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:  

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:

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):

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.

Corelli and The Circle of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths is one of the great Conversations in music history, endlessly copied and cited by composers over the centuries.  As one musicologist observed:

Corelli’s harmonies were the most appreciated quality appreciated by his contemporaries and posterity alike. On the one hand, it is the clarity and regularity of progression, the musical escalator known as the “circle of fifths,” in which a segment of melody is repeated in keys either five notes higher or four notes lower than the original statement (called a “sequence”). On the other hand, it is the audacious harmonic surprises of the sustained slow movements that conveyed the melancholy of what Hawkins calls “pathetic.” The passing excursions from major to minor and back raised and lowered the spirits of the listeners with suspensions (sustained notes which at first create harmonic instability–dissonance– against changes of harmony) that release the momentary tension they create by resolving, much to the relief of the listener.” 

Bruce Lamott

Here is Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, in which the Circle of Fifths can be easily discerned. Just listen for that progression of chords, each one based on part of the last.

Arcangelo Corelli, Christmas Concerto:

The Circle of Fifths has been used by many composers over the years.  Billy Roberts wrote a classic song that starts with a C Major chord, followed by G Major, etc., until it comes to rest on an E Major chord, before repeating the cycle.  You probably haven’t heard his version.  But you have heard Jimi Hendrix’s.  The first GSOD tune to be repeated here:

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hey Joe:

You can hear it intuitively—the Circle of Fifths is so damn satisfying to hear.  But here is a video that distills it for you: Other songs to use the Circle of Fifths include are such diverse offerings as “I Will Survive” (Gloria Gaynor), “You Never Give Me Your Money” (The Beatles), “Wild World” (Cat Stevens), and “Moon River” (Henri Mancini).  Gershwin wrote one that went around the circle backwards, but that’s getting ahead of myself.  That’s a tune for another day.

Baroque Music III: Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)

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 (  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):

Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12 in D Minor, “Follia” (Manze):

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):

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.