reinforced by his first name: Arcangelo, "archangel". Through his publications he went on to influence generations of composers and performers and he is rightly remembered today as the greatest violin virtuoso/composer of the golden age of Italian violin playing in the late 17th century.

I'll end with a link to the fourth concerto from opus 6. It's just lovely. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2014.

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