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Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi

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    Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi


    The development of seventeenth-century music is famous for an increase of instrumental music which was unimaginable in a former time. Composers of violin music such as Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi were active at the century’s end. To play the violin, to teach violin playing, and to compose music all formed part of theirs activities. Corelli and Vivaldi were similarly esteemed for their great contributions ill all three areas. What they achieved in one area tended to have an effect upon what they did in the others. Vivaldi and Corelli were the leading figures in early eighteenth-century violin playing. They figure most importantly in the development of stringed instrument techniques.

    Antonio Vivaldi

    Antonio Vivaldi – who contributed to the development of instrumental music of the Baroque Era and brought it to the most advanced stage of technical and artistic development before Johann Sebastian Bach – was born in Venice, Italy, possibly on June 11, 1669.[1] Although Vivaldi’s father worked as a violinist in the orchestra of the San Marco Cathedral and Antonio himself was early given teaching in music, Vivaldi began his professional career not in music, but in the Church. However, he did not forsake music practices completely; all the while he developed himself as a master of violin technique. He also composed a considerable number of pieces. In 1703 Antonio Vivaldi became a teacher of the violin at the Ospitale della Pietà in Venice, later working as its musical director for a long time. At the same time, he travelled about Europe a great deal, achieving widespread reputation as a virtuoso violinist. In 1735, he returned at his post at the Ospitale in Venice. In 1740, Vivaldi went to Vienna with the purpose to find a profitable post at the court of Charles VI. However, he failed to receive royal favour, and the last days of his life Antonio Vivaldi spent in that city in miserable poverty as obscure person. He died in Vienna in July 1741, and, like Mozart, was buried in a pauper’s grave.[2]

    Vivaldi was a rarely fruitful composer. The list of his compositions include approximately fifty operas, besides two oratorios, twenty-four secular cantatas, twenty-three sinfonias, seventy-three solo or trio sonatas, and about four hundred and fifty concertos.[3] It was in the concerto – a particular form he adopted from Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709) and Areangelo Corelli (1653-1713) and passed on to Johann Sebastian Bach – that he achieved his greatest success.

    A characteristic of the 18th century which is hard for people today to understand, yet which was very important, was the incessant public demand for new music. There were no “classics,” and few music works continued to be in use after more than two or three seasons. Vivaldi was expected to provide new musical compositions for every periodic festival at the Ospitale della Pietà in Venice. Such persistent pressure accounts both for the enormous production of many 18th-century composers and for the remarkable speed at which they worked. For example, Vivaldi completed his opera Tito Manlio in five days and he was very proud of himself on being able to complete a concerto faster than a copyist could copy it[4].

    Like his contemporary composers, Vivaldi produced every work for a definite occasion and for a particular number of performers. His wrote forty-nine operas, most of them for Venice, but a few also for Florence, Verona, Rome, and other Italian cities. His work at the Pieta required Vivaldi to compose oratorios and church music. Mainly for the Pieta, also, he wrote compositions for orchestras, the kind of instrumental music usually used at church festival services. About 440 compositions of his survived, in addition to twenty-three sinfonias and seventy three solo or trio sonatas.[5]

    Vivaldi is known now mainly for his instrumental music. Vivaldi’s instrumental works, and specifically the concertos, are eternally attractive because of the freshness of their melodies, their rhythmic energy, their expert treatment of solo and orchestral string colour, and the stable clearness of their form. Many of the instrumental compositions, as well as some of the early concertos, are in the 17th-century contrapuntal style of Arcangelo Corelli[6]. However, in his first produced collection of concertos (1712) Vivaldi already made it clear that he was entirely aware of the modern trends towards individual musical form and energetic rhythm.

    Most of Vivaldi’s concertos are created for one solo instrument with orchestra – at most times, of course, a violin, but with a large number also for the violoncello, flute, or bassoon. In the concertos for two violins the performers are usually given equal prominence. There are also a few great concertos for solo instruments with continuo, without the common full orchestra strings.

    Vivaldi’s compositions are always outstanding for the variety of colour he achieves with different arrangements of the solo and orchestral strings. The well-known La Primavera (Spring) concerto (1725) is but one of many examples of his exceptional instinct for impressive sonorities. Most of Vivaldi’s concertos consist of the common eighteenth-century three movements: a first Allegro; a slow movement in the same key or a closely relating to a key (relative minor, dominant, or a key based on this); and a final Allegro somewhat shorter and more cheerful than the first.

    In Vivaldi’s music one can find signs of all the different transitions and innovations occurring in the first half of the 18th century. There are some of the compositions in the style of Corelli. However, there is difference between them. Vivaldi differs from Corelli not by power of any innovation in the general plan of his compositions but because his musical ideas are more impulsive, his formal structures more clearly designed, his accords more assured, his textures more manifold, and his rhythms more driving. Moreover, Vivaldi establishes a certain dramatic tension; he does not only give the soloist contrasting idiomatic form but makes him stand out as a dominant musical figure against the ensemble. This Vivaldi first brought to full realization in a solely instrumental medium.

    Arcangelo Corelli

    Arcangelo Corelli was born in Fusignano, in the neighbourhoodof Bologna, on February 12, 1653. Matteo Simonelli, his first teacher in music, was a singer in the pontifical choir. Church music, touching little Corelli, was soon abandoned for secular music. Corelli began to study in Bassani who gave him an intensive training in the playing of the violin. Corelli showed his talent for the instrument almost from the beginning and become a respectable virtuoso in a short period. About 1700, Corelli became the principal first violinist of an orchestra of the opera band in Rome. When Corelli played, his contemporaries indicated, his “countenance was distorted,” his eyes were “red as fire” and his “eyeballs rolled in agony.”[7] Corelli was also greatly celebrated as a composer. A contemporary writer, Adami, describes Corelli as the “chief glory of the age, with the fame of whose five works, already published, the world is filled; and the sixth, consisting of concertos, which he is now (1711) preparing for the press, will complete his immortality.”[8]

    The last years of Corelli’s life were full of melancholy. He had to observe violinists younger than he, with more fluent technique and more impressive style; and he had to see how the popularity of his own works succeeded by the less important music of Valentini, for instance, whom Corelli respected little. Thus Corelli died as a hostile and unhappy man on January 10, 1713. He died relatively rich, with about $30,000 in cash and a number of very valuable artworks.

    Corelli’s name is all momentous in musical history by reason of the fact that he was the father of the violin sonata. The violin sonatas of Arcangelo Corelli are excellent examples of the classical period of seventeenth-century musical art. Corelli studied for four years at Bologna and perfectly learned the techniques of the Bolognese masters. After 1671 he spent most of his life quietly in Rome, creating the following works[9]:

                Twelve trio sonatas (sonate da chiesa), 1681.

                Eleven trio sonate da camera and a chaconne, 1685.

                Twelve trio sonate da chiesa, 1689.

                Twelve trio sonate da camera, 1695.

                Twelve solo sonatas (six da chiesa, five da camera, and one set of variations), 1700.

                Twelve concerti grossi, 1714.

    Corelli’s trio sonatas were the considerable achievement of Italian chamber music in the end of the seventeenth century. His solo sonatas and concertos served as patterns which following composers used for the next half century. Unlike his contemporaries, he evidently wrote no vocal music at all but he sang by means of the violin, the instrument that most closely approaches the lyric abilities of the human voice. As if recognizing this similarity, Corelli intentionally shunned virtuosic display by the two violins of his trio sonatas.[10]

    Corelli worked with sequences to accomplish clear tonal organization. Most of Corelli’s church trio sonatas have four movements in the same slow-fast-slow-fast order whish was favoured by other composers of the late Baroque.[11] Corelli’s chamber sonatas at most times begin with a preludio.  After that two or three dances go in the normal suite order. A gavotte sometimes replaces the final gigue. In many of Corelli’s chamber sonatas, the first two movements contain the serious character of the church sonata. Like his contemporary compositors, Corelli had all the movements of a trio sonata in the same key. However, in all his later major-key solo sonatas, Corelli passed one slow movement in the relative minor.

    In the first movement of Corelli’s Trio Sonata Op. 3, No. 2, marked Grave, the two violins try to follow the style of each other, meet in chains of intermissions, cross, and separate over a walking bass. The next Allegro has a vivid fugue subject that after the first expositions tends to drop its opening notes.[12] The intermediate slow movement is similar to a sarabande in which the two violins hold an intensive dialogue. The movement at the end, simply called Allegro, is a gigue in double form. Like the first Allegro, it is fugal in origin.

    The movements of Corelli’s solo sonatas are similar to those of the church and chamber sonatas. In the first Allegro, the solo violin makes use of double and triple stops to reproduce the rich three-part resonance of the trio sonata. Mostly, the violin part requires some virtuosity to accomplish fast runs, arpeggios, cadenzas, and extended perpetual-motion passages.[13]

    Corelli’s teaching established the foundation of most eighteenth-century violin schools and had profound impact on later generations of players as well as composers. Possibly others were superior in bravura, but Corelli had the talent to avoid empty displays of virtuosity, and no one understood the melodious qualities of the violin better than he did. Corelli’s most technically hard and, simultaneously, most enduringly popular composition is the skilful set of twenty-four variations that concludes his Opus 5. The topic is the Folia (or les Folies d’Espagne), a popular tune from the early sixteenth century. Its bass possesses some similarity to the romanesca; like the romanesca, the Folia was a most liked subject for variations in the seventeenth century.


    Corelli was generally recognized as the greatest violinist of his period. Contemporary critics discussed with delight Corelli’s beautiful singing tone, his extremely flexible technique and the fire and brilliance of his performances. Vivaldi’s influence on instrumental music in the middle and later 18th century was identical to that of Corelli earlier. Vivaldi is one of the most important personalities in the period of transformation from Late Baroque to early Classical style. His writing for string orchestra made a revelation in musical world. His dramatic innovation regarding the role of the soloist was commonly recognized and developed later in the Classical concerto. Moreover, the brief themes, the clearness of form, the rhythmic vitality, new musical ideas, all distinguishing characteristics of Vivaldi, were transmitted to many other composers and in particular directly to Johann Sebastian Bach.


    Donington, Robert. 1963. The Interpretation of Early Music. Faber and Faber: New York.

    Heller, Karl. 1997. Antonio Vivaldi: The Red Priest of Venice. Amadeus Press: Portland, OR.

    Landormy, Paul. 1927. A History of Music. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York.

    Antonio Vivaldi

    Arcangelo Corelli

    [1] Karl Heller, Antonio Vivaldi: The Red Priest of Venice (Amadeus Press: Portland, OR 1997), 69.

    [2] Karl Heller 70.
    [3] Karl Heller 130.
    [4] Robert Donington, The Interpretation of Early Music (Faber and Faber: New York 1963), 65.

    [5] Karl Heller 79.
    [6] Robert Donington, 63.
    [7] Paul Landormy, A History of Music (Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York 1927), 312.

    [8]  Paul Landormy 325.
    [9] Robert Donington, 120.
    [10]  Robert Donington, 125.
    [11]  Paul Landormy, 285.
    [12]  Paul Landormy, 280.
    [13]  Paul Landormy, 296.

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