January 8, 2013
On his long rides to Williamsburg, Richmond, Philadelphia or Washington, Thomas Jefferson would rarely waste a moment. On those trips, Jefferson would often hone playing skills on the special travel violin he had made (at least until he injured his wrist and could no longer play well).
Perhaps his favorite composer for those long trips was, Arcangelo Corelli, the Italian violinist and composer, who many consider the first great violinist. Corelli died three hundred years ago, on Jan. 8, 1713.
Jefferson wrote that, music is the “favorite passion of my soul … an enjoyment, the deprivation of which cannot be calculated.” Though Jefferson wrote rarely about his love of music, and not at all after he broke his wrist, his library contained four of Corelli’s scores, and he was insistent that music be part of the curriculum at his University of Virginia.
Corelli was born on Feb. 17, 1653, in Fusignano, about 90 miles south of Venice, Italy. He grew up in time and place where the flourishing of European rulers established central courts to facilitate control of the nobility and monitor rivals. Louis XIV of France and his Palace of Versailles is perhaps the best-known example of how kings centralized control, and was emulated by other European rulers. To occupy the court, kings provided constant entertainment, and their patronage of music created an explosion. The middle Baroque period, when Corelli lived and worked, saw a dramatic increase in opportunities for musicians, composers and instrument makers.
By the time he was 18, he was in Rome performing in orchestras there. He may have played in the court of Louis XIV, and secured patronage from Maximilian II, Elector of Bavaria, before returning to Rome and extensive opportunities to play for the prelates and their guests.
The modern four-stringed violin was a fairly new instrument in 17th century, and Corelli was perhaps most responsible for fostering its popularity. His technique formed the foundations for musicians in posture, use of the bow and fingering.
His compositions were as popular as his play, though he did not leave a large body of work. His compositions were “concerto grosso,” Italian for big concert, which featured a richer interaction between soloists and the orchestra. In his compositions, Corelli pitted a solo group, generally two violins and a cello, against the “repieno,” or full orchestra, in a juxtaposition of two tonal masses.
Corelli’s compositions had significant impact on later baroque composers like J.S. Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. The concerto grosso fell out of favor after the Baroque period ended about 40 years after Corelli died, and the symphony became the preferred piece for composers like Beethoven, Hayden and Mozart.
In addition to being considered the best violinist and most popular composer of his day, Corelli was also a great teacher. His students fostered the importance of the violin in the orchestra.