It’s all in the notes. Or is it?…. On Wednesday February 11th Margaret Faultless gave an absorbing and illuminating lecture-recital to the Friends of the University Library on performance practice at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries taking Corelli’s violin sonata op.5 no.1 as her chosen example. Why?
For two reasons: because it encapsulated the points she wanted to make and because the University Library has several fine contemporary editions of the work with which to demonstrate her case. So much for the 50 word summary: now let’s, er, add the ornamentation…
Maggie, together with harpsichordist Dan Tidhar providing continuo, caught our attention immediately by beginning with a performance of the first movement of the sonata using Gasparo Pietra Santa’s 1700 edition (see below). Corelli, she explained was very much the focus of musical life in Rome – not only a gifted composer and performer himself, he also acted as orchestral manager and fixer – and his twelve op.5 sonatas for violin and continuo, dedicated to the Electress Sophie Charlotte of Brandenburg, are probably best-known for the “La Folia” variations which form the last of the set. So popular did the works become, that by 1800 they had run to no fewer than 42 editions. Indeed, Corelli’s output, a modest six opus numbers, has remained popular ever since: here in Cambridge, for example, a hundred years later his works were constant features of the Black Bear Music Club concerts.Then Maggie began to lift the lid. What she had just played, she revealed, wasn’t actually what the audience in 1700 would have heard: the printed notes, according to the accepted norms of the time, as Charles Burney so succinctly explained, were “an outline for the performer to colour at his pleasure” [General history of music, v4, p.62 footnote]. So, how do we play this music? What are the fixed elements? What are the flexibilities? It is, of course, these three questions which have been the subject of a great deal of research in the past sixty years, beginning perhaps with Thurston Dart‘s 1954 The interpretation of music and continuing especially with the work of the late and greatly-missed Chris Hogwood and his Academy of Ancient Music in establishing the truly historically informed performances we hear today.
Fortunately, Corelli’s ornamentations were so well known in the musical world at the time that they were recorded in print (no sound recording industry then to capture his performances for posterity). The UL has several editions – part of the bequest to the Library of musicologist F. T. Arnold – published in Amsterdam in the early 18th century by Estienne Roger which present “les agréemens des Adagio de cet ouvrage, composez par Mr A. Corelli comme il les joue.” Maggie and Dan demonstrated these for us by performing the opening movement of the sonata using Roger’s 1717 edition.The difference is, of course, immediately obvious. Elaborate runs deploying demi-semi quavers aplenty in the opening Adagio which, no doubt, would have had the audience at the time on the edge of their seats marvelling at the good taste and virtuosity of Maestro Corelli (as indeed, I hasten to add, were we – just how does one move one’s fingers faster than the speed of light?). Although – no surprise here – it was Roger North who took it upon himself to pour scorn on this proliferation of ornament remarking: “Some presumer hath published a continuall course of this sort of stuff in score with Corelly’s solos…Upon the bare view of the print, anyone would wonder how so much vermin could creep into the works of such a master.” [North. The Musicall Grammarian]. Spoilsport. (By the way, do read chapter six of Robin Stowell’s excellent work The Early Violin and Viola: a practical guide [M622.c.200.1] where he discusses this very issue.) As an interesting contrast, here’s another interpretation of Corelli’s “outline” from Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr:
I am rapidly running out of space here and sadly cannot include all that I would like to (such as the discussion on what constituted an appropriate style of continuo), but I cannot finish without mentioning what was probably a first performance for many, many years of the “Preludio” from Corelli’s Op.5 no.7 arranged for keyboard alone [MS.Add.7059(23)], given with great sensitivity by Dan. Quite probably unique, it is one of the MSS in the Arnold bequest. The transcriber is unknown, but nonetheless an affirmation, surely, of the enduring popularity of Corelli’s music.
Hats off to Maggie, Dan and Corelli all three, for a delightful and informative evening!