Corelli transformed

Posted on: 12 February 2021, by :

Arcangelo Corelli’s music was the first in European history to go viral. This was caused by the wide dissemination of his twelve violin sonatas—a collection first printed in 1700 and republished in more than forty editions in the eighteenth century alone—that built on the popularity of his earlier collections of trio sonatas. His concertos published in 1714, which we sampled in the previous post in this series, squeezed his style into a more powerful mode: as concert music. The snag with Corelli’s music is that in its written form, as published, it can seem somehow too restrained for its own good: even when suitably embellished, it does not easily convey the extraordinary improvisatory skills, or the passion, with which Corelli himself must have performed it.

Like every efficient virus, Corelli’s style mutated, again and again, and was slow to die out. Variants quickly sprang up all over the place: not even Vivaldi, whose own default style by c1700 was idiosyncratic to say the least, was immune. For many composers, the contagion was transmitted by inevitable community spread, due to exposure to Corelli’s published works and an infectious desire to emulate them or better them. For others, it was caught through direct personal contact. Many Corellian compositions were produced by the violin virtuosi whom Corelli had himself trained in Rome, who became leading exponents in artistic centres far removed from Rome. One was Pietro Castrucci, who settled in London and for many years led the theatre orchestra for Handel’s operas. Another was Francesco Geminiani, who from 1714 also settled in London and was active professionally in Dublin too for several lengthy periods, notably in the 1730s just after the first two sets of his own concertos had been published.

Meanwhile, besides the mutations, new species had emerged from cross-fertilization. In the music composed in Rome before 1710 by the Florentine composer Giuseppe Valentini, for instance, one hears the sounds of Corelli alongside characteristics of the concerto of the markedly different type emanating from Venice. Although Valentini might have studied with Corelli (this is uncertain), his music has a level of originality that speaks more of collegial rivalry between the two composers than emulation of the older man’s work.

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


Geminiani, concerto grosso in D major, Op. 3 No. 1 (published 1732), performed by Concerto Köln, directed from the violin by Evgeny Sviridov, in a concert of April 2019 given in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.

It is in some of these mutations that we may experience the power and passion of Corelli’s style that tend to go unrealized in Corelli’s own pieces. Geminiani was just the person to know this: he not only championed Corelli’s music as a performer and teacher but also supercharged the Corelli cult gathering pace in Britain and Ireland by publishing, in 1726-7, his own conversions of Corelli’s solo violin sonatas into fully scored concertos. Geminiani’s own music, as this live performance of his Op. 3 No. 1 conveys very well, juxtaposes audacious technical brilliance with tenderness expressed in decorative ways. He understood, perhaps more than most, that success with the spectacle of concertos served up at public concerts—then a brand new fashion of urban life that was taking root in Britain—depended both on ambition on the part of the composer to inspire the audience in an arresting way and the parallel ambition of the virtuoso, ‘if while his Imagination is warm and glowing he pours the same exalted Spirit into his own Performance’.


The first two movements (LargoAllegro) of Giuseppe Valentini’s concerto grosso in A minor, Op. 7 No. 11 (published Bologna, 1710), performed by the Neue Hofkapelle Osnabrück in the Nikolaikirche, Bad Essen, in September 2018.