Corelli: Fuga a Quatro Voci

“We still play Corelli, I fancy,” Cambridge music professor Edward Dent mused in 1904, “because his music is not only beautiful, but easy too– a somewhat rare combination.” Inglorious as it may be for modern musicians to admit to their listeners that a work is undemanding of technical abilities honed on increasingly demanding nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century music, it is certainly the case that part of the enduring charisma of Italian violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli is how he does so much with what we might today describe as so little.

Corelli in his role as composer is an expression and record of Corelli in his role as virtuoso violinist, which was the source of his fame during his lifetime. One of the reasons that Corelli’s music is never emotionally facile even if it is technically so is that the boundaries of his art were those of taste, not of ability. There is a widely-circulated story in which Corelli was stymied by an unplayable-to-him high A in Handel’s The Triumph of Time and Truth, and offended when the young upstart Handel demonstrated that it was in fact playable. In fact, the most strongly attested version of the story portrays the interaction very differently; it was not the notes that Corelli couldn’t or wouldn’t play but the forceful style, which he disliked. When Handel grabbed the violin and demonstrated, Corelli listened attentively and then protested, one suspects somewhat passive-aggressively, “But my dear Saxon, this music is played in the French style, which I do not intend to do!” (Both Handel’s nickname and reputation for bellicose musical style were well-known: when Corelli’s friend Scarlatti once arrived at a masked ball to find the disguised Handel at the harpsichord, he listened to the improvisation and declared, “It is either the Devil playing, or the Saxon!”)

So we know Corelli had strong opinions on how music ought to have been played: and in fact, the Fuga a quattro voci was explicitly intended to be pedagogical. It was written as an example of a fugue with a single subject in a treatise by Francesco Maria Veracini, a highly eccentric musician who once “resolved” an argument between himself and the Dresden court orchestra by jumping out a window and breaking his leg, but was known as an excellent contrapuntist. That the work is Corelli’s is not conclusively proven, but seems likely given that in the manuscript it is credited to “Gallario Riccoleno,” an otherwise nonexistent composer whose name is suspiciously close to an anagram of “Arcangelo Corelli.” The theme of the fugue is the theme to which the words “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” are set in the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah, and was published a decade later than Handel’s oratorio. Whether it is an homage to the beloved work or a demonstration of how Handel “ought” to have treated the theme is, of course, a matter of interpretation– though if it were the latter, that would certainly explain why it was published pseudonymously.

Although the Fuga was intended to be pedagogical, it was Corelli’s op. 6 collection of twelve concerti grossi which had the most effect on what other composers were actually doing. The concerti, which featured a “concertino” group of two violins and a cello in the solo role accompanied by a “ripieno” group of strings and keyboard, were extremely popular. Corelli’s collection started a distinct trend of writing concerti that featured a group of solo instruments. Among them, inevitably, was Handel. He wrote his own collection of twelve concerti grossi twenty-five years later; when Corelli had been safely dead for long enough that the odi et amo of Handel’s relationship with him could ebb safely into deserved veneration.