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Archangelo Corelli and his “Christmas Concerto”

Corelli
Arcangelo Corelli (February 17, 1653–January 8, 1713) was an Italian violinist and composer of the Baroque era. Baptismal records indicate that Corelli was born on February 17, 1653, in the small Romagna town of Fusignano, then in the diocese of Ferrara. His family were land-owners who had lived in Fusignano since 1506. A Corelli had moved to the area from Rome in the fifteenth century. Although apparently prosperous, they were almost certainly not of the nobility. Corelli’s father, from whom he took the name Arcangelo, died five weeks before the composer’s birth. Consequently, he was raised by his mother, Santa (née Ruffini, or Raffini), alongside four elder siblings.

According to the poet Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni, who presumably knew the composer well, Corelli initially studied music under a priest in the nearby town of Faenza, and then in Lugo, before moving in 1666 to Bologna. A major centre of musical culture of the time, Bologna had a flourishing school of violinists associated with Ercole Gaibara and his pupils, Giovanni Benvenuti and Leonardo Brugnoli. Reports by later sources link Corelli’s musical studies with several master violinists, including Benvenuti, Brugnoli, Bartolomeo Laurenti and Giovanni Battista Bassani. Although historically plausible, these accounts remain largely unconfirmed, as does the claim that the papal contralto Matteo Simonelli first taught him composition. A remark Corelli later made to a patron suggests that his musical education focused mainly on the violin.

Chronicles of the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna indicate that Corelli was accepted as a member by 1670, at the exceptionally young age of seventeen, but the credibility of this attribution has been disputed. Although the nickname Il Bolognese appears on the title-pages of Corelli’s first three published sets of works (Opus 1 to 3), the duration of his stay in Bologna remains unclear. There are anecdotes of trips outside Italy to France, Germany, and Spain, but they lack any contemporary evidence. For example, the anecdote that Corelli’s continental fame stemmed from a trip to Paris at the age of nineteen, where he was chased away by an envious Jean-Baptiste Lully seems to have originated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was also claimed that Corelli spent time in Germany in the service of Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria, supposedly in 1681, as well as in the house of his friend and fellow violinist-composer Cristiano Farinelli, between 1680 and 1685.

Although it is unclear quite when Corelli arrived in Rome, he was certainly active there by 1675, when “Arcangelo Bolognese,” as he was referred to, was engaged to play as one of the supporting violinists in lenten oratorios at the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, as well as in the French national celebrations held each year on August 25 at San Luigi dei Francesi, and during the ordination of a member of the powerful Chigi family at Santi Domenico e Sisto. In August 1676, he was already playing second violin to the renowned Carlo Mannelli at San Luigi dei Francesi. Although Rome did not have any permanent orchestra providing stable employment for instrumentalists, Corelli rapidly made a name for himself playing in a variety of ensembles sponsored by wealthy patrons, such as Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili for whom he played in Lenten oratorios at San Marcello from 1676 to 1679.

In 1687 Corelli led the festival performances of music for Queen Christina of Sweden; he was also a favorite of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, grandnephew of another Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who in 1689 became Pope Alexander VIII. From 1689 to 1690 he was in Modena; the Duke of Modena was generous to him. In 1708 he returned to Rome, living in the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni. His visit to Naples, at the invitation of the king, took place in the same year. The style of execution introduced by Corelli and preserved by his pupils, such as Francesco Geminiani, Pietro Locatelli, Pietro Castrucci, Francesco Gasparini, and others, was of vital importance for the development of violin playing. It has been said that the paths of all of the famous violinist-composers of 18th-century Italy led to Arcangelo Corelli who was their “iconic point of reference.”

However, Corelli used only a limited portion of his instrument’s capabilities. The story has been told and retold that Corelli refused to play a passage that extended to A in altissimo in the overture to Handel’s oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth, premiered in Rome, 1708, and felt seriously offended when the composer, 32 years his junior, played the note. Nevertheless, his compositions for the instrument mark an epoch in the history of chamber music. His influence was not confined to his own country. Johann Sebastian Bach studied the works of Corelli and based an organ fugue (BWV 579) on Corelli’s Opus 3 of 1689. Handel’s Opus 6 Concerti Grossi take Corelli’s own older Opus 6 Concerti as models, rather than the later three-movement Venetian concerto of Antonio Vivaldi favoured by Bach.

Musical society in Rome also owed much to Corelli. He was received in the highest circles of the aristocracy, and for a long time presided at the celebrated Monday concerts in the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni. Corelli died in 1713 at Rome in possession of a fortune of 120,000 marks and a valuable collection of works of art and fine violins, the only luxury in which he had indulged. His remains are buried in the Pantheon at Rome. Corelli composed 48 trio sonatas (opus 1-4), 12 violin and continuo sonatas (opus 5), and 12 concerti grossi (opus 6), together with a few other works, including a sinfonia, 3 sonatas a quattro, and a sonata a tre. The following works by Corelli are included in my collection:

Concerto Grosso No. 1 in DM, op. 6, no. 1 (1712).
Concerto Grosso No. 2 in FM, op. 6, no. 2 (1712).
Concerto Grosso No. 3 in cm, op. 6, no. 3 (1712).
Concerto Grosso No. 4 in DM, op. 6, no. 4 (1712).
Concerto Grosso No. 5 in BbM, op. 6, no. 5 (1712).
Concerto Grosso No. 6 in FM, op. 6, no. 6 (1712).
Concerto Grosso No. 7, op. 6, no. 7 (1712).
Concerto Grosso No. 8 in gm, op. 6, no. 8 (1712), “Christmas Concerto.”
Concerto Grosso No. 10, op. 6, no. 10 (1712).
Concerto Grosso No. 11, op. 6, no. 11 (1712).
Sonata, op. 5, no. 9: Gigue.

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