LOCATELLI AND THE EARLY ITALIANS
Dr David C F Wright
Pietro Locatelli was born on 3 September 1695 in Bergamo.
He was the greatest Italian violin virtuoso of his time.
He was a pupil of Arcangelo Corelli in Rome.
Corelli was born in Fusignano near Milan in 1653. His
youth was spent largely in France and Germany as a virtuoso violinist.
He returned to Rome in 1685 spending the rest of his life as a musician
in the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni. Corelli amassed a fine art collection
and died a very rich man. He had a great influence on Handel particularly
with the Concerto Grosso form. His works are collections designated
as six opus numbers as follows:
Opus 1. 12 Sonatas a tre
Opus 2. 12 Sonata da camera a tre
Opus 3. 12 Sonata a tre
Opus 4. 12 Sonata a camera a tre
Opus 5. 12 Sonatas for violin and cembalo which Geminiani
arranged as some of his Concerti Grossi
Opus 6. 12 Concerti Grossi
His most famous work is the Concerto Grosso in G minor
Op. 6 no. 8 for strings and continuo which dates from 1712 and intended
as a concerto da chiesa (for church use) and was inscribed fatto per
la notte di Natale (made for Christmas Night). He died the following
Another Italian composer and violin virtuoso, Giuseppe
Torelli, who was born in Verona in 1658, wrote 12 concerti grossi, his
opus 8 around 1709, also for strings and continuo, and his number six,
also in G Minor, is a pastoral for the holy night of Christmas.
Locatelli settled in Amsterdam where he established
concert series and developed new effects and techniques on the violin.
It is this that sets him apart. His work was original
and non-conformist. His major work is L'Arte del Violino which consists
of 12 concerti and 24 caprices for string quartet and continuo. They
are works of extraordinary difficulty. He wrote six violin concerti,
six string trios and sonatas for solo violin.
His music may not have the polished refinement of his
teacher Corelli. His contemporary Francesco Manfredini, who was born
in Pistoia around 1680, wrote concerti grossi and a set of 12 Sinfoni
da chiesa in 1709 (he was the Choir Master at Pistoia Cathedral from
1734) but his work does not have the extended development or profound
craftsmanship of Locatelli.
Manfredini had a son when he was in his late fifties.
Vincenzo Manfredini had a Court post in Russia from 1758 to 1769 and,
as music had 'moved on', he wrote ballets as well as opera and keyboard
Reference was made above to Francesco Geminiani who
was the first composer to utterly confuse me when I was a boy studying
Italian concerti. His orchestration of the Corelli concerti bore his
name not Corelli's. Were they merely orchestrations or complete reworking,
that is to say adaptations, as the great Arnold Schoenberg made of concerti
by Georg Monn? It is like the recent problem of Elgar's Symphony no.
3. It cannot be said to be Elgarís. It is Anthony Payne's Symphony on
themes of Elgar as is Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosen on themes
of Carl Maria von Weber. The star-billing is wrong.
Geminiani was born in Lucca in 1687. He too was a pupil
of Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti the father of Domenico who wrote
those 550 single movement keyboard sonatas. Geminiani was in the Naples
opera orchestra from 1711 to 1714 and lived in London from 1714 with
extensive stays in Dublin from 1733 to 1740 and from 1759 until his
death in 1762. He was clearly inspired by Locatelli since he produced
The Art of playing the Violin in London in 1740, the first violin method
to ever be published. It is also said that he invented the signs for
crescendo and diminuendo, or hair clips as we called them. He also wrote
The Art of Accompaniment in 1755 and the Art of Playing the Guitar in
1760 which comprise 11 sonatas for guitar, cello and harpsichord. Apart
from concerti grossi, 24 Violin sonatas and 6 Cello sonatas, he wrote
a ballet La foresta incantata produced in Paris in 1754.
One of Geminani's pupils was Charles Avison who studied
with him in London. Avison was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1709 and
died there in 1770. He was the organist at the city's cathedral from
1736 until his death although he was tempted with more financially secure
appointments elsewhere. His Essay on Musical Expression published in
London in 1752 caused a stir. He wrote some 60 Concerti Grossi and three
volumes of sonatas for harpsichord and violin.
Perhaps I should define Concerto Grosso. It means Great
Concerto. They are antiphonal works; that means a small body of strings
(usually) called a concertino, concertato or concertante, which alternated
with a larger group called the ripieno.
The word Continuo is another annoying word although
figured bass is more accurate. This was the musical shorthand for the
keyboard part, a mere bass line with a certain number of figures above
or below them to tell the player what chords to play. So if a piece
was in D major and the given bass note was A with 6/4 indicated it would
tell the player that the chord was the second inversion of the tonic
triad and the notes to fill in were an F sharp and a D and to obtain
four part harmony one note would have to be repeated (the technical
word is doubled) and you do not double the third so the F sharp could
not be used twice. Often the continuo also had a bass instrument like
a viola da gamba or cello also playing the bottom note on the keyboard
part. This I have never liked as it can give too much prominence to
the bass; a ghastly attribute used in so much pop music of our day
The other annoying thing about early music is ornamentation;
another type of musical shorthand. These were decorations such as the
trill, shake, mordent, acciaccatura and appoggiatura and so on. It was
easier to write a sign that, as in the case of the trill and shake,
produced umpteen more notes. But we do not know exactly what the composer
wanted. Did he want the shake or trill to start on the given note or
the note above? Is the trill or shake to end with a turn or not?
Sadly, music examination boards do and in most examinations
you have to play an early piece with ornamentation.
Musicologists have fussed about the authenticity of
ornaments and even been dictatorial as to how they should be played.
Some have gone overboard as to the use of period instruments and matters
In those times key signatures were usually confined
to a maximum of three sharps although that is quite rare and three flats.
Locatelli was more adventurous. He was a 'modern'. For example, the
eighth of his twelve opus 1 Concerti Grossi is in F minor. Haydn was
daring as well. He wrote a symphony in B (with five sharps) his Symphony
no. 46. The previous symphony is in F sharp minor also very rare for
his time and the Symphony no. 49 is in F minor.
The F minor Concerto begins with a sober elegance with
an almost tragic feel but everything is measured. It may be rather too
serious but, speaking personally, I would rather a composer took his
work seriously. There follows a splendid fugue. Fugues tend to be predictable
which is why they are not always valued but the energy generated here
is very exciting and foot-tapping stuff. It has an immense swagger.
This is followed by what I call lonely music. Haydn may have called
it farewell music. A precursor of a scherzo comes next and has some
curious modern sounds for the time. My performance contains a chamber
organ which gives an aural impression of hollow woodwind. A leisurely
well-controlled quickish movement follows and a type of pastorale concludes
the work with its open air music but it is still rather lonely music.
Locatelli was a forward looking composer, more so than
his contemporaries. But he suffered abuse. The fifth edition of Grove
dating from 1954 says of Locatelli, "He oversteps all reasonable
limits and aims at effects which, being adverse to the very nature of
the violin, are neither beautiful nor musical, but ludicrous and absurd."
The writer is being absurd just as Elgar was when he said similar and
equally stupid things about Walton's Viola Concerto.
Here is a list of Locatelli's works
Opus 1. 12 Concerti Grossi (Amsterdam 1721)
Opus 2. Sonatas for flute (Amsterdam 1732)
Opus 3. The Art of the Violin. 12 Concerti Grossi and
24 caprices (1733)
Opus 4. Six introduzioni teatri and six concerti (1737)
Opus 5. Six sonatas a tre ( 1737)
Opus 6. Six sonatas for solo violin (1737)
Opus 7. Six concerti a quattro (1741)
Opus 8. Trios for two violins and bass (1741)
Opus 9. L'Art di nuova modulazione - caprices enigmatiques
Opus 10. Contrasto armonico: concerti a quattro.
Like Corelli, Handel's patron at one time was Cardinal
Ottoboni. Handel wrote 6 Concerti Grossi as his Opus 3 and 12 more as
his opus 12, the last of which in B minor has a glorious slow movement
well ahead of its time and was used as a signature tune to a Home Service
daily programme called ĎFive to Tení a five minute religious programme
on the BBC in those far off days when I was a boy.
In the twentieth century some composers revived the
Concerto Grosso. Among them were Ernest Bloch, Vaughan Williams and
Of course, Handel was German until he was naturalized
as English in 1726. I have heard it said that he wrote the first ever
musical masterpiece namely The Messiah which was premiered in Dublin
in 1742. Or do they mean the first ever British musical masterpiece?
I have conducted it many times and it is still as glorious and spiritually
uplifting as ever. When young I saw the wonderful Sybil Michelow in
the contralto part and at a Prom two years ago Monica Groop excelled
as well. It is a pity when a counter-tenor sings the contralto arias
particularly But Who may abide the day of His coming? The contralto
voice has more power and depth to convey such words.
Another Italian violin virtuoso was Giuseppe Tartini.
He was born in Pirano in 1695, the son of a wealthy nobleman. He learned
the violin as a child and then went to Padua University. When he married
secretly he fled from Padua because of disapproval of his marriage.
He took refuge in the monastery of Assissi where he studied composition.
Here he wrote his most famous piece The Devil's Trill sonata
for violin and keyboard. He invented a new violin bow and gave recitals.
Forgiven he returned to Padua in 1715. He was a violinist in the Court
orchestra and became first violin at the Cappella del Santo in Padua
from 1721 to 1723. He was Kapellmeister of Count Kinsky's ensemble in
Prague from 1723 to 1725. On his return to Padua in 1728 he founded
a school for violin playing. He composed many concerti and sonatas and
died in Padua in 1770.
The last of the greatest Italian violin virtuosos was
Niccolo Paganini who was born in Genoa in 1782, eighteen years after
the death of Locatelli in Amsterdam on 30 March 1764. Clearly Locatelli's
24 Caprices inspired Paganini's 24 caprices for solo violin known as
his Opus 1. Like Locatelli he introduced new effects and techniques
and among these was the use of harmonics. The suggestion that when he
played he appeared to be the Devil incarnate is probably unfair. Unlike
Locatelli he was a showman which is a polite way of saying a show-off.
His odd and rare appearances later in life was possibly due to the cancer
of the larynx which eventually killed him in 1840.
The famous Paganini caprice has been used for endless
sets of variations including those by Rachmaninov, Blacher and Lutoslawski.
And so we have covered 300 years.
is the text of an illustrated talk given by Dr David Wright in March
"It is copyright.
It must not be copied in whole or the part, nor stored in any retrieval
system or downloaded or used in any way whatsoever without first obtaining
the written permission of the author."