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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

CHAPTER 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form

Corelli, Vivaldi, and Their German Imitators

CHAPTER 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


As far as we know, Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) never set a word of text to music. A virtuoso violinist, he was the first European composer who enjoyed international recognition as a “great” exclusively on the strength of his finely wrought instrumental ensemble works. They circulated widely in print both during his lifetime and for almost a century after his death, providing countless other musicians with models for imitation. In his chosen domain of chamber and orchestral music for strings, he was the original “classic,” playing a major role in standardizing genres and practices, and setting instrumental music on an epoch-making path of ascendency. His sonatas and concertos may no longer be played much except by violin students, and yet their historical significance is tremendous, affecting European music of every sort.

Corelli’s career, based (after apprenticeship in Bologna) almost exclusively in Rome, outwardly paralleled Alessandro Scarlatti’s: service to Queen Christina and Cardinal Ottoboni, membership in the Arcadian Society, and so on. His main activities were leading orchestras, sometimes numbering one hundred musicians or more, in the richly endowed churches and cathedrals of the city, and appearing as soloist at “academies” (accademie), aristocratic house concerts.

Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form

fig. 5-1 Arcangelo Corelli, portrait by Hugh Howard, adapted as the frontispiece engraving for a late edition of Corelli’s trio sonatas, op. 1 (Amsterdam: Estienne Roger and Michel Charles Le Cène, ca. 1715).

For sacred venues Corelli perfected an existing Roman genre known as sonata da chiesa (church sonata). Such pieces could be variously scored: for solo violin and continuo, for two violins and continuo (hence “trio sonata,” albeit normally played by four instrumentalists), or amplified by a backup band known as the concerto grosso (“large ensemble”), which eventually lent its name to the genre itself. Thus when Corelli’s collected orchestral music was finally published in 1714 (a year after the composer’s death) by the Amsterdam printer Estienne Roger, the title page used the term concerto grosso in both senses at once: Concerti grossi con duoi violini e violoncello di concertino obligato e duoi altri violini, viola e basso di concerto grosso ad arbitrio, che si potranno radoppiare, opera sesta. Reissued the next year by the London house of John Walsh and John Hare, the title page was Englished thus: “Concerti grossi, being XII great concertos, or sonatas, for two violins and a violoncello: or for two violins more, a tenor, and a thorough-bass: which may be doubled at pleasure, being the sixth and last work of Arcangelo Corelli.” Church sonatas or concerti grossi were often played during Mass to accompany liturgical actions: typical placements were between the scripture readings (in place of the Gradual), at the collection (in place of the Offertory) or at Communion. At Vespers they could be played before Psalms in place of antiphons. A standardized outgrowth of the earlier canzona, the church sonata usually had four main sections in contrasting tempos (“movements”), cast in two slow–fast pairs resembling preludes and fugues such as organists were used to improvising. The more elaborate of these fugal movements was the one in the first pair; it was still occasionally labeled “canzona.”

For aristocratic salons, Corelli adopted another standard violinist’s genre, called sonata (or concerto) da camera (chamber sonata or concerto). This was essentially a dance suite, which Corelli adapted to the prevailing four-movement format (a “preludio” and three dances or connecting movements). Between 1681 and 1694 Corelli published forty-eight trio sonatas in four collections of twelve, alternating church sonatas (opp. 1 and 3) and chamber sonatas (opp. 2 and 4).

Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form

ex. 5-1a Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata da chiesa, Op. 3, no. 11, final Allegro, mm. 1–12

Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven FormChapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form

ex. 5-1b Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata da camera, Op. 4, no. 2, final Corrente, mm. 1–25

The eleventh church sonata from opus 3 (1689) and the second chamber sonata from opus 4 (1694) make an effective pair for comparison both with one another and with the works of other composers. They are both in the key of G minor, and illustrate between them virtually the full range of Corellian forms and styles. They also show the overlap in practice between the church and chamber genres. Their last movements, especially, might be interchanged (see Ex. 5-1a-b, which show their respective first halves). Although one is marked corrente (a fast triple-metered dance) and the other, untitled, is implicitly a fugal movement, they are virtually identical in form (binary), texture (imitative), and character (lively culmination). But where the second movement of the sonata da camera, the allemanda, is also a binary dance movement, the second movement of the sonata da chiesa (the “canzona” movement) is “abstract” and “through-composed” as befits its forebear. Stylistically, that “canzona” movement (presto) from op. 3, no. 11 (Ex. 5-3) may be the most revealing movement of all. A brief comparison with a work (Ex. 5-2) by one of Corelli’s Austrian contemporaries, Johann Joseph Fux (1660–1741), will indicate what was so novel about the work of the Italian composer, and so potent.

Fux was a conservative and academic musician. His best-known work was no musical composition but a textbook, Gradus ad Parnassum, which remained for more than a century the standard compendium of the stile antico, the mock-Palestrina style, quick frozen in the sixteenth century, that counterpoint students still learn to imitate in school, using methods that are still derived from Fux’s famous analysis of strict counterpoint into five rhythmic “species.” The stately sonata for two viols and continuo in canonic style (published in 1701), of which the opening is given in Ex. 5-2, illustrates not the stile antico itself, but rather the kind of modern contrapuntal virtuosity that immersion in the stile antico was meant to instill.

Like Corelli’s, Fux’s is a church sonata, meant to replace the Mass Gradual on a festive occasion. Its measured, allemande-like tread, over a “walking bass” whose notes coincide with the metrical pulse, lends it a noble “affect” or mood. The leisurely three-measure interval of imitation sets the standard “sentence-length” for the piece. The opening tune breaks that standard sentence into three asymmetrical, cunningly apportioned phrases, each longer than the last. The long last phrase is accompanied by a rhythmic diminution in the bass, creating a mild “drive to the cadence.”

By comparison, Corelli’s movement (Ex. 5-3) seems virtually jet-propelled, and not only by its faster tempo. Everything about the composition is pressured and intense. The opening three-note motif is identical to that of Fux’s canon. But what a contrast in the way it is handled! What was only a beginning or a headmotive for Fux is the whole thematic substance for Corelli, as if Corelli had decapitated Fux’s theme and tossed its “head” like a ball between the two violins.

Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form

ex. 5-2 Johann Joseph Fux, Canonic Sonata in G minor, I, 1–8

Meanwhile, the bass accompanies their agile game of catch with a so-called “running” pattern that moves steadily at a rate twice that of the beat value. The hocket effect between the violins is intensified after the first cadence (m. 7), their tossed motivic ball now consisting of only two notes in an iambic pattern (that is, starting with an upbeat), while the bass continues its frenetic run, made even more athletic by the use of large skips—octaves, ninths, even tenths. At the movement’s midpoint (m. 21) the original motive is tossed again, this time beginning a fourth lower than the opening—i.e., on the fifth degree of the scale. Thus the movement over all has the satisfying harmonic aspect of a binary form: a run out from I to V, and a run back from V to I.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-05.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-05.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-05.xml