Corelli: Concerto Grossi

The most enduring friendships are often the ones that pass a litmus test of awkwardness right at the start. Such was the case with Alessandro Scarlatti and Arcangelo Corelli. The two met when Corelli, a virtuoso violinist and composer then living in Rome, visited Naples. He was extremely concerned about the level of playing he could expect for his music there, and took a violinist and cellist with him in case the locals proved unacceptable. The exact opposite turned out to be true: the Neapolitan orchestra played his concertos almost as well on a first reading as his own Roman orchestra did after repeated rehearsal. “They can really play in Naples!” he exclaimed to his, perhaps somewhat shamefaced, second violinist.

In fact, the musicians in Naples were so good that Corelli found himself being corrected by one– Scarlatti, of course, who prompted him with a gentle “Why don’t you start over,” when Corelli started playing in C major a tune that ought to have been in C minor. When Corelli started it again in the same erroneous key, Scarlatti was forced to once again stop him and point out his error.

The fact that the pair became good friends, and that Corelli’s playing and writing influenced Scarlatti deeply, means that their first meeting ought to be taken not of evidence of Corelli’s incompetence, but rather of his enormous capability. Anyone can make a mistake– and most of us are even capable of making the same mistake twice!– but it takes a outstanding artist to take correction without embarrassment, and to dazzle with sensitive musicality even while stumbling technically.

The depiction of Corelli as a thoughtful and mild person, who gave credit to others easily where it was due, occurs over and over again in stories of his life. When he heard the German violinist Nicolaus Strungk play for the first time, he is said to have exclaimed in broken German the highest compliment he could think of: “I am called Arcangelo, a name that in the language of my country signifies an Archangel; but let me tell you, that you, Sir, are an Arch-devil!” Jean-Jacques Rousseau related an account of Corelli’s visit to Paris, in which the French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was intimidated by him and tried to chase him away, “which was made easier by the fact that Corelli was a greater man, and thus a lesser courtier, than him.”

Corelli’s concerti grossi, a genre that he pioneered and which won him international fame, are the ideal vehicle through which to approach the image of the temperate but ferociously talented composer. The solo group of instruments in the op.6 no. 4 concerto pass material between them like a well-ordered conversation between good friends, each contributing what they can and gladly accepting the contributions of the others.