The Op. 5 collection consists of eleven sonatas; the twelfth, and most popular, work is a series of twenty-three variations on the ‘Follia' of which Corelli was especially proud. All twelve pieces contain a variety of difficult violin techniques and director Pavlo Beznosiuk takes centre stage; his polished playing thrilling in its virtuosity.
Corelli's contribution to the history of violin performance was immense. All six of his published collections of instrumental music demonstrate his exceptional skill as a violinist and composer, but it was in his Op. 5 Sonatas that Corelli had the most significant impact on violin technique.
The Avison Ensemble comprises some of Europe's leading Baroque musicians, including artists from The Hague, Germany, France, Austria and London, with international soloists from all over the globe. The Ensemble has attracted great critical acclaim since its formation in 1985:
‘The Avison Ensemble offer suave, personable performances, allowing this exquisitely engaging music to do its own work.' The Sunday Times (on Arcangelo Corelli Opus 6: Concerti Grossi)
‘What emerges in Pavlo Beznosiuk's supple performance with the Avison Ensemble is music of immense suavity and elegance - from the enchanting Largo of the 6th, to the tender pastoral of the Christmas Concerto.' The Independent (on Arcangelo Corelli Opus 6: Concerti Grossi)
Arcangelo Corelli died on 8 January 1713 and at this 300th anniversary of his death he remains one of the best known musicians in the annals of classical music; he is also acknowledged to be one of the greatest violinists of all time. Such a reputation is not unmerited as, within his own lifetime, Corelli was well-known across Europe as both a composer and a performer of distinction. Many have extolled Corelli's virtues, even though most commentators had never heard him play and, particularly in the case of the late eighteenth-century writers, used second-hand information with little consideration of how reliable their sources were. In spite of recent attempts to clarify the facts of Corelli's life, there is still a great deal we do not know. This lack of hard facts was also an issue faced by early biographers, who sought to flesh out the skeletal bones of Corelli's career through the fabrication of fanciful tales. One fact of which we can be certain is that Corelli entered the world on 17 February 1653 and that he appears to have been born into a family of affluent landowners in the small Italian town of Fusignano, west of Ravenna. Perhaps their prominent social standing
contributed to the high esteem in which the composer's future patrons were to hold both him and his family. Nevertheless, much of the rest of Corelli's youth is shrouded in myth. One writer, the Abbot Cesare Felice Laurenti, whose Storia di Fusignano dates from the end of the 18th century, was spurred on by this lack of evidence to spin a romantic yarn that outlined Corelli's first steps as a violinist. According to Laurenti, Corelli's interest in the violin was sparked by the playing of his local priest. Corelli subsequently pleaded for lessons that were provided by another priest, the incumbent of San Savino, a village situated two miles away from Corelli's home. Corelli would, no matter how inclement the weather, travel daily to study. In the warmer months, he would rest under the shade of a tree and take out his violin, which he played while the local people listened enraptured. Corelli's skill soon surpassed that of his master and he went to study music at Faenza. Unfortunately for Laurenti, this tale came unstuck when he reported that Corelli went to Faenza against the wishes of his father, when Corelli's father had in fact died a month before his birth.
From Faenza, Corelli studied at Lugo before he moved to the cultural centre of Bologna to continue his study of the violin and by 1675 he had relocated to Rome. 1675 was an auspicious year in the Roman calendar as Pope Clement X had decreed it to be a ‘Holy Year'. Corelli's first appearance at Rome was as part of their religious festivities, when he was engaged as an orchestral violinist for a series of oratorios at the Oratorio della Pietà of the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini; soon after, he began to appear at other churches in that city but, since Rome's religious institutions did not maintain permanent orchestras, the local musicians could not rely upon them for stable employment. Many sought the service of an enlightened patron who had the means to support a retinue of musicians, and Corelli was no exception. In 1679 he entered the service of Queen Christina of Sweden and by 1684 was in the employ of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. Finally, in 1690 he entered the household of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, under whose patronage Corelli was to remain for the rest of his life.
Throughout his Roman period, Corelli continued to be promoted within the church orchestras. In 1675 he had entered the orchestra of S. Luigi dei Francesi as the third of four violins; he subsequently played as second violin in 1676 and 1678, and became the leader of ten violins in 1682. Over the coming decades, Corelli was increasingly in demand as a violinist and was able to command high fees for his services. On 26 April 1706, he was admitted into the exclusive Arcadian Academy in Rome, on which occasion Corelli was given the name of ‘Arcomélo' (the melodious bow). In the last years of his life Corelli withdrew from playing to focus on composition. In his will he bequeathed all his violins to Matteo Fornari, a favourite pupil. Some of these violins were evidently sold as, according to Charles Burney, one of Corelli's violins came to be in the possession of the Newcastle upon Tyne musician Charles Avison (1709-1770). He subsequently presented it to the Italian violinist, Felice Giardini, a regular performer at Avison's Newcastle-based concerts.
There are numerous reports of Corelli's skill as a performer. James Drummond, the Earl of Perth, referred to Corelli in a letter as ‘the best player on the fidle that ever was', while Francesco Geminiani, a pupil of Corelli, described his violin playing as resembling ‘a sweet trumpet'. Some viewed Corelli's playing as serene, while the French priest, François Raguenet, revealed a very different side to Corelli. Rageunet wrote ‘I never met with any man that suffered his passions to hurry him away with so much whilst he was playing on the violin as the famous Arcangelo Corelli, whose eyes will sometimes turn as red as fire; his countenance will be distorted, his eyeballs roll as in an agony, and he gives in so much to what he is doing that he doth not look like the same man.' Clearly Corelli was a passionate performer who could get easily engrossed in his playing; on one occasion, he was admonished after he had ‘played far too long at the Church of S. Maria in Portici on Sunday.' Another mischievous anecdote, provided by Geminiani, paints a different picture of Corelli's abilities. This tale relates to Corelli's visit to Naples, probably in 1702, on which occasion he was asked to play the violin in a masque by Alessandro Scarlatti. The violin part was badly written and went up to the sixth position, which Corelli was unable to execute; Corelli was mortified when the Neapolitan violinists accomplished it effortlessly. Corelli then intensified his dishonour by making two erroneous starts in C Major to an aria in C minor.
Corelli became acquainted with Handel during his visits to Italy between 1706 and 1710, and in 1708 provided his services as the head of an orchestra formed for two performances of Handel's La Resurrezione at the Palazzo Bonelli. Handel was clearly aware of the great honour of being associated with the renowned Corelli, and paid him a compliment by basing the aria ‘Ho un non so che nel cor' on the Gavotta from the Sonata Op. 5, No. 10. Another anecdote, this time provided by the theologian John Mainwaring, concerned a 1707 performance of Handel's Il trionfo del tempo. Apparently, Corelli struggled to play some of the ‘spirited passages' and Handel, frustrated at the tame manner in which Corelli played, snatched the violin out of Corelli's hands and demonstrated the passages himself. Both Geminiani's and Mainwaring's anecdotes are at odds with what we know about Corelli, and evidence that Corelli was a skilled violinist can be found in the violin parts of his own compositions. It is true that he rarely exceeds the third position in his own works, but an occasional fourth position is required. It is also probable that the flamboyant violin solo in the aria ‘Un pensiero voli in ciel' from Handel's cantata Il delerio amoroso was written with Corelli in mind, and this can only be played if the fifth position is employed.
Corelli's Sonate a violino o cimbalo was the fifth of six opera issued by him between 1681 and 1714. While Opp. 1-4 are formed from trio sonatas, his final opus consists of his twelve ever popular concerti grossi. The Op. 5 were published in 1700 and dedicated to Sofia Carlotta of Brandenburg, a well-known supporter of the fine arts and music, and the younger sister of the future king of Great Britain, George I. Corelli's choice of dedicatee is a surprise for, with the exception of the dedication, it appears that he had no other connection with Sofia. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that politics may have played a part in Corelli's decision for, at this time, the papacy was negotiating conversions to Catholicism at the Berlin court. The first edition of the Op. 5 appeared in three separate issues, one that identified the engraver as Gasparo Pietra Santa, while the others added the address of the vendor, either Filippo Farinelli or Innocenzo Massimini. Peter Allsop, in his 1999 book on Corelli, believed that this must reflect the nature of the financial transaction between the composer and his publisher; this has led to a suggestion that the Op. 5 may have been a private publication undertaken and marketed by Corelli himself. This set of sonatas proved exceptionally popular and can claim to be the most commercially successful works ever published with over fifty reprints by 1800, including publications in Italy, England, Holland, France, Spain, and Austria. The earliest British edition, which was first advertised in August 1700, was published in London by John Walsh; this was the first of Corelli's works to be printed in that country, although his trio sonatas would have circulated for some time before this, both as manuscripts and in their original Roman prints.
As with his concertos, Corelli appears to have spent many years on the composition and revision of the Op. 5 Sonatas, and had written similar works as early as 1679 when he sent a Sonata for violin and lute or violone to Count Fabrizio Laderchi. The sonatas in the Op. 5 collection were almost certainly written for Corelli's own use and provide the best evidence of his violin technique. Although many have referred to these as ‘solo' sonatas, the title-page indicates that they were intended as unaccompanied duos for violin and violone with the option of substituting the latter with a harpsichord. Nevertheless, there was considerable flexibility in how these sonatas could be performed, and this is reflected in this recording where a variety of instruments are used to provide the continuo.
The Op. 5 collection consists of eleven sonatas; the twelfth work is a series of twenty-three variations on the ‘Follia'. The collection was divided by Corelli into two groupings of six, of which the first six take the sonata da chiesa (church sonata) form; they are based on the four-movement slow-fast-slow-fast pattern, to which Corelli adds an extra fast movement. The second group are of the sonata da camara (chamber sonata) type and are formed of an introductory Preludio movement, usually followed by a series of dances. However, as in his concertos, there is some amalgamation between the two types; two of the Op. 5 finales of the da chiesa sonatas are styled Giga, while the penultimate sonata of the six da camera works has only one movement with a dance title. The Op. 5 was also important as the model of two types of movement that were widely imitated: an opening slow movement which, as in Sonata 1, is punctuated after each cadence by cadenza-like writing, and a fugal movement in which the solo violin replicates through double stopping the interplay of the upper parts of a trio sonata.
The most popular piece in the Op. 5 set has always been the twelfth work, the ‘Follia', a series of variations on what was originally a well-known Portuguese dance from the 15th century. By the last quarter of the 17th century, numerous composers had employed a particular form of follia in their works, based on a single harmonic pattern and melodic line. Earlier composers to use this dance include Michel Farinel, D'Anglebert, and Johann Förtsch, but it remained popular long after Corelli's time.
J.S. Bach used it in his Peasant Cantata, while sets of variations were produced by C. P. E. Bach, Scarlatti and Vivaldi. Later works that used the follia include Liszt's Rhapsodie espagnole (1863), Carl Nielsen's Maskarade (1906) and Rachmaninoff 's Variations on a Theme by Corelli Op. 42 (1932). Corelli was particularly pleased with his ‘Follia' variations; Geminiani wrote that he had ‘heard him [Corelli] acknowledge the Satisfaction he took in composing it, and the Value he set upon it.'
It is clear that many of the movements, particularly those of a slow tempo, were intended to be ornamented. In 1710 the Amsterdam publisher Estienne Roger issued a new edition of the Op. 5 with embellishments, allegedly provided by Corelli himself to illustrate the correct manner of performance of the twelve slow movements of the da chiesa sonatas. Several other 18th-century musicians also produced ornamented versions of one or more sonatas, including Geminiani, Matthew Dubourg and Nicola Matteis; on the present recording all the ornamentation was improvised on the spot. More radical alterations were done by Geminiani, who produced concerti grossi arrangements of the Op. 5, and between 1725 and 1729 Giovanni Platti adapted these sonatas for the court orchestra at Würzburg. Other composers who borrowed from the Op. 5 include the German musician J. G. Walther, who based his Variationi sopr'un Basso continuo del Sigr Corelli on the Gavotta of Sonata 11; another piece by Walther, this time for organ, uses the Preludio of Sonata 9. Giuseppe Tartini also produced a set of variations on the Gavotta from the tenth sonata.
All twelve pieces contain a variety of difficult violin techniques. Some of the key features are the use of double and triple stops, fast runs, rapid arpeggios, cadenzas, and the polyphonic playing of the two parts of a fugue. There is also the use of semi-quaver thirds, as heard in the delightful Allegro 1 of Sonata 3, and etudelike movements in moto perpetuo, such as the vibrant Allegro 2 of Sonata 6. Other movements of interest include the Preludio of Sonata 7, which is essentially a 2-part canon, and the second Vivace of Sonata 5 which begins with an exchange between the violin and bass.
Corelli's contribution to the history of violin performance was immense. Even though Corelli himself was not well-known for his virtuoso skill, he was celebrated for the serenity, dignity and passionate expression of his performances, a style of playing that accentuated his angel-like persona. All six of his published collections of instrumental music demonstrate his exceptional skill as a violinist and composer, but it was in his Op. 5 Sonatas that Corelli had the most significant impact on violin technique. His methods, which were spread across Europe by his pupils and their successors, resulted in the first major school of violin playing, and his violinistic descendants can be loosely traced to the present day. So important was Corelli to violin instruction that, in Italy itself, long after the vogue for the trio sonatas had waned, his reputation survived there due to the phenomenal success of his twelve Op. 5 works upon which, as Burney informs us, ‘all good schools for the violin have been since founded.'
© Simon D. I. Fleming, 2013