The Italian composer and violinist Arcangelo Corelli exercised a wide influence on his contemporaries and on the succeeding generation of composers. Born in Fusignano, Italy, in 1653, a full generation before Bach or Handel, he studied in Bologna, a distinguished musical center, then established himself in Rome in the 1670s. By 1679 had entered the service of Queen Christina of Sweden, who had taken up residence in Rome in 1655, after her abdication the year before, and had established there an academy of literati that later became the Arcadian Academy. Thanks to his musical achievements and growing international reputation he found no trouble in obtaining the support of a succession of influential patrons. History has remembered him with such titles as “Founder of Modern Violin Technique”, the “World’s First Great Violinist”, and the “Father of the Concerto Grosso”.
His contributions can be divided three ways, as violinist, composer, and teacher. It was his skill on the new instrument known as the violin and his extensive and very popular concert tours throughout Europe which did most to give that instrument its prominent place in music. It is probably correct to say that Corelli’s popularity as a violinist was as great in his time as was Paganini’s during the 19th century. Yet Corelli was not a virtuoso in the contemporary sense, for a beautiful singing tone alone distinguished great violinists in that day, and Corelli’s tone quality was the most remarkable in all Europe according to reports. In addition, Corelli was the first person to organize the basic elements of violin technique.
Corelli’s popularity as a violinist was equaled by his acclaim as a composer. His music was performed and honored throughout all Europe; in fact, his was the most popular instrumental music. It is important to note in this regard that a visit of respect to the great Corelli was an important part of the Italian tour of the young Handel. Yet Corelli’s compositional output was rather small. All of his creations are included in six opus numbers, most of them being devoted to serious and popular sonatas and trio sonatas. In the Sonatas Opus 5 is found the famous “La Folia” Variations for violin and accompaniment. One of Corelli’s famous students, Geminiani, thought so much of the Opus 5 Sonatas that he arranged all the works in that group as Concerti Grossi. However, it is in his own Concerti Grossi Opus 6 that Corelli reached his creative peak and climaxed all his musical contributions.
Although Corelli was not the inventor of the Concerto Grosso principle, it was he who proved the potentialities of the form, popularized it, and wrote the first great music for it. Through his efforts, it achieved the same pre-eminent place in the baroque period of musical history that the symphony did in the classical period. Without Corelli’s successful models, it would have been impossible for Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach to have given us their Concerto Grosso masterpieces.
The Concerto Grosso form is built on the principle of contrasting two differently sized instrumental groups. In Corelli’s, the smaller group consists of two violins and a cello, and the larger of a string orchestra.
Of all his compositions it was upon his Opus 6 that Corelli labored most diligently and devotedly. Even though he wouldn’t allow them to be published during his lifetime, they still became some of the most famous music of the time. The date of composition is not certain, for Corelli spent many years of his life writing and rewriting this music, beginning while still in his twenties.
The Trio Sonata, an instrumental composition generally demanding the services of four players reading from three part-books, assumed enormous importance in baroque music, developing from its earlier beginnings at the start of the seventeenth century to a late flowering in the work of Handel, Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach and their contemporaries. Instrumentation of the trio sonata, possibly for commercial reasons, allowed some freedom of choice. Nevertheless the most frequently found arrangement became that for two violins and cello, with a harpsichord or other chordal instrument to fill out the harmony. The trio sonata was the foundation of the concerto grosso, the instrumental concerto that contrasted a concertino group of the four instruments of the trio sonata with the full string orchestra, which might double louder passages.
Corelli’s dedications of his Sonatas mark his progress among the great patrons of Rome. He dedicated his first set of twelve Church Sonatas, Opus 1, published in 1681, to Queen Christina, describing the work as the first fruits of his studies. His second set of trio Sonatas, Chamber Sonatas, Opus 2, was published in 1685 with a dedication to a new patron, Cardinal Pamphili, whose service he entered in 1687, with the violinist Fornari and cellist Lulier. A third set of trio sonatas, a second group of twelve Church Sonatas, Opus 3, was issued in 1689, with a dedication to Francesco II of Modena, and a final set of a dozen Chamber Sonatas, Opus 4, was published in 1694 with a dedication to a new patron, Cardinal Ottoboni, the young nephew of Pope Alexander VIII, after Cardinal Pamphili’s removal in 1690 to Bologna. Cardinal Ottoboni became Corelli’s main patron, who made it possible for Corelli to pursue his career without monetary worries, and it would seem that no composer has ever had a more devoted or understanding patron.
Corelli’s achievements as a teacher were again outstanding. Among his many students were included not only Geminiani but the famed Antonio Vivaldi. It was Vivaldi who became Corelli’s successor as a composer of the great Concerti Grossi and who greatly influenced the music of Bach.
Corelli occupied a leading position in the musical life of Rome for some thirty years, performing as a violinist and directing performances often on occasions of the greatest public importance. His style of composition was much imitated and provided a model, both through a wide dissemination of works published in his lifetime and through the performance of these works in Rome. Corelli died a wealthy man on January 19, 1713, at Rome in the 59th year of his life. But long before his death, he had taken a place among the immortal musicians of all time, and he maintains that exalted position today.