Encore: The Baroque Era
The first virtuoso: Arcangelo Corelli
Arcangelo Corelli (Italian, 1653-1713) is not a name the average person is familiar with, but he was among the first truly Baroque composers, and his music remains fresh to this day. Unfortunately, little is known about his personal life beyond the basics: He was born to a wealthy family in Fusignano, Italy, and began studying violin in Bologna at the age of 17. His exuberant performances made him something of a celebrity, and he quickly developed a wide fanbase that included the Queen of Sweden. His impeccable technique became the gold standard for generations of violinists, despite his idiosyncratic avoidance of the violin’s upper range. He died a rich man with a sizable collection of quality violins.
Corelli’s work is well represented by his Opus 5, a collection of trio sonatas for violin, violone, and basso continuo. The violone is the Baroque predecessor of the cello. The name literally translates to “big viol,” the viol being the common ancestor of all modern bowed string instruments. The basso continuo is not a specific instrument but rather a term that refers to any instrument capable of playing chords: organ, harpsichord, piano, or even harp. The part consists of a series of chords, generally longer in duration than the notes of the main melody. It was essentially the first form of counterpoint to arise in the Baroque, a forerunner of more complex techniques to come.
Sonata in D Major, Op. 5 No. 1
I. Grave - Allegro
II. Allegro - Adagio
The first sonata in the collection (set in D major) has five movements, each only a few minutes long. The first movement alternates between slow, stately melodies (grave being a slow tempo, pr. “grä-vā”) and fast, exuberant rushes. Note that the violin consistently steals the show. This was undoubtedly one of Corelli’s personal showpieces, but the emphasis on the violin at the expense of the other performers would go on to become the accepted standard for many years to come.
In the second movement, the violin is heard first, introducing a motif which will be echoed by the other instruments. Throughout the rest of the movement the different parts play with this theme and its variations, an early example of the imitative counterpoints that would become the holy grail of Baroque composition.
The third and shortest movement is the most obvious showpiece in the sonata, less than a minute of high-speed violin work, during which the accompaniment is all but silent. One can easily imagine Corelli taking a dramatic bow after the final note is played.
The fourth movement is a necessary respite from the exuberance of the previous two, a slow and somber melody with a rich and supportive accompaniment. Like most such movements, it ends with an extended note that dies away into silence, anticipating the explosive beginning of the next movement.
The fifth movement is reminiscent of the second; the violin introduces a shimmering, energetic theme which is then picked up by the other instruments. It’s a typical final movement, gathering influence from the movements that came before and sending off the whole work with a triumphant march.