Some thoughts about Corelli, Bach, Veracini, and Benda – January 2023

Posted on January 11th, 2023 by

A violinist’s view…

The violin/continuo sonatas that we are playing in today’s programme each point to the wonderful variety of technical and expressive approaches at end of the 17th and first half of the 18th century.

Archangelo Corelli’s Sonatas Op 5, from the moment of their publication in 1700 in Rome, set new standards, new models for the violin. Their impact was felt, across Europe as travelling virtuosi, or amateurs embarking on the newly- fashionable ‘Grand Tour’, brought the music from capital to capital, and often published pirated editions or outright plagiarisms. For the majority of his contemporaries, these experienced through his published works, and most particularly the ‘Op 5’.

Every other violin piece we are playing this evening bears the imprint of Corelli’s innovations. I hear the echoes of this set of da chiesa and da camera  sonatas in works written by subsequent player-composers. Perhaps the  most obvious echo, is that of Corelli the improviser. This first sonata, written in the most violin-friendly of keys D major, is a catalogue of extempore techniques for which Corelli was renowned. These are divided between the brilliant (cascades of broken chords, ‘moto perpetuo’ rushing semiquavers, contrapuntal writing, glistening arpeggiations) and richly expressive vocal effects. Corelli’s surviving works do not have the extravagant virtuosity of some earlier violin composers from Austria and the German states, but their effectiveness is due the balance of virtuosity with rigour of technique and composition: even at his most florid, there is never a note too many,  never an expressive line that cloys.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s sonatas for violin with continuo are comparatively little-known, by comparison with his Six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord BWV 1014–1019.  One of the things which fascinates, is how these works achieve forward-looking, even transcendent  musical outcomes,  whilst looking back to the string writing of Corelli and Josepho Torelli. At every turn, in Bach’s extraordinary output for the violin, we can hear his appreciation, and love of the works of the Italian composers who went before him. The miracle is that every note is so much his own, and becomes as fundamental to today’s musicians as the work of Shakespeare or Goethe is for English and German speakers.

Perhaps, this is most apparent in the finale of this G Major Sonata, a mock-fugue. This uses limited amounts of chordal writing in the violin part, imitating the motif first heard in the bass, to trick the us into thinking we are hearing a fugue. Of course, Bach wrote spectacular three-part fugues for violin alone during his time in Köthen, working for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen between 1719-1723, when this work was also written. This technique which can be heard, albeit more worked-through in the Allegro of tonight’s Corelli sonata.

Francesco Veracini’s 12 Sonate Accademiche were published in 1744, and dedicated to his long-time patron Augustus III,  King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania, and Elector of Saxony. Veracini was famously bad-tempered: a feud with the Dresden violinist Johann Georg Pisendel in 1721, had climaxed in a brawl during which he either jumped, or was pushed from an upper-storey window. It’s difficult not to hear something equally choleric in his violin writing.

As might be expected, each of his Sonate Accademiche pays homage in a different way to the music-loving patron, in this case, it begins and ends with movements which pay homage to aspects of his Polish regal status. The fist movement, is a Polonaise, which begins simply in ‘folk’ manner, but gradually puffs itself up to almost imperial grandeur. The finale is an ‘Aria Schiavona’ (Slav Song): Augustus was thoroughly Germanic – perhaps this movement was a nod to the eastern-looking face of his domain.

The Bohemian František Benda spent most of his working life at the court of Frederick the Great. He had been a student of Johann Gottlieb Graun, a pupil of Tartini.  Thanks to the presence of Tartini’s friend, polymath philosopher Count Francesco Algarotti at the Prussian court, Tartini’s extraordinary later works for violin were in the hands of the musicians there, almost as soon as they were written The C minor Sonata which survives in the hand of Dresden music-copyist, exhibits many features of Tartini’s influence. The movement structure, ‘Adagio -Allegro-Presto’, is typical of the Padua master’s, as is the laconic, tightly interwoven relationship between the treble and bass lines. The British composer Richard Barrett has pointed out the intriguing double aspect of the continuo line – sometimes a supporting role, and then switching to a muscular, contrapuntal weave with the violin part. But this is music of a new era, looking forward to the violin writing of Johann Michael Haydn, and Benda’s son-in-law Johann Friedrich Reichardt, to a new-minted classicism.

Peter Sheppard Skærved January 2023