Why scrape together a living as a musician in Italy when you could double your money and fame in London? That’s what motivated many an Italian musician in the eighteenth century to traverse the Alps and take up residence in England. England was well known for its wealth during this time. In 1713 Johann Mattheson aptly wrote “whoever wishes to achieve something in music these days makes for England. Italy and France are good for listening and learning; England is good for earning; Germany is good for only eating and drinking.”
Of course, not everyone fulfilled their dream there; but anyone who had a connection to the famed Italian violinist/composer Arcangelo Corelli had a better than average chance of making it big. Corelli himself did not actually visit London. However, his sonatas and concertos were published in England many times, and their impact cannot be overrated. In 1728, amateur musician and diarist Roger North likened them to the “bread of life.” As late as 1789, Charles Burney proclaimed that “the Concertos of Corelli seem to have withstood all the attacks of time and fashion… They preclude criticism and make us forget that there is any other Music of the same kind existing.”
Like Corelli’s 24 sonatas for violin and continuo, Op. 5, the composer’s concerti grossi, or “large concertos,” are masterpieces of composition. Corelli was lucky enough to have generous sponsors such as Queen Christina and, later, the Cardinal Ottoboni who supported him while he perfected his works, and the craftsmanship reflects his thoughtful compositional process. Concerti grossi are comprised of two groups within the orchestra: a select group of solo players called the concertino, and a larger contingent, the ripieno. The contrasting large and small sections and the interplay between the two groups provides a variety of sounds and characters. The fourth concerto from Op. 6 presents Corelli at his finest with contrasting fiery and soulful writing for orchestra and soloists alike.
The trumpet sonata attributed to Corelli was published by London’s most esteemed publishing house run by John Walsh (in fact, most of the facsimile editions we’re playing from this evening were published by Walsh). This sonata, accompanied by two violins and continuo, may have been written for a “Mr. Twiselton,” trumpeter for the Duke of Aumont.
Francesco Geminiani, one of Corelli’s most famous students, was well-versed in Corelli’s compositional techniques and capitalized on this as he settled in London in 1714. Not only did Geminiani compose his own concertos in a Corellian style, but he also arranged many of Corelli’s solo violin sonatas for orchestra. Geminiani particularly admired Corelli’s variations on the famous dance tune, “La Follia.” Geminiani’s orchestral version, the final piece on tonight’s concert, adds interesting inner lines to the challenging violin and cello concertino fireworks originally composed by Corelli.
Corelli’s legacy continued in the British Isles through Geminiani’s tutelage of Charles Avison. Avison was a big fan of the concerto grosso, particularly those by Corelli and Geminiani. He composed over 50 such concerti, and like Geminiani before him some were arrangements of other composers’ sonatas. Not only did he arrange Geminiani’s violin sonatas for orchestra, but he also adapted Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas as concerti grossi for strings. Our performance of Avison’s Concerto in E Minor heard tonight has the distinction of being an American premiere. Avison was also a well-respected teacher and performer. His book, An Essay in Musical Expression holds a wealth of information on topics such as the “force and effects” of music, the analogies between music and painting, musical composition, and most practical and important to us players, “On Musical Expression as it relates to the Performer.”
Like Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti did not travel to the British Isles at all, although some of his music was published there. Scarlatti, a Sicilian who worked mainly in Rome and Naples, is best remembered as an opera composer. He evidently had much material from which to draw, as he comes from a long line of Scarlattis whose history could easily be turned into a long- running soap opera, complete with a promiscuous sister who eventually married a cleric, runaway spouses, numerous political favors, and nepotism. Alessandro’s purely instrumental music is scant yet interesting. His Sinfonia in D Major performed this afternoon may be the only work for solo trumpet, solo flute, and strings.
Giuseppe Sammartini arrived in London by way of Amsterdam and Brussels. There, he immediately transformed oboe playing in England, having brought the new virtuosic Italian style into vogue. He eventually became the Musick Master in the household of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and dedicated several sonatas to Frederick’s wife, Augusta. His concerti grossi are among the finest works in the genre, “full of science, originality, and fire.”
© 2011, Julie Andrijeski