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Arcangelo Corelli, 17th Century Superstar

Few musicians of the seventeenth century enjoyed the exalted status bestowed on Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). He was called the ‘new Orpheus of Our Times’ and the ‘divine Arc Angelo’, a clever pun on his Christian name and the Italian word for a bow (arco). The Englishman musician and writer Roger North described Corelli’s music as ‘transcendant’, ‘immortal’ and ‘the bread of life’ to musicians. Renowned as a virtuoso performer, an influential composer, and sought-after teacher, Corelli commanded respect and praise throughout Europe at the turn of the 18th century.

The fifth child born to a prosperous family of landowners in Fusignano; Corelli’s first musical study was probably with the local clergy, then in nearby Lugo and Faenza, and finally in Bologna, where he went in 1666. In Bologna he studied with Giovanni Benvenuti and Leonardo Brugnoli, the former representing the disciplined style of the Accademia filarmonica (to which Corelli was admitted in 1670), the latter a virtuoso violinist.

By 1675 Corelli was in Rome where he may have studied composition under Matteo Simonelli, from whom he would have absorbed the styles of Roman polyphony inherited from Palestrina. He may have traveled to France and Spain, though neither journey has been securely documented. In 1675 he is listed as a violinists in Roman payment documents and by the end of the decade he was active as a performer and leader of small and large instrumental ensembles in Roman homes and churches and at public celebrations.

He had entered the service of Queen Christina of Sweden by 1679 and, thanks to his musical achievements and growing international reputation, he found no trouble in obtaining the support of a succession of influential patrons. In addition to Queen Christina, his Roman patrons included Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, and Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, both wealthy and influential leaders of Roman society.

In 1684, Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti became members of the Congregazione dei Virtuosi di S. Cecilia and in 1706, along with Pasquini and Scarlatti, he was inducted into the Arcadian Academy round the time that he met Handel in engagements at the Pamphili and Ruspoli palaces. He would direct the orchestra for performances of Handel’s La resurrezione shortly before retiring from public life in 1708.

Wealthy since birth, Corelli had the luxury of cultivating a personal mystique, acting more like a gentleman than a common musician. His wealthy patrons treating him almost as their equal, he was not burdened by the pressure of writing music on demand and composed selectively and at a his own pace, meticulously revising his music before publishing them late in life. This careful polishing made Corelli’s published pieces into models of economy and elegance. Their concision and urbanity contrasted sharply with the unbridled passion and unpredictability of music earlier in the seventeenth century.

Corelli’s reputation as a performer and teacher was at least equal to the reputation he achieved as a composer. Among his many students were Geminiani, Vivaldi, Gasparini, and Somis. His sonatas were widely performed and often reprinted, both as ideal practice material for students and as models for composers. For the solo sonatas (op. 5) there are several extant sets of ornaments, some attributed to the composer himself (Walsh, 1710); his works remained especially popular in England, where Ravenscroft imitated the trio sonatas and Geminiani transformed several solo and trio sonatas into concertos.

Corelli died a wealthy man on January 19, 1713, at Rome in the 59th year of his life. But long before his death, he had taken a place among the immortal musicians of all time, and he maintains that exalted position today.

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