The concerto grosso was invented in the last quarter of the 17th century in Italy, primarily by violinist/composer Arcangelo Corelli. His innovation was one of texture rather than structure, since what he did was to expand the instrumental color possibilities of the trio sonata (for two violins and basso continuo) by adding a large four-part body of strings. The smaller solo group became known as the “concertino” and the larger as the “ripieno” or “concerto grosso.” But the fact that the ripieno was there mostly for coloristic purposes is confirmed by Corelli’s own suggestion, in the preface to his only published set of concerti, the Opus 6 from 1714, that one could just as well play them simply as trio-sonatas, omitting the ripieno altogether. (The late date for publication—in fact, the year after Corelli’s death—is misleading. The pieces probably date from several decades earlier, and certainly the style does: Georg Muffat wrote about hearing Corelli perform his music with a very large orchestra during Muffat’s sojourn in Italy between 1680 and 1682.)

The concerti of Corelli are generally in four or five movements. Sometimes a single movement contains several sections in contrasting tempi, reminiscent of the single-movement sonatas from the beginning of the 17th century. Like his trio sonatas, they can be either “da chiesa” (for the church), in which case the movements are primarily contrapuntal and imitative, or they can be “da camera” (for the chamber), with the movements being dance-forms. But with regard to form they are rather free, since Corelli did not develop the structural possibilities that the concerto grosso format implied. That remained for the next generation of composers, especially Antonio Vivaldi. Nevertheless, the Corellian style of concerto grosso remained popular well into the mid-18th century, especially in England. Most especially, George Frideric Handel’s two sets of concerti grossi (opus 3, from 1734, and opus 6, from 1739) both follow the style of Corelli rather than that of Vivaldi. This may be a matter of trying to please his market (the English concert-going public); but it seems also to have been his preference. It is surely no coincidence that from 1706 to 1710 he was living and working in Italy, including in Rome where he met and often heard Corelli.

It remained for the second generation of Italian concerto composers. primarily Antonio Vivaldi, to evolve a structure that matched the ripieno-concertino structure of the Corellian orchestra. This new form, based on a procedure called “ritornello,” evolved in the first two decades of the 18th century, first appearing in print in Vivaldi’s opus 3, “L’Estro armonico.” Ironically, this trailblazing collection was published in 1710 by Etienne Roger of Amsterdam, the same publisher that did Corelli’s opus 6, and four years earlier than the older composer’s publication.

These new concerti were either in three movements (fast-slow-fast) or four (slow-fast-slow-fast). But the real contrast to Corelli’s works was in the structural distinction between the music for the ripieno and for the concertino. In Vivaldi’s format, the orchestra plays a concise, well-defined complex of thematic material that is in a clearly heard tonality. This thematic statement, called the ritornello, recurs throughout a movement, in various contrasting tonalities. In between statements of the ritornello the soloists develop the themes and the tonality. This model allows the composition of longer, more extended movements, in which the structure is articulated both by the changes in tonality and by the recurrence of thematic material. It was adopted enthusiastically by the German composers of the 18th century, particularly Bach and Telemann (and formed the basis of the evolution of the Classical solo concerto of Mozart, Beethoven, and their successors).

Unquestionably the best-known of Corelli’s works is his “Christmas” Concerto, the eighth of twelve in his ?nal published work, the opus 6 collection of 1714. It gets its name from the unusual last movement, and from the subtitle “fatto per la notte di natale” (“made for the night of the Nativity,” i.e., Christmas Eve) that appears at its head. For the most part, it is a normal concerto “da chiesa” in five movements, overall in G minor. There are two pairs of movements, the first and second and the fourth and fifth, all in G minor, framing the third movement in the contrasting key of E-flat major. The first is in two sections: a short flurry of abrupt chords, followed by a slow section with many suspended dissonances. The second movement is fast, but also based on suspensions, with the orchestra punctuating the melodic gestures of the concertino. The third movement is a three-part structure, with slow arpeggiated harmonies in the outer sections, surrounding an agitated Allegro. Then follows a Minuet as the fourth movement, and what would ordinarily be the last movement, in fast rhythm and imitative texture. However, after that comes the additional, singular sixth movement: it is in G major, rather than minor, and its 12/8 meter is in imitation of the pastorelle traditionally played by Italian folk-instrumentalists to celebrate the Nativity. This use of the pastorelle was subsequently copied by Handel (in Messiah) and Bach (in his Pastorale for organ).

The first of Handel’s two published sets of concerti grossi was published in 1734, as opus 3. Because they were published with parts for two oboes, they became known in England as the Oboe Concerti, even though the oboes mostly just double the string parts. The collection seems to have been assembled—perhaps by Handel himself or possibly by his publisher, John Walsh—rather than being composed for publication, as were the opus 6 concerti of 1739. In the first printing, the fourth actually contained no music by Handel. The concerto on this program is genuinely Handel’s music, substituted for the ersatz concerto in later printings. It has four movements, but they are not in the pattern slow-fast-slow-fast. The first movement is actually a French Overture, with opening and closing sections slow in tempo and characterized by majestic dotted rhythms, framing a quick imitative section. In this case, the whole band is playing all the time, without any of the dialogue between Handel’s contrasting groups that one expects in a concerto. The second movement does have an independent line for the first oboe that approaches being a solo line; it is in a moderate, dance-like triple time, with a slow transition to the third movement substituted added onto the end. The third, like most third movements in a four-movement concerto, is in a contrasting key, the relative for minor, but is fast and imitative (like one of Corelli’s second movements). It is also the only movement in this concerto to have the real interplay between contrasting groups — strings against reeds. A Minuet-and-Trio forms the closing movement. The ?rst ersatz Minuet is actually a four-voice orchestral transcription of the Minuet from the ?ute sonata in G major, from Handel’s opus 1. The Trio is indeed in three voices, with an interesting distribution of instruments: the first violins and both oboes play the top line, the second violins are doubled by the violas and the bassoon (departing from its normal bass function) on the second line, and the basso continuo section plays the bass. But neither does this movement have any concerted dialogue. It seems likely that a group of odd pieces in the same or related keys were put together to form a “concerto” to replace the one that was not really Handel.

Vivaldi’s Concerto in C for Flautino is typical of his style. Of the three movements, the first and third—the two fast movements—are constructed according to the ritornello procedure. The orchestra (including the soloist) plays the ritornello, first fully in the tonic key, then in contrasting tonalities, and finally in the tonic again; and in between the orchestral statements, the soloist plays long and highly virtuosic passages which develop the themes from the ritornello and also move between the tonal centers established in the ritornelli. The slow movement, also typical of Vivaldi, is a highly decorative movement in the style of an operatic aria, in this case a binary movement with two sections each of which is repeated. In this performance, “flautino” is interpreted to mean a soprano recorder. This is the instrument on which this well-known piece is generally heard; but “flute” is a term that in Europe at this time could mean both vertical flutes (recorder) and transverse flutes, and piccolo flutes were known and played in Venice.

In Telemann’s concerto for recorder, bassoon, and strings, it is an alto recorder that is paired with the bassoon to make the concertino. German composers often used mixed groups of wind instruments for the concertino instead of the string ensembles favored by Italian composers; even Vivaldi followed this trend in his several concerti that he composed for the Electoral court in Dresden. Telemann evidently preferred to cast his concerti in four movements, and this one follows the slow-fast-slow-fast pattern. But he departed from Vivaldi’s practice in using ritornello-construction in all four movements, not just the fast one. The first (slow) and last (fast) movements are in normal, albeit extended, ritornello form.

The second movement combines the procedure with a binary form (two sections, each repeated). And the third merely suggests a ritornello: the orchestral statement at the beginning is repeated only once, exactly, at the very end. This is a shape that Telemann often used in third of a four-movement work.

The Christmas theme from the Corelli concerto is continued in a group of four “aguinaldos” set for recorder, violin, and basso continuo by Aldo Abreu, one of this evening’s soloists. An aguinaldo is a traditional Venezuelan Christmas song, which is often characterized by lively, shifting Caribbean rhythms.

Copyright © 1999, Daniel Pyle