Corelli: Concerto grosso in F major Op.6 No.6

To any regular concert-goer in the twenty-first century, it is an obvious fact that the violin is the sovereign of the instruments of the orchestra. Violin players easily outnumber any other instrumentalist present, they sit in easily visible positions at the front of the stage, and of course the concertmaster– a title unambiguous in its majesty if ever there was one– must always be drawn from among them. It is difficult to imagine the supremacy of the violin having been established by someone; but if the credit (or the blame, depending on one’s perspective) can be assigned to one man in particular, that man would be Arcangelo Corelli.

Corelli, a violinist and composer born in Italy in 1653, looms so large in the history of violin playing that the fictions about him are more numerous than the facts. They’re also likely more entertaining; the teenage Corelli was probably not, despite Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s tall tale, run out of Paris by envious French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Nor is he likely, as one overly excitable abbot’s history goes, to have bravely defied his father’s wishes to left home in the service of being discovered and summoned by a high-ranking cardinal and subsequently by the Pope. (The composer’s father died before he was born, for one thing.) However, the fictions hold at least the seed of truth; that by the time he wrote his Twelve Concerti Grossi_,_ Corelli was already a legend of the violin requiring a sufficiently grandiose backstory, and his legend has not diminished in the intervening three hundred years.

The form of the concerto grosso itself was, although not invented by Corelli, popularized and indelibly associated with him. The form– meaning literally “big concerto”– features two groups, the accompaniment (“ripieno”) and an entire cadre of soloists (“concertino.”) Corelli almost certainly composed and performed an enormous number of concerti grossi during his lifetime, the majority of which were performed but never published. He was prolific but meticulous, and when it came time to choose representative samples of his concerto grosso works to be published, he found the task difficult. “I am fully aware of my own weaknesses,” he wrote in 1708, five years before his death, “so that only recently, in spite of numerous, long drawn-out corrections, I scarcely had the confidence to put before the public eye those few works I entrusted to the printer.”

In fact, Corelli died without completing the task; however, he passed it on to a trusted student, and twelve concerti made it through the stringent editing process. The surviving twelve are likely not the original works as they were first performed; instead, the movements are assembled carefully from various concerti. The result is a guided tour, led by the composer himself, of Corelli’s career highlights.

The sixth concerto of the set is a concerto da chiesa, a church concerto. The name does not necessarily imply that the music was intended to be performed during a service, only that it is closer in style to liturgical music than to the concerto da camera, or chamber music, style that was intended to be suitable for dancing.