Corelli and The Birth of the Orchestra

Corelli’s Opus 6 concerti grossi are his most significant achievement.  Although he did not invent the concerto grosso form, Corelli certainly popularized it, paving the way for Vivaldi (The Four Seasons) and Bach (Brandenburg Concertos), two of the high points of Baroque music and among the best-known examples of the concerto grosso form.  The Opus 6 concerti grossi are exemplars of the mid-Baroque Period.  In Corelli’s hands, these concerti grossi, built around two contrastingly sized groups of instruments, are nothing less than proto-symphonies. Corelli scored his compositions for what we now recognize as a string orchestra, which supported a small group of soloists—Corelli was partial to a trio of two violins and a cello, but this group was not a fixed constant.

Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert recorded what is, in my view, the definitive version of the Opus 6 Concerti Grossi.  This recording is in regular rotation in my home.  One high point of note, the sixth movement of the first concerto grosso, which can be accessed in the links in the YouTube description, taking you to the 7:59 mark.

Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto Grosso in D, Op. 6, No. 1, VI. Allegro:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjVZQdb_MRs&list=RDxjVZQdb_MRs&start_radio=1&t=0

Corelli’s influence on the composers who followed him was immense. For example, J.S. Bach studied Corelli’s scores in detail, transcribing several of them.  Here is a Bach organ fugue (BWV 579), which is based on the second movement of Corelli’s Op. 3, No. 4—this required no great research, as Bach cited directly to Corelli in the title (which, sadly, isn’t always the case—yes, Led Zeppelin, I’m looking at you). 

First, here’s the original Corelli theme.  Skip to 2:30 in this:

Arcangelo Corelli, Sonate da Chiesa a Tre, II. Vivace: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHoqEH7so9s.   

Now, Bach’s recomposition as a fugue.  This link has a good video, as well as some more background on the relationship between the two pieces:

J.S. Bach, Organ Fugue in B Minor (on a theme by Corelli): https://www.bachvereniging.nl/en/bwv/bwv-579/

Corelli’s innovations would reach perfection in the compositions of Vivaldi, Handel and Bach, paving the way for what we recognize as the core canon of classical music. Next time you visit the Pantheon in Rome, join the legions of violinists who have paid their respects to one of the most important figures in music history.

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