In an era of harried composers whose livelihoods depended on cranking out music with the clockwork regularity of short-order cooks, Arcangelo Corelli stood apart as a meticulous haut cuisine chef. He could afford to be persnickety, thanks to a patrician career in service to a series of well-heeled patrons, including one queen and two cardinals — the last of whom, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, maintained the toniest musical establishment in Rome. The combination of steady income and discriminating listeners allowed him the luxury of honing his works via frequent performances, so he never committed a piece to publication hastily or carelessly. Corelli was an exemplar of the “pure” musician — i.e., dedicated to the highest standards of playing and composition, even if those ideals mandated a sharply limited output that stopped at Opus 6. Nor was he interested in traipsing down the era’s gold-paved path to the opera house; apparently Corelli never set so much as a syllable to music. No matter: he wound up wealthy anyway, famous and influential.
Corelli’s last published collection (Opus 6) bears the imposing title Concerti grossi con duoi violini, e violoncello di concertino obligati, e duoi altri violini, viola e basso di concerto grosso ad arbitrio che si potranno radoppiare. (Corelli’s fastidious precision extended even to his titles.) In English: “Large ensemble works with two violins, and violoncello required for the small ensemble, and two other violins, viola and bass optional in the large ensemble, which may be doubled.” These are the Concerti Grossi, i.e., works for a few solo instruments backed up by a larger ensemble. Corelli put the finishing touches on his manuscript in 1712, one year before his death; the collection was published by Etienne Roger in Amsterdam in 1714.
Corelli’s Opus 6 concertos fall into two broad structural categories. The first stems from the Italian tradition of the sonata da chiesa, or “church” sonata, consisting of a series of movements in alternating tempi (slow and fast), often employing rich contrapuntal textures. In contrast, the sonata da camera, or “chamber” sonata, is assembled as a suite, featuring dances such as the allemande, corrente, sarabanda, gavotta, and giga in addition to instrumental preludes and intervening movements. Concerto Grosso No. 11 in B-flat Major belongs in that latter category. The opening Preludio features a Corellian “walking” bass — i.e., a steady rhythm in the bass that fills in the spaces between harmonic changes with intervening passing tones — and a delicate duet between first and second violins. It is followed by an Allemanda, its brisk tempo likely to surprise those who associate Allemandes with Bachian stateliness. An introductory Adagio leads into an exquisite Italianate Sarabanda, given largely over to the smaller concertino group with periodic support from the larger ensemble. The concerto ends in a jolly Giga, filled with precipitous leaps in the first violin and interjections from the ensemble.
A Brief Digression on Neapolitan Conservatories
The English music historian Charles Burney visited Naples in October 1770, in the course of a fact-finding tour in preparation to writing a comprehensive history of European music. On Wednesday the 31st he visited a major Neapolitan conservatory, San Onofrio a Capuana. Burney was undoubtedly expecting a refined temple of the arts, befitting one of the august institutions responsible for such supreme Italian masters as Leonardo Leo, Nicola Porpora, Francesco Durante, Niccolò Jommelli, and Leonardo Vinci. The reality of San Onofrio was a shattering letdown. Burney was appalled to discover a crowded, crumbling pile rocking on its foundations, up to thirty students crammed into a single room all practicing different harpsichord pieces, woodwinds in one room, strings in another, trumpeters and horn players blasting through the chaos from their posts in the stairwells, and composition students attempting to write exercises amidst the roaring din. Nine years later, Irish tenor Michael Kelly — he was to be Mozart’s Don Curzio in The Marriage of Figaro — was downright disgusted by the conditions at Naples’s largest conservatory, Santa Maria di Loreto, and vowed never to return.
Despite their concentration-camp environment and monastic schedules — or perhaps because of them — 18th century Neapolitan conservatories produced a steady stream of fine musicians, not only composers but also singers (such as superstar castrati Farinelli and Caffarelli) and an army of expert instrumentalists who staffed theater orchestras far and wide. Many Neapolitan-trained musicians chose to stay in the kingdom, making Naples one of Europe’s most important musical hubs and a hotbed of avant-garde (for the time) experimentation. The stylistic shift from Baroque to Viennese Classical is unthinkable without the contributions of Neapolitan musicians, and well into the 19th century Naples continued to produce leading figures such as Vincenzo Bellini, a graduate of the combined San Onofrio/Loreto. Over time the Neapolitan conservatories were merged, eventually resulting in today’s Conservatorio di Musica San Pietro a Majella, very much a modern, ongoing concern complete with website and Facebook page.
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)
Sinfonia in F major
He was tiny and sickly, with a gimpy leg; his life lasted all of twenty-six years; his legacy is largely based on just two works. But what a legacy it is! Despite the bulk of his instrumental music having been found to be spurious — Stravinsky’s Pulcinella notwithstanding — Pergolesi looms large in any list of Neapolitan masters, his reputation splendidly out of proportion to his all-too-brief career. Born in the medieval town of Jesi on the Adriatic in 1710 (thus we celebrate his 300th birthday in 2010) he was a student in the Neapolitan conservatory system by 1725, in his case the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo, where his primary composition teacher was Gaetano Greco, a superb musician whose pupils had included Nicola Porpora, Domenico Scarlatti, and Leonardo Vinci. It’s also likely that Francesco Durante, head of the Gesù Cristo for a decade starting in 1728, was also among Pergolesi’s instructors. All in all, little Giovanni Battista was blessed with as fine a musical education as Europe had to offer. He put that high-class training to good use: with La serva padrona he created a milestone in the development of comic opera, and his Stabat Mater ranks among music’s most precious treasures. But tuberculosis took him away on March 16, 1736. As with Mozart, Purcell, and Schubert — three other composers who died tragically young — one can but dream about the Pergolesi works that might have been.
The Sinfonia in F Major opens with an intriguing surprise: it’s in F minor, not major, dramatic and quite removed from the airy Rococo style often associated with Neapolitan music of the 1730s. But soon enough, the second-movement Andante grazioso, tuneful and beguiling, invokes the elegant lyricism of Italy. For a finale, the Allegro offers that delectable busy-beaver texture so characteristic of early Classicism, eschewing learned Baroque counterpoint in favor of snappy rhythm and bundles of charm.
The Red Priest and his all-girl orchestra: it sounds like an ad for a louche Burlesque review, but in this case history trumps marketing. There really was a Red Priest (Antonio Vivaldi, so nicknamed for his bright red hair) and he really did conduct an all-girl orchestra, as maestro at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian institution that took in orphaned and homeless girls and offered comprehensive musical training to those showing promise.
Vivaldi’s commitment to his clerical calling may well have been sincere, but spiritual self-denial played no discernible part in his character. He was censured for conduct unbecoming a priest in 1737; he made and spent money like a maharajah; the contralto Anna Girò may have been his long-term mistress. An anonymous Bolognese painting depicts an angelically beautiful and lavishly-dressed violinist, his jeweled fingers delicately holding a quill, his head surrounded by a fluffy nimbus of a wig. That pretty violinist is thought to be Vivaldi, and if that is so, then this a vanity portrait without equal amongst the great composers, a far cry from Pier Leone Ghezzi’s unflattering pen-and-ink caricature of 1723. Posterity has chosen to remember Vivaldi primarily as an instrumental composer, with 500-plus concertos to his credit, but he also spent abundant time in the opera house, while his sizeable body of sacred vocal music remains a yet-untapped treasure.
Vivaldi set off a firestorm with the publication of his Opus 3 L’estro armonico (“Harmonic Inspiration”), a set of twelve string concertos that influenced composers throughout Europe, including J. S. Bach who transcribed some of the L’estro concertos for solo clavier and in the process adopted their formal innovations for his own works. It is not an exaggeration to say that L’estro armonico changed the course of Western music, in that it played a key role in the elevation of instrumental music to full parity with vocal genres, a process that began in the Baroque and came to full fruition with Beethoven. Vivaldi’s followup La stravaganza Opus 4 continued to cement his reputation with another series of expertly-crafted concertos for violin and strings. But it was Opus 8, the two-volume Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (“The Contest between Harmony and Invention”) that held the key to Vivaldi’s eventual rehabilitation, after long neglect, during the mid-twentieth century. To be precise, the first four concertos of Il cimento, each devoted to a specific season, have enjoyed one of the most spectacular posthumous success stories in all music.
Although musical portrayals of the natural world were nothing new, The Four Seasons brought nature painting firmly into the mainstream, planting seeds that would bear rich fruit in later works by Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and a host of others. Vivaldi even added descriptive sonnets, one for each concerto, that not only took listeners on a guided tour of the musical landscape but also provided helpful hints for the performers.
We begin in the Spring, a scene of unruffled sunny contentment, lightly moistened by a brief spring shower. In the second movement, sleepy shepherds snooze under the trees while insects buzz and dogs bark; in the third we join a happy dance, complete with bass drones representing bagpipes.
The Summer heat sets in and a lazy torpor ensues. Nevertheless the violin soloist is called upon for an array of imitations — cuckoos, turtledoves, breezes and rushing winds — in passages that often anticipate the free-form sound effects of a later age. The Adagio slow movement blends a delicately chromatic solo line with orchestral tremors that hint at a change in the weather, which duly arrives in the third-movement Presto: a summer storm depicted in all its facets, flashes of lighting, booms of thunder, and streaky splashes of warm rain.
Autumn is the time of harvest; the crops come in and celebratory dancing ensues. Sleep follows in a second movement that ranks amongst Vivaldi’s most harmonically complex inspirations, but soon enough exhortations from the violin-turned-bugle summon us to the hunt, accompanied by the yapping of dogs and popping of muskets.
Finally, Winter: ice, snow, freezing cold, but silvery chill beauty nonetheless. A warm and cozy fireside awaits us in the second movement, while outside the blasts of winter winds have the last word in a sonorous finale.
Vivaldi had a rocky time of it with both the Venetian public and the Ospedale administration. He pressed his luck a few times too many and wound up sickly and broke in Vienna, where he was buried in a pauper’s grave. Two hundred years of near-silence followed, but starting in the 1950s his music began to re-enter the repertory, spearheaded by The Four Seasons. Much remains to be done: the operas are just now receiving attention, for example, after their long slumber in monastery libraries and theater archives. Substantial Vivaldi compositions have been found just since 2000, including two large-scale sacred works and an entire opera Argippo, performed in 2008 for the first time since 1730. Catalogs remain in flux, with no end in sight. So we’re by no means finished with the Red Priest of Venice, with perhaps the best still yet to come.
Lorenzo Gaetano Zavateri (1690-1764)
Concerto in D Major “a Pastorale,” Op. 1, No. 10
Naples, Rome, and Venice weren’t the only Italian cities with flourishing musical cultures. Bologna ranks high as a center for both string playing and singing, more conservative than Naples to be sure but nonetheless vital and productive. Spearheaded by its twin musical hubs — the Cathedral of San Pietro and the musician-governed Accademia Filarmonica — 18th century Bologna was a magnet for ambitious young composers throughout Europe, thanks to über-teacher Padre Giovanni Battista Martini, the Nadia Boulanger of his day. Johann Christian Bach, Gluck, Vogler, Jommelli, and even the young Mozart sought his expertise, either in person or via correspondence.
Lorenzo Gaetano Zavateri (1690–1764) spent most of his life in Bologna (with sojourns as a violinist in Livorno, Venice, and Ferrara) and became involved with the Accademia Filharmonica in 1717. His Concerti da chiesa e da camera (“Concertos in church and chamber styles”) Op. 1, dated 1735, merited praise from Padre Martini himself, as well they should: the twelve concertos are imaginative delights enhanced with some dandy nature painting, including a blow-by-blow depiction of a storm in No. 12, “concerto a tempesta di mare.”
Zavateri’s tenth (decimo) concerto concludes with a pastorale, a time-honored stylistic genre that reached its peak during the Baroque. The instrumental pastorale’s distinctive features include compound meter (think of the gentle rocking of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”), major keys, sustained bass notes suggesting rustic bagpipes called zampogne, and an overall restraint with ornamentation. Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto” Op. 6 No. 8 provides the 18th-century locus classicus; for later examples, consult the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” symphony and the Sérénade d’un montagnard des Arbruzzes à sa maîtresse movement from Berlioz’ Harold in Italy. Zavateri’s contribution to the genre sets two solo violins burbling along, often in thirds, within a bucolic landscape that deftly evokes the shepherds descending upon Rome for Christmas revelry.
Francesco Durante (1684-1755)
Concerto No. 5 in A Major
The Neapolitan conservatory system never produced a more faithful son than Francesco Durante (1684–1755), born to a conservatory family, student at San Onofrio, and at one time or another primo maestro at three of the four major schools—Gesù Cristo, San Onofrio, and Loreto. (The sole holdout, Santa Maria della Pietà dei Turchini, was under the directorship of the Fago family throughout much of the 18th century.)
Durante’s posthumous reputation rests largely on an impressive body of sacred music and an even more impressive roster of students, from Pergolesi to Paisiello to Piccini, those last two among Mozart’s colleagues and competitors. His fertility as a teacher was matched by his resolutely forward-thinking attitude; he favored a distinctly Classical style, notable for its discreet counterpoint, expressive dynamics and chromaticism. In some ways he resembles Arcangelo Corelli in his avoidance of the opera house (rare for a Neapolitan composer), and also in the painstaking care he took with his compositions, each a paragon of harmonic mastery and structural balance. Well after his death, Durante’s masses and motets provided teachers with models of correct writing, serving much the same role as do Sebastian Bach’s fugues and chorales in today’s conservatories.
Durante’s nine Concerti a quartetto, dating from the late 1730s or early 1740s, are valued as outstanding Neapolitan contributions to the burgeoning Classical style and can be understood as steppingstones on the way to the symphony — then only one generation away from its first maturity. In Concerto No. 5 in A Major two bright and chipper movements, both simple in melodic materials and forthright in their harmonic motion, flank a darker central Largo in B Minor that partakes of the Baroque concerto style à la Vivaldi.
— Scott Foglesong, Scholar in Residence
Nota bene: this is a slightly expanded version of the notes as they appear in the November/December program book.