Corelli’s ‘Christmas’ concerto (Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6 no. 8) has by now been performed a few times this month, by Camerata Child’s Play and the Baroque Ensemble. This is the perfect time for it.

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) wrote 12 concerti grossi (big concertos or concerti), a form of Baroque music wherein the musical material is passed between a small group of soloists (the concertino) and full orchestra (ripieno or tutti). This is in contrast to the concerto, where a solo instrument has this ‘conversation’ with the rest of the ensemble.

They were written in the last two decades of Corelli’s life and first performed at his weekly concerts in Rome. Each concerto grosso is scored for a solo concertino (of two violins and cello), string orchestra and continuo. Although the form existed before him, Corelli is widely regarded as the “Father of the Concerto Grosso” for the heights he took it to.

The concerto manuscript bears the inscription “Fatto per la notte di Natale” (“Made for the night of Christmas” in Italian). It was commissioned by his patron Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, in whose palace Corelli lived from 1685 until his death.

Corelli was born with a bronze, if not quite silver spoon in his mouth, into a family of landowners. Sadly, a lack of reliable documentary evidence shedding light on the chronology of his life has led to speculation, anecdotes and legends about him. But there is no exaggeration in the statement that the paths of all the famous violinist-composers of 18th-century Italy led to Arcangelo Corelli as their “iconic point of reference.” Francesco Geminiani, Pietro Locatelli, Francesco Gasparini, Pietro Castrucci and the great Antonio Vivaldi were among his more prominent pupils, the first generation of the “Corelli school” of violin playing. However, his writing for the violin rarely extended beyond the note D on the E string, occasionally upto E in the fourth position on that string. Despite this, Corelli’s compositions for violin are a watershed in the history of chamber music. Johann Sebastian Bach was an admirer, and his organ fugue (BWV 579) is based on Corelli’s music (Opus 3, 1689). Georg Friedrich Händel used Corelli’s Opus 6 Concerti Grossi for his own famous set of concerti (also Opus 6).

The range of Corelli’s music in violinistic technical terms (extending mainly upto third position, and sometimes the fourth) make it ideal study material for young musicians learning the instrument. Indeed, The Suzuki Violin Method incorporates his music, for example his La Folia in Book 6, and the Courante from Concerto Grosso Opus 6, no. 9 in Book 7. Corelli expanded the technical possibilities of the violin, and the flashiness and daredevilry of his music must have stunned his audiences, and provided the creative stimulus especially to his ‘star’ pupil Vivaldi to take these possibilities even further.

Corelli was also apparently the first composer to attain fame solely for his instrumental music; as far as is currently known he never wrote opera or vocal music. His three main areas of composition are the solo sonata, the trio sonata (two solo melodic instruments and basso continuo) and the concerto grosso. It is assumed that, being a man of means, he had the freedom to focus his creative output on genres that interested him, and not be dictated to by financial need to write what did not.

The ‘Christmas’ concerto was composed around 1690, and is in the ‘sonata di chiesa’ (church sonata) style; indeed Corelli was one of its greatest exponents. Sonate di chiesa were generally four-movement (slow-fast-slow-fast) works, and this one has two more tagged on at the end. An eight-bar Vivace prelude segues into the main theme of the first movement (marked ‘Grave’ or serious). This followed by a fugal Allegro, then an Adagio with an Allegro centre; then a Vivace in triple time, an Allegro and the last movement largo or ‘Pastorale’ which is the basis for the ‘Christmas’ nickname.

Nativity scene

‘Pastorale’ is a development of the Italian word ‘pastori’ a reference to the shepherds present at Christ’s birth in a manger in Bethlehem. It was apparently a tradition in Italy for rural shepherds to travel into towns and cities to play their pipes at Nativity scenes. As in the case of this last movement, the tradition was to play a tune in gentle lilting Siciliano in 12/8 meter. The music in the upper strings conjures up to the imagination a soothing lullaby sung by Mother Mary to her newborn as she rocks him to sleep, while the cattle nod and low in the lower strings.

There could not have been a better setting for the performance of this work therefore than the Museum of Christian Art at Christmastime, under the gaze of a beautiful figure of the Madonna and Child. Camerata Child’s Play India played a concert there on 14 December this year, and the Christmas concerto was the main featured work. The high tapering roof, and the reflective, non-absorbent walls and floor also make this such a wonderful location for chamber music.

Corelli is perhaps the first composer to use a ‘pastorale’ to musically describe the Nativity, but this trend was also followed later by Händel (‘Pastoral’ symphony in his Messiah oratorio) and Johann Sebastian Bach (the opening sinfonie of the second cantata in his Weihnachts-Oratorium or Christmas oratorio).

The composition is highly contrapuntal in nature, notably in the first Allegro, but this is in evidence through much of the work. These nuances are better appreciated when the violins (1 and 2) are seated opposite each other (the ‘German’ seating formation), rather than in the conventional seating plan, where they are placed next to each other to the left of the audience. From my vantage point in the violas in the middle, I then have a ‘ringside’ seat in this sparring, ‘tug-of-war’ exchange between the two violin sections as they vie for possession of the ‘tune.’

The third movement (Adagio) of this work finds its way into the soundtrack of the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World starring Russell Crowe.

The performances you may have heard recently in Goa are extended forms of the string quartet version of the concerto grosso. To hear it in its ‘proper’ concerto grosso setting, go to YouTube to hear a whole array of choices, notably Trevor Pinnock leading the period-performance orchestra The English Concert from the harpsichord.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 December 2013 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)