Consorts unchained!

Posted on: 30 January 2021, by :

These lyrics, from Come, ye sons of art, away, the birthday ode for Queen Mary of 1694, are an exhortation to use instruments overtly and powerfully — as Henry Purcell himself demonstrates in his setting. That prescient call would have struck home for its modernity, doubtless more than we can appreciate today.

Strike the viol! Touch the lute!
Wake the harp! Inspire the flute!
Sing your patroness's praise
In cheerful and harmonious lays! 

In Purcell’s tragically short lifetime (he died aged 35 the year after setting this ode) the idea of raising instruments out of a subservient role and casting them centre stage, though still a fairly novel one, was ripe for exploring and rapidly gaining ground across Europe. Instruments had come into their own in a way never seen in earlier times, primarily because of advances in the perfecting of their design and technology and the commensurate growth in the virtuosic skills that their perfection encouraged, already seen in the huge number of solo and trio sonatas composed earlier in the century. It was already the heyday of Italian violin-making and playing, with Italian virtuosi leading the developments in the manner of performance and how to apply extempore embellishment. While the modern concept of the ‘orchestra’ did not yet exist, to compose for a sizable ensemble, with a core of bowed stringed, plucked and keyboard instruments, had become commonplace for vocal music in opera theatres and at richly endowed basilicas and courts. For those several reasons, a growing desire for music suited to purely instrumental ensembles caused many of the earliest examples of the new kinds of Italian ‘concerto’ to be based on violin virtuosity and string playing that oscilates between highly animated allegro passages and slow interludes of contrasting pathos. Although some concerto-like compositions are labelled differently as ‘sonata’ or ‘sinfonia’, they have factors in common: their freedom from the structures and meanings of vocal music which leaves them free also for extravagant expressions, often with solos emerging out of the sonority of the whole band. This is music unchained, fun to play and impressive to witness.

Some of the earliest concertos were written and performed in the 1680s and 90s by the celebrated Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), the principal violin virtuoso at the court in Rome of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. The two selected here might date from the 1680s for all we know: they belong to Corelli’s opera sesta, the sixth collection of instrumental pieces that he prepared for printing and his only one of concertos, which was not published until 1714, after his death.

Corelli’s concerti grossi work in much the same way as his published trio sonatas — with duelling first and second violin parts and a cello part that is sometimes highly active too — except that they are amplified with extra players. No. 4 in D major follows the seventeenth-century model of the sonata da chiesa (appropriate for church use), whereas No. 11 in B flat exemplifies the sonata da camera (in the courtly manner), which includes dances to be admired without actual dancing. Because of their wide distribution in printed form across Europe, Corelli’s concertos, although considerably old-fashioned by 1714, remained hugely popular and influential: they underpinned the eighteenth-century tradition of public concerts in which the old functional distinction between church and court was no longer relevant.

A trailer for a CD recorded in 2018 by Tim Mead and Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien.

Corelli, Concerto grosso in D, Op. 6 No. 4, performed in 2015 by Voices of Music. Four movements: Adagio – allegro, Adagio, Vivace, Allegro – allegro.

Corelli, Concerto grosso in B flat, Op. 6 No. 11, played by Europa Galante in September 2019, at the Festival Estella in Spain. Six movements: Preludio – Allemanda – Adagio – Largo – Sarabanda – Giga.

* *  This is the first post in consorts unchained: a series on the heyday of the concerto. * *