Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Origins of the Instrumental Concerto

I refer to the "instrumental" concerto because at the very beginning there were concertos for voices and instruments by composers such as Andrea Gabrieli (1510-1586) and his nepheGiovanni Gabrieli (1553-1612):

These works, called by some composers "sacred" concertos, were built around contrasts between vocal and instrumental groups. The composers were often associated with the cathedral of San Marco in Venice which was suited to music for contrasting groups because of its layout with choir stalls in different corners of the church.

The instrumental concerto preserves a bit of this idea as the basic structure is the contrast between one or more solo instruments and a group of instruments, between soloist and orchestra. The two earliest proponents were both Italian: Giuseppe Torelli (1658 - 1709) and the much more important Arcangelo Corelli (1653 - 1713).

Giuseppe Torelli
Arcangelo Corelli
It is the latter who is largely responsible for the standardization and clarification of what we now call "tonal harmony". The birthplace of the fully developed system of functional harmony, used universally by composers from then until late in the 19th century, was Italian string music of the 1680s and particularly that of Corelli. This was when the practical use of the "circle of fifths" became systematized and it was this functionality that powered the harmonic intensity of Baroque and later music. Here is how that works (example taken from the Oxford History of Music, vol. 2, p. 185)

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Here is the Sonata da Chiesa op 3 no 11 that illustrates this kind of harmonic technique:

And here is an excerpt showing how the bass line uses the circle of fifths progression (example taken from the Oxford History of Music, vol. 2, p. 189):

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So what has this to do with the concerto? The techniques that were developed to organize instrumental music were soon put to good use in the concerto, of which Corelli was the foremost early proponent. Here is the first part of a Corelli concerto grosso (which simply refers to the fact that instead of a single solo violin, there are two solo violins; a solo group that is contrasted with the orchestral group):

Notice the two theorboes, lutes with enormous necks to carry the deep bass strings.

So that is how the concerto, one of the very first important purely instrumental genres, began. Tune in next time for what happened next!


Unknown said...

Hi Bryan,

I was going to reply to your requiem post but it also ties in very nicely with this one too.

I was going to list two requiem settings, one by Charpentier and the F minor setting by Biber as two good examples of the 'in between' from the renaissance choral settings and the soloist, choral settings of Mozart and beyond. The Biber in particular has a clear distinction between soloists and choir but the actual solo passages a quite brief and the soloists as a group tend to sing as an a small second choir.

The Biber requiem was written in 1692 iirc and makes extensive use of descending 5ths from simple short harmonic passages with a single note from the sequence to support a single melodic note to whole sections/movements based on on it. It crops up everywhere and it's quite interesting how varied the music is while all being rooted by this progression (ba dum tss!).

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Nathaniel! I have updated my requiem post with some Biber on your recommendation.