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The Italian Job

The Italian Job

by Simon Murphy on May 11, 2013 (May 11, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now

I do like a classic. Whether it be a nice suit, a Citroën DS or a fantastic Valpollicella, I have always had a kind of magnetic attraction to those things which just exude style, quality, beautiful craftsmanship, eloquence and distinction. They elevate what could be mundane into the sublime.

Italian Baroque icon Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) always fitted into this category for me. About 5 years after I moved to the Netherlands, I finally had the opportunity to do something about my passion for his music. I thought Corelli was a nice topic for my first blog column for Limelight as 2013 is a big Corelli anniversary year and because the NDA's Corelli project, I'm delighted to be able to report, was recently chosen as a top five highlight of the 30 year history of the Holland Festival of Early Music Utrecht. The project also featured many Australians, including Baroque violinist Rachael Beesley in the solo role.

Corelli was a legendary generator of musical style. In the 18th century, he was the very personification of the Italianicity which the rest of Europe lusted after. He was the Dizzy Gillespie, the Angus Young, the Grace Kelly, the Faye Dunaway, the Catherine Deneuve of the Italian high Baroque. He epitomised and embodied a whole musical and artistic style, movement and aesthetic, and he was the only composer in the 18th century whose popularity and publishing actually increased after his death. The appetite for Corelli's music was insatiable, especially his cult Opus 6 Concerti Grossi first published in Amsterdam in 1714. Corelli was particularly influential on Handel and had a big impact on the development of his orchestral aesthetic and his own love of a rich, large soundscape, as illustrated in The Water Music.

I was always attracted to Corelli because of his "sound" and how his walking bass lines would so instantly captivate and enrapture, and then continue to unfurl so beautifully. So classic. So distinctive. At the same time, I felt that Corelli was often undervalued in terms of how people viewed him ("Simon, he is of course not in the class of Bach” I was told by one major early music figure). I felt that he was extremely under-represented in terms of the richness and fullness of the soundscape applied to him in performance and on recordings, making him often (and very unjustly, I felt) come across a bit thin, stiff and pale. What's strange is that we've known the numbers of his orchestra for years. We know he liked a full and large soundscape. We know that his style of improvisation was very rich and vibrant. There is, in fact, no mystery about this. Corelli therefore fitted very nicely into one of my reoccurring hobby-horse themes of why-don't-people-actually-really-put-into-practice-what-we-do-know-about-these-historical-composers'-instrumental-forces,-aesthetics-and-playing-styles. I wanted to do something about it. In 2002, I found an enthusiastic ally in the then new Utrecht festival director, Jan van den Bossche, and we got busy.

As a musician, I am compelled by the world of wonderful musical flavours – from fresh and delicate through to heady, voluptuous and lush. I want to revel in these flavours and I therefore want to really enjoy the differences between them, in the same way that there is a lovely and distinct difference between an incredibly satisfying, beautifully made, unfiltered pilsner-style beer and a full but defined Chianti, or between a delicately perfumed Watteau and an in-your-face Caravaggio, or between a fantastic plate of rock oysters and a Bistecca Fiorentina. It's all good – for body, spirit, mind and soul – and it's all different.

So then the big question. What should Corelli actually sound like? What's in his musical kitchen? What's his range of flavours?

What is interesting about the information on Corelli's original orchestra is not just the size, but the proportions within the orchestra. Sure, Corelli's orchestral forces are impressive. His small chamber orchestra = 35 musicians, mid-sized orchestra = between 50 and 80, full-sized orchestra = 100 to 150 (roughly 1 ½ times the size of modern symphony orchestra). And I always liked how these facts put paid to the idea that the Baroque is softer and smaller. But, it is how the numbers are distributed over the different sections of the orchestra which is actually really telling. It is this information which tells us that Corelli orchestral soundscape was full, rich and defined, with a lot of middle and bass, and a richly outfitted basso continuo section.

The instrumentation of the average, mid-sized Corelli Roman orchestra of the late 17th century looks roughly like this: 10 first violins, 10 seconds, 7 violas, 6 cellos, 6 double basses, 4 theorbos, at least two harpsichords and/or organs, plus potential winds, brass and percussion (double or triple the numbers for larger versions). These are the kinds of numbers which we used to create our Corelli sound. Interestingly, this is almost the opposite of the “authentic” soundscape and instrumentation often presented by modern-day “Baroque” orchestras, especially the surprisingly treble heavy, 1980's English variety, which averagely feature an instrumentation of something like this: 5 firsts, 4 seconds, 3 violas, 2 cellos and 1 bass, with a maximum one harpsichord, very much in the background. 

Taste test. Here are three examples demonstrating the different soundscapes given by me and the NDA Orchestra during a performance exploring the sound worlds of Corelli and Handel at the Händel Festspiele in Halle a couple of years ago.

1. Modern, English 1980's style “Baroque” orchestra

2. Corelli style, full orchestra

3. Corelli style, full orchestra plus winds à la The Water Music

Another important factor in the Corelli recipe is improvisation, both in the solo parts and in the realisation of the basso continuo. Corelli presents his compositions in a skeletal form, much like jazz charts; for them to come alive they need to be really worked. Fortunately for us, Corelli wrote examples of how to make the solo parts complete, thereby giving insight into his rich style of ornamentation. The trick in putting this improvisational aspect into practice, however, is to really make it your own – distinctive and meaningful – not just a series of sporadic, random noodles.

With the “big band” basso continuo sections of 3 or 4 harpsichords and organs, and 4 or 5 theorbos/archlutes/Baroque guitars, we spent a lot of rehearsal time on getting the sections working together as teams, and defining individual roles with each person having a focus on either rhythmic impetus, 10 finger full harmony – low, medium or high with compact, long or extra long chord breaking, or on melodic decoration – medium, high or extra high. This meant that each musician had a different job and wouldn't get in the way of or double up with an other. Together, this created the structure which allowed for an effective, complementary, creative and richly layered musical realisation.

Another essential ingredient in creating our Corelli sound was the stringing of the string section. We researched and implemented a heavy duty Italian Baroque gut stringing style which offers a highly articulate and defined sound, delivering plenty of grain and texture to work with.

With all of the research, exploration and thought which went into preparing the Corelli project, I was of course a staunch believer in the facts in the source material. I was excited by the potential and I could hear in my head how it was going to work and sound. But it was so satisfying and such a deep, sensual pleasure to actually really experience it come alive. It did work! It was rich, defined, complex, textured, melting, overwhelming and Italian and Baroque and more. It was such a nice validation of the musical, gut feeling which I'd gone on, but then, I was so grateful to actually be able to really make music and perform with this beautiful and rich orchestral medium, with all of its wonderful expressive possibilities, and to be able to share this taste of the Italian Baroque with modern audiences in concert, through the various radio broadcasts and through the CD.

A year later, I was invited to perform Corelli's Concerti Grossi in Rome for the Italian President and guests, including the Dutch Queen, in a concert broadcast live by the RAI.

Rome. Palazzo. Bernini ceiling. Frescos. Corelli. All together.

At that moment, a dream of my youth came true.