VE: The Sonata in Seventeenth Century Italy

The music of the mid-seventeenth century strikes a happy balance between freshness and maturity. It exudes confidence without self-consciousness and enjoys a certain homogeneity without conformity. After decades of experimentation, the monodic idiom and the thorough-bass technique join in an effective partnership. Melody and bass line proceed with purpose and structural clarity. The bass part, now typically active and linear, occasionally competes with or enters into dialogue with the upper parts. Sequences, imitations, and repetitions give to the expansion of motives a logical and flowing continuity. Harmony is varied, but its digressions are curbed by a unified tonal scheme. At last a consistent and distinct style has been achieved that can be called, for lack of a better name, baroque.

These characteristics, earlier observed in cantata and opera, grow as much out of instrumental as out of vocal practice. More than at any earlier time in the history of music the capabilities of instruments and the aspirations of their players are having a deep effect on musical style. At the same time adaptations of vocal procedures make up a strong component of the instrumental idiom. The basso continuo, the texture of two treble voices against a bass, the recitative style, and the triple-meter aria style are points of departure for the composers of sonatas and concertos.

Both the meeting and parting of the vocal and instrumental idioms are already seen in Monteverdi's aria "Possente spirito" in Orfeo and in the short songs with ritornelli of the Scherzi musicali (1607; Opere,Vol. 10). In the latter, two sopranos and a bass voice alternate with two treble viole da braccio and a bass instrument. The two ensembles exert a subtle influence over each other, but the style of writing for the violins is obviously more vigorous, more square in its rhythms, and faster in its runs.

The same year Salomone Rossi published the first of his two collections of sinfonie and gagliarde, of which the sinfonie are mostly for two treble viole da braccio (violins) or cornetts with a chitarrone or other instrument playing the basso continuo. As in the vocal duets of Monteverdi and their ritornelli, the two upper parts exchange motives or play in parallel motion, while the bass has a supporting role. From a later collection by Rossi of 1613, the Sonata prima detta la moderna shows a debt to the vocal concerto on other counts. The two violins attack in imitation a drawn-out vocal accento and the common meter is broken by triple-meter passages, after which the violins join in madrigalistic runs of sixteenth-notes.

Biagio Marini, a violinist and violin composer who also has many concertato madrigals and sacred concerti to his credit, combines a conscious absorption of vocal methods and ideals in his violin music.with a full realization of the instrument's potential. The title of his Opus I of 1617, Affetti musicali (Musical Affections), promises airs or madrigals, but it offers sonatas, canzoni, sinfonie, and dances for one or two violins or cornetts and a bass played by both a trombone or bassoon and a chordal instrument. The main constructive method in the non-dance pieces for more than one treble part is imitation, but the medium of the single treble instrument and bass, less amenable to this method, challenged Marini to invent a new idiom.

The terms canzona, sonata, and sinfonia, as labels for the pieces discussed so far, had no precise signification. The distinction made by Praetorius that the sonata was more severe than the canzona is generally valid. The term canzona is used little in the second part of the century and is eventually dropped. Sonata is the preferred name for an independent piece of several moments for few parts with basso continuo. Sinfonia, at first synonymous with sonata, is retained in the second half of the century particularly for the first number of a suite of dances or for pieces with fuller texture, and for those inserted in vocal works such as operas or sacred concertos.

Compositions published under these titles seem to have been destined until around the 1660's for both church and chamber--"per chiesa e camera." In the church they helped fill with sound silent intervals of the mass and vespers, such as, in the mass, after the Epistle, during Offertory, during the Elevation of the Host, and for the Post-Communion. Sometimes instrumental pieces replaced the chanting of the Gradual and Alleluia, particularly when an organ mass took the place of a sung ordinary. Exactly how the sonatas or portions of them fitted into these points in the mass is not clear.

The printed collections that contained sonatas usually also included numerous dances for either dancing or listening. The order of dances in the collections was often guided by ballroom practice. A company or group dance such as the branle or allemande would be followed by a couple dance such as the corrente. For example, Giovanni Maria Bononcini in his opus 1 (1666) presented as numbers 13 to 15 three branles of different types followed by a gavotte and courante, all in the order prescribed for French court balls. Often all the dances of one type were placed together and the choice of dances for a set was left to the players. The makings of dance sets were available from the 1620's, as for example in S. Rossi's Il quarto libro de varie sonate, sinfonie, gagliarde, brandi, e corrente per sonar due violini, et un cbittarrone o altro stromento simile,1622. Eventually Italian and German composers themselves formed sets or suites of dances, sometimes, as in those of Schein, related by a common theme. Corelli entitled such suites sonate da camera, to distinguish them from the sonate da chiesa from which dances -- at least such as were plainly labeled -- were excluded for reasons of propriety. These suites usually began with an introductory slow movement, often derived from the allemande, followed by a selection of dances, dance-airs, and occasional non-dance movements, such as transitional adagios.

The basic ingredients of what Corelli and his contemporaries called the sonata da chiesa appear in the sonatas of Giovanni Legrenzi. The four or five sections are clearly separated and usually labeled with tempo markings. The outer movements are chiefly fast fugues on one or more subjects. In his sonatas à 3 (generally called trio-sonatas) the bass tends to take a passive role. In the sonatas à 2 (which we shall call duo-sonatas) the violin and violone tend to be two equally important parts. When the violone is a part separate from the basso continuo, it is sometimes called "violone concertante." Legrenzi's carefully wrought, highly concentrated subjects are self-sufficient individualities possessing strong tonal direction.

The leadership in violin composition remained for the first part of the century with men who originated and worked in the region in which the violin itself was born. Marini, a native of Brescia, worked in Mantua, Venice, Neuberg in Germany, and Ferrara. Merula, born in Cremona, worked there and in Bergamo and Poland. Cima was active in his home city of Milan. Legrenzi, from Clusone near Bergamo, settled in Venice after a period in Bergamo and Ferrara. With the next generation, the center shifts to Bologna and neighboring Modena. Maurizio Cazzati (c. 1620-1677) is the link between the northern cities and Bologna. Born in Mantua, he early established his reputation in Ferrara and Bergamo and in 1657 founded a school of violin playing in Bologna.

Bologna boasted two institutions that fostered instrumental composition and performance, the vast church of San Petronio and the Accademia dei Filarmonici. San Petronio had long been a center of concerted music. The roll of salaried musicians in 1595 listed twenty-eight singers, four trombonists, a cornettist, and a violinist. In 1670, thirteen years after Cazzati took over as choirmaster, there were among the salaried musicians a nu cleus of string players: three violinists, one violist, two tenor violists (i.e. cellists), and one each on the theorbo and violone. To these were added others, hired as needed for large concerti.

The Academy, to which compositions were submitted for criticism, both encouraged musical life and exercised a scholastic influence upon it. The contrapuntal rules of the sixteenth-century theorists, modified to suit the thorough-bass style, were now being taught and applied with renewed vigor. Cazzati, accused of lapses from these rules by Giulio Cesare Arresti, an officer of the Academy, was dismissed from his post at San Petronio in 1673 because of the ensuing controversy. Composers vied with each other to produce learned compositions full of canons and fugues by contrary motion, inversion, and in double counterpoint. Cazzati's pupil, Giovanni Battista Vitali, filled a book, his op. 13, Artificii musicali (1689), with contrapuntal tours de force. Another composer in the circle, Giovanni Maria Bononcini, who worked in Modena, had earlier offered a series of sonatas in canon, op. 3 (1669).

No other prominent composer so drastically limited his output to a single medium as did Corelli, for he left only string sonatas and concertos. Born in Fusignano, not far from Bologna, he spent four years of study in this center of violin music before settling in Rome about 1671. His five books of sonatas, published in 1681, 1685, 1689, 1694, and 1700, are built on the advances of his predecessors. They constitute a corpus of works that in its consistency of high artistic achievement has few equals. Corelli clearly separated church and chamber sonatas, grouping them in dozens or half-dozens. The content of the two types of sonatas shows, nevertheless, an interaction of the two manners of writing.

The diversity of approaches, too numerous to permit a description of each, is mitigated by the recurrence of certain musical stereotypes. Behind these characteristic poses seems to lie an awareness of several static moods or affections that are linked to particular complexes of meter, tempo, and harmonic density. Very often Corelli found these musical types in the French dance music cultivated by his predecessors and still in vogue in Italian society. He usually began his church sonatas with a severe, majestic, solemn, or proud mood, passed on to a resolute and contented one, then to a tenderly melancholic affection, and finally to a light and carefree one. The types that best answered to these moods were the slow allemande and its kin the French-overture grave for the first; a bright fast fugue for the second; an operatic arioso, perhaps in sarabande rhythm, for the third; and usually a fast allemande or gigue, occasionally a gavotte or balletto, for the last.

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