Concerto 9, Op. 6, No. 9
Archangelo Corelli

The Italian violinist-composer Arcangelo Corelli is generally credited with the creation of the concerto in the modern sense of the term: a piece for a soloist or solo-ensemble contrasted with an orchestra. The written evidence of his fellow musicians, especially the German Georg Muffat, suggests that Corelli originated this form in the late 1670’s or early 80’s—even though they did not appear in print until several decades later, in 1714. The last year of his life was spent in selecting and polishing the twelve best examples of his work in this genre for publication as his Opus 6, but he died before the process of engraving and printing them could be completed.

All of Corelli’s concerti contrast the large orchestral group with a solo-ensemble of two violins, cello and a continuo instrument. Not coincidentally, this solo-group was the standard trio-sonata ensemble: apparently Corelli had the idea for this concerto-style from re-scoring his trio-sonatas for orchestral forces, and alternating between the large group and the original trio-ensemble to create textural contrasts. Success in these large-scale performances of trios would have led him to compose new music intended for orchestra, and thus the new genre was born. We know these pieces as “concerti grossi” from the designation Corelli gave to the large group (meaning just that: “the large ensemble”), calling the small solo-group the “concertino” (the “small ensemble”).

The connection between Corelli’s concerti grossi and his trio sonatas (of which he published four volumes) is seen in the fact he that the title page divides the twelve concerti in Opus 6 into two groups, that correspond to the sonate da chiesa (“church sonatas,” which were more polyphonic in texture and abstract in form, as in Corelli’s Op. 1 & Op. 3) and the sonate da camera (“chamber sonatas,” which were largely in dance-forms, as in his Op. 2 & Op. 4). The first eight concerti in the set are described as “concerti grossi con duoi Violini, e Violoncello di Concertino obligati, e duoi altri Violini, Viola e Basso di Concerto Grosso…Parte Prima.” They are, like the sonate da chiesa, primarily polyphonic and abstract. On the other hand, the title-page does not even use the term “concerto grosso” in its description of Nos. 9-12: “Preludi, Allemande, Corrente, Gighe, Sarabande, Gavotte e Minuetti…Parte Seconda per Camera.” These virtually identical in form to the sonate da camera.

The Concerto No. 9 in F is the first of the four which are more like a dance-suite than the common idea of a concerto. The only two of the six movements which are not in dance-form are the slow introductory Preludio and a short Adagio which connects the last two dances, the Gavotta and the Minuetto. After the Preludio come an Allemanda, which is in the customary 4/4 time, and a Corrente, which in the Italian style is a quick triple-time dance. One might expect a Sarabanda to follow, but there is none (the 10th concerto also lacks a Sarabanda). Instead there is a dance which is entitled “Gavotta,” but which starts off with the short pick-up note which is characteristic of the Bourée (Corelli might have said “Borea”) rather than the long two-note pick-up which defines a true Gavotte. The closing Minuetto is also somewhat unorthodox, in that the central section is a continuous 24 measures of music—rather than the customary binary form—and has an “echo” built into the close of the main minuet sections.

Concerto “La tempesta di mare”
Antonio Vivaldi

The next great innovator in the concerto genre after Corelli was the Venetian Antonio Vivaldi, with regard both to the structural nature of the concerto and to its expressive capacities. He constructed the movements of his concerti using the ritornello, a complex of sharply-defined thematic elements which recur throughout the movement, tying together the solo episodes and organizing them by progression of tonalities. (It was this organizing principle which Bach adopted so eagerly, and used to create his large-scale forms.) And he expanded the expressive scope of an otherwise abstract form by using the same musical gestures which he used in his many operas, to create moods and depict events or circumstances. The concerto La tempesta di mare (“the tempest at sea”) is highly pictorial, much like the Four Seasons. Its tumultuous scales, running up and down, suggest the rising and falling of waves in a storm at sea; and the sudden changes of mood and style seem to imply the shifting and gusting of winds and sea. This was evidently a favorite piece of Vivaldi’s, because it exists in three different versions. Originally it was a “chamber” concerto, for only a flute (recorder), oboe, violin, bassoon, and harpsichord (or other continuo instrument). This version—perhaps the latest—expands upon the original by retaining the solo-group of flute, oboe, and bassoon, and enhancing the violin and continuo with a full orchestral ensemble; he also arranged it as a solo concerto for transverse flute with strings, this being for publication and presumably more salable because of the simpler orchestration.

Concerto in E major
Georg Philipp Telemann

Many German composers were quick to embrace the tonal and thematic structure that Vivaldi developed, especially Bach and Telemann. Telemann in particular excelled in exploring the possibilities of tone-color, creating unusual combinations of instruments in his solo-groups. In his Concerto in E major, instead of the strong primary colors of violin and oboe, he uses the delicate shades of the oboe d’amore and viola d’amore. The oboe d’amore is pitched lower than a regular oboe and has a bulb-shaped bell that gives it a gentle, covered sound; the viola d’amore has the somewhat retiring tone of a viola, but enhanced by the shimmer of sympathetic strings under the bowed strings. The sound of the flute is made to match its partners by the choice of E major for the key: the many forked fingerings which are required for the accidentals encourage a gentler sound than the brighter keys (for the flute) of D or G. As so often in Telemann’s orchestral music, the rhythms and gestures of Polish music (he worked for several years in Poland) add to the life and vigor of the work, especially in the second movement.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major (BWV 1050)
Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 is one of a set of six concerti grossi which he prepared as a gift for the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1720 (Bach was perhaps looking for a change of employment), each one with a different solo-ensemble. In this case, one of the three solo instruments—the harpsichord—is given preeminence over the flute and the violin. In doing this, Bach created the first concerto with a solo keyboard part—before this piece, the keyboard player was restricted to functioning as a part of the continuo group, but never as a soloist with a fully composed part. Doubtless he was inclined to show off his own prowess at the keyboard, and he was also the first to elevate the harpsichord to a co-equal role with violins and flutes in his chamber music. It seems also likely that he composed this concerto originally to celebrate the acquisition of a new harpsichord by his patron, the Duke of Anhalt-Cöthen. In 1719 Bach traveled to Berlin and back to accept a new harpsichord from the builder Michael Mietke and supervise its transport to Cöthen. (This may also be the occasion when he met the Margrave of Brandenburg.)

The first movement of the concerto starts out, after the opening ritornello, with the three solo instruments apparently equal. But as the movement progresses, the harpsichord part becomes increasing dominant, culminating in a very large unaccompanied cadenza. (In the original 1719 version, this cadenza was considerably shorter, but Bach extended it in the dedication copy sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg.) In the second movement the orchestra is silent: it is what Telemann would have called a “quadro,” a chamber ensemble with three treble parts the flute, the violin, and the harpsichordist’s right hand—and bass provided by the harpsichordist’s left hand with optional reinforcement by a cello. The concerto closes in a gigue-like movement in A-B-A form, with the flute, the violin, and the harpsichord mostly equal.

©2001 Daniel Pyle