History remembers Arcangelo Corelli as the first virtuoso of the violin, a 17th century Paganini: “I never met with any man that suffered his passions to hurry him away 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.” His prodigious skills notwithstanding, strong evidence suggests that Corelli refused to compose for—or even play—the full range of the violin. That would have to wait for another virtuoso, Antonio Vivaldi.
Corelli was insanely popular in his lifetime, appearing before the crowned heads of Europe in courts stretching from Rome to Sweden. On some of his tours, he was joined by a young George Frideric Handel and his influence on the young composer was profound. But Corelli’s greatest impact, in my view, was the product of his own compositions. Corelli is credited today with developing modern violin technique and, perhaps due to his love of the instrument, is responsible for moving the concept of a large-scale orchestral body forward through the invention of the concerto grosso.
Corelli was not a prolific composer. What remains of his output are a handful of sonatas, trios, and concerti grossi. All are important in the development of music. His “La Folia” Variations for violin set the standard for virtuosity at the time, developing one of the more famous basso ostinato lines in history (http://www.folias.nl/html1.html). Unquestionably, he had composed it for himself. In looking for a recording, I thought I might present a contrast between technique and taste. First up, Nathan Milstein—one of the midcentury giants of the violin, a Top 10 on any serious violinist’s list. I was fortunate to see him a few times at the end of his career—he was the last of the great Russian giants of the age and it was a real privilege to hear him play. His technique was unrivaled, perhaps in the history of the violin, but I can’t say I love his interpretation here, which is far too Romantic for my taste. The second selection is from Andrew Manze, a contemporary early music specialist. I heard him live in London and left midway—unlistenable, to quote the Professor. All style without any regard for intonation or other things that really should be table stakes. But on recording? He’s brilliant, no more so here (I couldn’t find Follia alone, so use the links in the YouTube description to skip to roughly the 1hr, 59min. mark). Who gets your vote, Milstein or Manze?
Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12 in D Minor, “Follia” (Milstein): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZ8fnYN4IjA
Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12 in D Minor, “Follia” (Manze): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5ce15s4NYc
Or, for that matter, how about Emilie Autumn? A brilliant contemporary artist, Autumn’s work has been described as everything from “Fairy Pop” to “Fantasy Rock” and “Victoriandustrial”, incorporating elements of classical music, cabaret, electronica, and glam rock into her music. Classically trained on violin, studying for a time at Indiana University (home to our Progressive Conscience), she released a version of La Folia a few years ago, demonstrating the enduring influence of Corelli’s music.
Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12 in D Minor, “Follia” (Autumn): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXcZP5jpOMs
Corelli died a very wealthy man and was buried in the Pantheon at Rome, a fitting resting place for music’s first iconic superstar. His fame among violinists is undying—it is common for serious students to trace their “lineage” back through their teachers to the great masters of old. Many still trace their roots, from student to teacher, all the way back to Corelli. For violinists, he is Genesis.