A Changing of the Guard

by Gerald Elias
Author and Musician

The year 2013 marked the 300th anniversary of a major changing of the guard in the music world. It was in 1713 that sixty-year-old Arcangelo Corelli died in Rome and an up-and-coming brash Venetian, Antonio Vivaldi, composed his Opus 4, La Stravaganza.

Corelli, deservedly rich and revered when he died, was recognized as the foremost violinist and composer in Europe. He had brought the concerto grosso, by far the most popular form of instrumental ensemble composition of his day, to its pinnacle. In 1711 Vivaldi was getting warmed up with his Opus 3 L’estro armonico, a set of twelve concertos for one, two, and four violin soloists, with string accompaniment. Published in Amsterdam, the opus brought Vivaldi international attention. With La Stravaganza, a set of twelve mind-bending concertos for a single violin soloist and strings, which he composed in 1713 and had published a year later, Vivaldi charted new territory for the concerto form, harmonic invention, and the potential of the violin as a dazzling solo instrument. Clearly, Vivaldi’s decision to name this set of concertos a word that translates as “eccentricity, weirdness, or strangeness,” was not an arbitrary one.

Ravel and Debussy. Mahler and Bruckner. Mozart and Haydn. How many times have you heard the music of one composer and guessed it was the other? Corelli and Vivaldi. It will never happen. Why not? Let me count the ways.

First, Corelli never composed a solo concerto and Vivaldi never composed a concerto grosso. (Music historians may quibble over that statement, depending on how broadly one defines concerto grosso–certainly some of his chamber concertos retain some of the characteristics–but as mathematicians might say, any deviations would be statistically insignificant.)

What is a concerto grosso? It is a multimovement composition for an ensemble essentially comprising an orchestra within an orchestra, the smaller group containing solo (or concertato) players who interact with the larger group of tutti (or ripieno) players. The potential of permutations within and between groups in this multimovement structure is almost infinite—concertato with ripieno as accompaniment, concertato and ripieno in dialogue or all playing together, concertato players as individual soloists, contrapuntal treatments in which instruments imitate each other’s melodic lines, vertical monophonic statements of chords played in unison, et cetera. Corelli takes advantage of this kaleidoscope of interaction in such creative and masterful ways that the listener can’t fully appreciate Corelli’s unexcelled level of compositional expertise and good taste. One goes away humming thoroughly engaging melodies that connect to the listener at a very deep level, yet at the same time we have open-mouthed admiration of his unparalleled craftsmanship.

After Corelli, the concerto grosso continued for another generation or two before the upstart symphony, thanks to Haydn and Mozart, claimed the popular throne. Certainly, Handel wrote his share of excellent concerti grossi, patterned after Corelli, and Bach had his Brandenburgs. But I dare to say—as with Beethoven in relation to Mozart—if not for Corelli, Bach’s and Handel’s achievements in the genre could never have happened.  And though the Brandenburgs are arguably more complex and instrumentally innovative, the intrinsic beauty and stylistic perfection of Corelli’s concerti grossi are unsurpassed.

Vivaldi almost singlehandedly invented the three-movement concerto, and the template of the fast–slow–fast succession of movements he championed has remained the standard template, albeit with occasional variations, for concertos ever since. The soloist (or soloists) in his concertos dominates the landscape. Overt virtuosity is integral to the overall conception.

In Vivaldi’s day, it was not uncommon for composers to write concertos that could be performed on one of a variety of instruments in a given register: violin or flute or oboe, for example. No doubt, sales were one consideration for such generic writing, but the larger issue was in regard to the role of the soloist in the broader context of “the concert.” Since so much music was composed for purposes of family home entertainment or light background music for dinners or other festivities, such music was relatively simple, and it was not so important who played on what instrument, as long as the music was pleasant and unobtrusive.

The concertos of La Stravaganza, on the other hand, are so instrumentally idiomatic they can be played on one instrument only: the violin. I’d hazard a guess that the term “in your face” didn’t exist in eighteenth-century Venice; nevertheless, that’s the impression these concertos make upon the listener. No background music here. Unlike the harmonically conservative Corelli, Vivaldi delights in exploring exotic, occasionally even disturbing key relationships and dissonant harmonies. Rhythm becomes a structural component and driving force of his fast movements, not unlike Beethoven in the nineteenth century and Stravinsky in the twentieth. The critical development in these concertos, though, is that the soloist wrests the spotlight from the ensemble. It is the beginning of the esthetic of the soloist as hero, dominating the landscape, struggling mightily against orchestral forces and ultimately emerging triumphant. It was  a theme adopted and developed by literally hundreds of later composers, among them Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius.

Music historians have regrettably divided the history of Western tonal music into four arbitrary “periods” that are identified by misleading and counterproductive names: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and something called Modern, which actually means Everything Since. (Note to self: I wonder how many more decades twentieth-century music can continue to be called Modern.) These designations have been etched in stone for so long that we almost consider them facts of nature, and I think it’s worth noting that every composer in history was writing contemporary music. We assume everything within a given period was similar, and everything between periods was different, so we lose crucial connections like those between or Bach and Brahms, or Handel and Beethoven, or Vivaldi and Verdi. Yet there was as much change within the Baroque period, which the music history books tell us lasted from about 1600 to 1750 (Monteverdi through the death of Bach) as within the Modern (from Debussy, more or less, through the present).

Considering the significance of 1713, the year the torch was passed from the master of the concerto grosso to the champion of the solo concerto, a year in which the world began to bid farewell to music still under the gravitational force of the Renaissance, and said hello to an esthetic that still reverberates in music composed today, I offer that pre-Vivaldi or post-Corelli would make for much more informative historical designations.  At least it would pay due respect to two great masters.