Corelli: Orpheus of our time

This article originally appeared as the liner notes to the New Dutch Academy's recording of Corelli's Concerti Grossi made in 2003 in co-operation with Dutch Radio and The Holland Festival of Early Music Utrecht celebrating 350 years of Corelli. 

In the 18th century, Italian culture dominated the imagination of Northern Europe.

No northern European court seemed complete without a slew of Italian musicians in service. The art collections of the northern European salons were filled to the brim with Italian paintings. Italian opera houses sprung up all over Europe, even in France. Hoards of northern travellers journeyed to Italy to see the legendary cities of Rome, Milan, Florence and Venice, creating in their wake the new pilgrimage of “the grand tour”. Even whole new northern cities (like St Petersburg) were created after the Italian model.

In 18th century northern Europe, the compositions of the Roman violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653 – 1713) represented the musical epitome of Italian style. Corelli was the very definition of the “Italianissimo” that the rest of Europe lusted over. His music was regarded as classic, as the ultimate example of Italian instrumental virtuosity, expression and taste.

Corelli became a phenomenon and acquired an unprecedented international star status. He was seen to personify a style like composer/performers such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrikx or Angus Young personify certain musical styles today. Corelli was the hard rocker of his day - a cult figure with a cult following. And, after his death, Corelli continued to be worshiped. His works became the model for thousands of sonatas, his style the inspiration for a myriad of performers and his improvised figuration and ornamentation the stuff of legends. No other composer was so constantly reprinted throughout the 18th century. No other dead performer was imitated with such a frenzy.

Corelli in Context – The Art

Corelli’s music was popular with northern Europeans in the 18th century because it so clearly resonated with the artistic splendour of the environment from which it originated – Rome in the second half of the 17th century. Corelli’s music could aurally transport them into the dazzling visual world of Borromini, Cortona and Bernini. It inspired visions of the palazzi, churches, frescoes, sculptures and paintings of that ultimate city of magnificence.

Corelli was also an avid art lover and possessed, at his death, no less than 150 canvasses. His collection of paintings gives us a wonderful insight into his personal taste. Whilst for the bulk of the massive collection exact titled works can’t be traced, we do know exactly who painted each painting and how many paintings he had from each artist: for example, 22 by Gaspard Dughet (G. Poussin), 22 by Trevisani, 6 by Onofri, 4 by Cignani, 4 by Maratta and 7 by the Dutch/Italian artist Van Wittel (Vanvitelli).

Like his paintings, Corelli’s musical aesthetic is of the erudite but highly sensual Italian master, full of deep rich colour, vibrant rhetorical emotive expression and grand large gestures. It favours a tendency towards the extrovert and the extremes. It revels in spectacle and ornamentation. It is academic and learned but never dry; spontaneous and red blooded but never haphazard. It connects the intellectual and the sensual, and combines earthiness with spirituality. Corelli unites all these elements with an impeccable sense of balance and structure. Within the bounds of his style, his aesthetic is not one where less is more but one where even more can never be too much.

Corelli in Context - The Music

Now, we tend to associate improvisation with jazz, however, improvisation (or “extemporisation”, “figuration” or “ornamentation”) was a very important part of music making in the Corellian tradition. Corelli provides the chart, the framework, the initial ideas, and the inspiration. The rest is up to the performer - to know what to do, and to go for it. For the solo violin (concertino) parts of the Concerti Grossi, we have taken 18th century examples of Corelli’s own improvised ornaments as inspiration. They are florid to say the least.

The other reason that Corelli is like jazz is the importance of the basso continuo. Like the rhythm section of a jazz ensemble, the continuo section of the orchestra provides the bass line, the harmonic structure and the rhythmic drive. Corelli liked his continuo large. We have mirrored this here with a large and varied continuo section for plenty of bass and groove as Corelli would have liked it. Like jazz, the continuo players’ written out part is skeletal, consisting only of bass notes with chord symbols. The rest they make up themselves.

The Dutch Connection

This recording pays homage to Corelli and to the man who made him famous in the 18th century – Estienne Roger, the Dutch music publisher.

Roger is largely responsible for fuelling the interest in Corelli’s compositions in the period and in making Corelli a cult figure in the 18th century. Roger’s many publications of Corelli’s chamber and orchestral works are also why we know Corelli today.

Being northern Europeans still impressed by Italian culture, we pay tribute to the historical Dutch role in the story of Corelli. For this performance, we have therefore chosen to play at the northern European pitch at around the time when the Concerti Grossi were first published in Amsterdam (around A=415Hz rather than low Roman pitch of around A=397Hz), but with a large scale orchestra consisting of the kinds of proportions which Corelli used.

Corelli 1653 – 2003

This recording project of the New Dutch Academy celebrates 350 years presence of the immortal Corelli in the world. The project highlights the esteem in which he was held in the 18th century and the gift of his musical legacy to posterity. The performance takes its inspiration from both Corelli’s visual and aural world, and combines some of Corelli’s most loved works with some of his lesser known gems. It aims to restore his pieces to their full glory, and in doing so pay tribute to the grand master himself – Corelli, who was and still is “the Orpheus of our time”.

Simon Murphy, The Hague, July 2004.


Listen to tracks from the NDA's Corelli CD  


Scholarly Acknowledgements

We owe a debt of gratitude to recent research done by R. Rasch in proving the closeness of the relationship between Corelli and the 18th century Amsterdam music publisher Roger, and to the work done by M. Viale Ferrero in clarifying the information available surrounding Corelli's art collection.


Detail of Trevisani’s design for the frontispiece for Roger’s 1714 Amsterdam edition of Corelli’s Concerti Grossi. Details of paintings by Gaspard Dughet (G. Poussin), Trevisani, Onofri, Cignani, Maratta and Van Wittel (Vanvitelli).