Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Concerto Grosso for Two Violins, Opus 8, #2

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Giuseppe Torelli (April 22, 1658–February 8, 1709)

  1. Allegro
  2. Largo
  3. Allegro

Torelli and the Origins of the Concerto

Mention the word “concerto,” and images of a virtuoso soloist playing passionately while the orchestra dutifully accompanies, rise unbidden. In fact, that conception of a concerto is a product of the nineteenth century; the term “concerto” was used to refer to a variety of different musical forms since the early 1500s. Far from being vehicles for soloists, early representatives of the concerto were essentially chamber music. Derived from the Latin concertare, meaning “to contend, dispute, or debate,” the concerto has at its root the principle of opposition between soloist(s) and orchestra. There is opposition in the word concertare as well; its Italian definition, at odds to the Latin, is “to work together.”

During the seventeenth century in northern Italy, the church was a major center for musical activities. The sonata di chiesa was a standard part of a liturgical service. The October 4 patronal feast at San Petronio occasioned much grander celebrations. The distinctive timbre of the trumpet was perfect for these celebrations and indeed, there was a compositional tradition of trumpet sonatas by Maurizio Cazzati (1620—1677), Alessandro Stradella (1644—1682) and Giovanni Vitali (1632—1692) for the San Petronio festivities. To create a larger sound, these sonatas were accompanied by a full orchestra rather than a chamber ensemble.

Famed Arcangelo Corelli used the principle of opposition in his concerti grossi, Opus 6, between the orchestra and a small group of soloists (concertino), but in the more contrapuntal style of the trio sonata. In 1690, the Giuseppe Torelli, a composer in the Bolognese tradition, wrote trumpet sonatas for the renowned trumpeter Giovanni Brandi at San Petronio. The title of Torelliís Opus 5 Sinfonias, Sonatas and Concertos lends us insight into how these genres, distinct today, were not separated in Torelliís time. Torelliís concerti, based on the opposite timbres of soloist and orchestra, may have been inspired by the brilliant trumpet and murmuring strings of San Petronio. He adapted the alla tromba (trumpet) style to a string concerto, using the repeated note patterns, triadic melodic figures, and homophonic texture characteristic of his trumpet sonatas.

Torelli, an Italian violinist and composer, published five collections between 1686 and 1692, written largely to showcase his dual talents. In the last of these five collections, from 1692, Torelli specified in print what would today be termed an ‘orchestral approach,í using multiple players on a part. Corelli also did this; the practice of doubling instruments on a single part was in fact common well before then, but the evidence for this was to be found in manuscript parts rather than in published music.

Six years later, Torelli, in his Opus 6, specified sections marked “solo” to be played on a single violin. At this point, Torelli introduced the ritornello as a structural aspect of his concerti. Ritornello refers to the “return” of thematic material played by the orchestra, often in a different key. Experiments with ritornello and episodic lengths marked the concerti of Opus 6, which came to be characterized by their broad episodes and ritornellos recurring midway and at the conclusion, in a form similar to the later rondo.

Entitled Concerti grosso con una pastorale, Opus 8 was published posthumously by Torelliís brother, Felice, a well-known painter. These pieces are the culmination of Torelliís work with the idea of the concerto. Rather than the slow-fast-slow-fast tempo scheme of the sonata da chiesa, Torelli used the more secular fast-slow-fast scheme of the Italian operatic overture. The elements contained in these pieces were a point of departure for Antonio Vivaldi (1678—1741), whose many contributions further established the concerto as a distinct genre.

The dominant melodic line and clear contrasts between episode and ritornello in the Concerto for Two Violins are representative of Torelliís magnum opus.