Arcangelo Corelli: Notes and Commentary

“The increasing importance of instrumental music during the late Baroque period is emphasized most strongly by the fact that Arcangelo Corelli, one of the most eminent composers of this era, wrote nothing at all for the voice. To Corelli, music owes the early development of two of the most significant forms of instrumental music, the sonata and the concerto.”–David EwenThe Complete Book of Classical Music

“No other prominent composer so drastically limited his output to a single medium: string sonatas and concertos. His five books of sonatas constitute a corpus of work that in its consistency of high artistic achievement has few equals.”—Claude Palisca, Baroque Music

Arcangelo Corelli was an Italian violinist and composer of the Baroque era. He lived from 1653 to 1713. For biographical notes, go to Wikipedia.

Excerpted from

Compared to other violinist-composers, Corelli eschewed virtuosity. He was firmly in control of the language of tonality, but not all movements are tonally closed. A traditional distinction between sacred and secular pieces is maintained in each collection in terms of the character of most movements and the scoring, but dance movements may appear in church sonatas and fugal movements in chamber works. There was little precedent in Italian prints for such chamber sonatas as those of Corelli; the precedents are from Germany and England. He published only five volumes during his lifetime.

In the late 17th and 18th centuries Corelli’s reputation as a performer and teacher was at least equal to the reputation he achieved as a composer. Italian and foreign students contributed to the dissemination of his works and his style of playing. His sonatas were widely performed and often reprinted, both as ideal practice material for students and as models for composers. For the solo sonatas (op. 5) there are several extant sets of ornaments, some attributed to the composer himself; his works remained especially popular in England.

The implications of fully systematized tonality were first realized in the concerto compositions of Corelli and his contemporaries. His concerti grossi exploit the contrast of smaller and larger instrumental groups within a movement that had been used previously by others. Corelli’s treatment differs fundamentally from that of his predecessors, for whereas they had merely detached small groups from a main orchestral body from time to time to vary the texture, he opposes a fixed ‘concertino’ string trio of two violins and cello to a ‘ripieno’ string band, each group having its own continuo. He makes little or no difference between the two groups either of material or treatment: the soli tutti contrast is his chief concern.

He was not an innovator in formal organization, usually following the patterns of the earlier Bolognese church and chamber sonatas in the number and order of the movements: thus the Concerti da chiesa, nos. 1-8, have normally five movements (occasionally supplemented by brief linking movements) alternating slow and quick tempi; the Concerti da camera,nos. 9-12, consist of a prelude in contrapuntal style and three dances, with either brief links or contrapuntal movements between the dances. In matters of style, however, his works were of fundamental importance for the subsequent development of Italian baroque music.

His allegros are characterized by rapid changes of harmony underlining the metrical structure, repeated notes, widely ranging themes, more idiomatic violin writing than any previous composer had used, and above all a mechanically progressive rhythm which, in conjunction with the sequential progressions and strictly organized harmonies mentioned above, gives an impression of inevitable development and relentless progress. In contrapuntal adagios he produces an effect of diversity of parts without thickening the texture by continually crossing the lines of the two violin parts, the apparent polyphonic complexity being heightened by chains of suspensions and seventh chords. His fugues achieve a similar effect by frequent entries of the subject in a texture which shifts rapidly from two- to three- or four-part counterpoint.-–

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