Arcangelo Corelli was an Italian violinist and composer of Baroque music, who exercised a wide influence on his contemporaries and on the succeeding generation of composers. Little is known about his early life. He was born in Fusignano, Italy, in 1653, a full generation before J.S. Bach or Georg Frideric Handel, and studied in Bologna, a distinguished musical center, then established himself in Rome in the 1670's. His master on the violin was Giovanni Battista Bassani. Matteo Simonelli, the well-known singer of the pope’s chapel, taught him composition.
His first major success was gained in Paris at the age of 19, and to this he owed his European reputation. From Paris, Arcangelo Corelli went to Germany. By 1679 had entered the service of Queen Christina of Sweden, who had taken up residence in Rome in 1655, after her abdication the year before, and had established there an academy of literati that later became the Arcadian Academy. Thanks to his musical achievements and growing international reputation he found no trouble in obtaining the support of a succession of influential patrons. History has remembered him with such titles as "Founder of Modern Violin Technique," the "World's First Great Violinist," and the "Father of the Concerto Grosso." In 1681 he was in the service of the electoral prince of Bavaria; between 1680 and 1685 he spent a considerable time in the house of his friend and fellow violinist-composer Cristiano Farinelli (believed to be the uncle of the celebrated castrato Farinelli).
In 1685 Arcangelo Corelli was in Rome, where he led the festival performances of music for Queen Christina of Sweden and he was also a favourite of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, grand-nephew of another Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni who in 1689 became Pope Alexander VIII. From 1689 to 1690 he was in Modena; the Duke of Modena was generous to him. In 1708 he returned to Rome, living in the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni. His visit to Naples, at the invitation of the king, took place in the same year.
His contributions can be divided three ways, as violinist, composer, and teacher. It was his skill on the new instrument known as the violin and his extensive and very popular concert tours throughout Europe, which did most to give that instrument its prominent place in music. It is probably correct to say that Corelli's popularity as a violinist was as great in his time as was Paganini's during the 19th century. Yet Corelli was not a virtuoso in the contemporary sense, for a beautiful singing tone alone distinguished great violinists in that day, and Corelli's tone quality was the most remarkable in all Europe according to reports. In addition, Corelli was the first person to organise the basic elements of violin technique.
Arcangelo Corelli's popularity as a violinist was equalled by his acclaim as a composer. His music was performed and honoured throughout all Europe; in fact, his was the most popular instrumental music. It is important to note in this regard that a visit of respect to the great Corelli was an important part of the Italian tour of the young G.F. Handel. Yet Corelli's compositional output was rather small. All of his creations are included in six opus numbers, most of them being devoted to serious and popular sonatas and trio sonatas. In the Sonatas Op. 5 is found the famous "La Folia" Variations for violin and accompaniment. One of Corelli's famous students, Geminiani, thought so much of the Op. 5 Sonatas that he arranged all the works in that group as Concerti Grossi. However, it is in his own Concerti Grossi Op. 6 that Corelli reached his creative peak and climaxed all his musical contributions.
Although Arcangelo Corelli was not the inventor of the Concerto Grosso principle, it was he who proved the potentialities of the form, popularised it, and wrote the first great music for it. Through his efforts, it achieved the same pre-eminent place in the baroque period of musical history that the symphony did in the classical period. Without Corelli's successful models, it would have been impossible for Antonio Vivaldi, G.F. Handel, and J.S. Bach to have given us their Concerto Grosso masterpieces.
The Concerto Grosso form is built on the principle of contrasting two differently sized instrumental groups. In Corelli's, the smaller group consists of two violins and a cello, and the larger of a string orchestra. Dynamic markings in all the music of this period were based on the terrace principle; crescendo and diminuendi are unknown, contrasts between forte and piano and between the large and small string groups constituting the dynamic variety of the scores.
Of all his compositions it was upon his Op. 6 that Arcangelo Corelli laboured most diligently and devotedly. Even though he wouldn't allow them to be published during his lifetime, they still became some of the most famous music of the time. The date of composition is not certain, for Corelli spent many years of his life writing and rewriting this music, beginning while still in his twenties.
The Trio Sonata, an instrumental composition generally demanding the services of four players reading from three part-books, assumed enormous importance in Baroque music, developing from its earlier beginnings at the start of the 17th century to a late flowering in the work of G.F. Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, J.S. Bach and their contemporaries, alter the earlier achievements of Arcangelo Corelli in the form. Instrumentation of the trio sonata, possibly for commercial reasons, allowed some freedom of choice. Nevertheless the most frequently found arrangement became that for two violins and cello, with a harpsichord or other chordal instrument to fill out the harmony. The trio sonata was the foundation of the concerto grosso, the instrumental concerto that contrasted a concertino group of the four instruments of the trio sonata with the full string orchestra, which might double louder passages.
Arcangelo Corelli's dedications of his Sonatas mark his progress among the great patrons of Rome. He dedicated his first set of twelve Church Sonatas, Op. 1, published in 1681, to Queen Christina, describing the work as the first fruits of his studies. His second set of trio Sonatas, Chamber Sonatas, Op. 2, was published in 1685 with a dedication to a new patron, Cardinal Pamphili, whose service he entered in 1687, with the violinist Fornari and cellist Lulier. A third set of trio sonatas, a second group of twelve Church Sonatas, Op. 3, was issued in 1689, with a dedication to Francesco II of Modena, and a final set of a dozen Chamber Sonatas, Op. 4, was published in 1694 with a dedication to a new patron, Cardinal Ottoboni, the young nephew of Pope Alexander VIII, after Cardinal Pamphili's removal in 1690 to Bologna. Cardinal Ottoboni became Corelli's main patron, who made it possible for Corelli to pursue his career without monetary worries, and it would seem that no composer has ever had a more devoted or understanding patron.
A. Corelli's achievements as a teacher were again outstanding. The style of execution introduced by Corelli and preserved by his pupils, such as Francesco Geminiani, Antonio Vivaldi, Pietro Antonio Locatelli, and many others, was of vital importance for the development of violin playing. It was A. Vivaldi who became Corelli's successor as a composer of the great Concerti Grossi and who greatly influenced the music of J.S. Bach. It has been said that the paths of all of the famous violinist-composers of 18th-century Italy lead to Arcangelo Corelli who was their "iconic point of reference." However, Corelli used only a limited portion of his instrument's . This may be seen from his writings; the parts for violin very rarely proceed above D on the highest string, sometimes reaching the E in 4th position on the highest string. The story has been told and retold that Corelli refused to play a passage which extended to A in altissimo in the overture to G.F. Handel’s oratorio il Trionfo del Tempo e Disinganno (premiered in Rome, 1708), and took serious offence when the composer played the note. Nevertheless, his compositions for the instrument mark an epoch in the history of chamber music.
A. Corelli occupied a leading position in the musical life of Rome for some thirty years, performing as a violinist and directing performances often on occasions of the greatest public importance. He was received in the highest circles of the aristocracy, and for a long time presided at the celebrated Monday concerts in the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni. His style of composition was much imitated and provided a model, both through a wide dissemination of works published in his lifetime and through the performance of these works in Rome.
Corelli died a wealthy man in possession of a fortune of 120,000 marks and a valuable collection of pictures, the only luxury in which he had indulged. He left both to his benefactor and friend, who generously made over the money to Corelli's relatives. Corelli is buried in the Pantheon at Rome. But long before his death, he had taken a place among the immortal musicians of all time, and he maintains that exalted position today. One can still trace back many generations of violinists from student to teacher to Corelli.
His compositions are distinguished by a beautiful flow of melody and by a mannerly treatment of the accompanying parts, which he is justly said to have liberated from the strict rules of counterpoint. He was the first composer specialising in instrumental music to become recognised as a 'classic', and one of the first to show clearly those qualities of restraint, balance, consistency, and attention to detail that one associates with the 18th century. His concerti grossi have often been popular in Western culture. For example, a portion of the Christmas Concerto, Op. 6 No. 8, is in the soundtrack of the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He is also referred to frequently in the novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin.