Happy New Musical Year from the column.
Regular readers will be familiar with the fact that, as the old year began to run out, I touched on a number of significant musical centenaries around the corner in 2013: the first performance of The Rite Of Spring and the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. Both are about to set the heather alight, with global performances of Britten's music and operas, and probably more performances of Stravinsky's knockout work across the universe than there are asymetrical rhythms in the great Russian's iconic, elemental and visceral masterpiece of music and dance.
Not receiving one hundredth of the centenary trumpetings for these two giants, but marking a seminal moment in the history of western music, will be the 300th anniversary this year of the death of Italian violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli. Corelli was a fascinating character. He was born into a prosperous family, trained in the art of violin playing, became a star violinist, played for the court of a queen and the parishes of cardinals, effectively retired from the front line of performance to devote himself to composition and took up with a bloke (a pupil) who became a lifetime partner and managed Corelli's affairs following the composer's death.
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The key point about Corelli the composer is that he didn't write very much music. His essential creative output is contained in just six volumes of music, each containing 12 instrumental compositions. These include relatively modest forms such as trio sonatas, violin sonatas and the form to which I will return in a moment, the Concerto Grosso. Yet, though not the creator of a voluminous output, Corelli became one of the great figures of the Italian Baroque period. His music was performed constantly through the 18th and into the 19th centuries. It withstood, as one distinguished commentator observed, "all the attacks of time". Corelli was described as a "European phenomenon". Musical Britain lapped up Corelli. Time was they couldn't get enough of his music.
What was so special about the possibly corpulent, rather fleshy Italian maestro? Simple: he liberated western "classical" music from the voice. No cantatas, chorales, operas, recitatives or voice/text-based compositions. No churchy stuff (though some of the forms he used have church-based structures). He was one of the first Western composers seriously to establish instrumental music as a viable form; and the public lapped it up. It generated a new appetite that remains hungry to this day. He was called the father of the Concerto Grosso. He could just as easily be called the father of Western instrumental and orchestral music.
To set Corelli in the context of the Baroque greats: he was born 25 years before Vivaldi, whose instrumental compositions are a thousand times better known today than Corelli's. He predated the German-born giants Bach and Handel by 32 years. They are more famous than Corelli, but Corelli did it first. He laid the ground. In his 12 opus 6 Concerti Grossi he established certain principles of operation that would resonate in musical history for two centuries to come.
He established and refined the concept of two musical entities that would interact. They would respond to each other; they would act as one, endorsing and reinforcing each other; they would work in tandem; they would argue; they would tussle; they would dispute and contest hierarchies. The essence of all that would follow in the next two centuries – through the development of the concerto, the symphony and all related forms – lies in Corelli's work of instrumental emancipation.
In this respect, the work of the respected Glasgow company Linn Records, and its genius producer and engineer Philip Hobbs, is to be much acclaimed. Not only have they produced a dazzling account of the opus 6 Concerti Grossi with violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk's ace Newcastle-based Baroque group, the Avison Ensemble, but Linn has announced that in 2013, with the same group, it will produce three further volumes of Corelli's chamber music. That's what I call a practical history lesson.