Tonight’s concert is dominated by four violinist-composers who between them provide the title of the program. “Madcap” was Veracini, as described by Charles Burney; the “Red Priest” was of course, Vivaldi; and Corelli and Leclair share the role of “Angel”, Corelli because of his name, and his famously amiable disposition, Leclair because he was said to have played like an angel.
Leclair began his professional life as a dancer and dancing-master, but soon turned to the violin, completing his studies with G.B.Somis, a student of Corelli. Leclair’s opus 5 sonatas were published in 1734, dedicated to King Louis XV in gratitude for his appointment as “Ordinaire de la musique de la Chapelle et de la Chambre”, a position Francois Couperin had held for Louis XIV. Like all his music apart from opus 1, Leclair’s opus 5 was engraved by his second wife, Louise-Cathérine Roussel. Their marriage broke up after 28 years, and when he was found murdered some 6 years later, she was suspected of being behind the crime.
Boismortier was a hugely prolific composer of instrumental music, cantatas, opera ballets, and vocal music. Between 1724, the year he began publishing his music in Paris, and 1747 he produced at least 100 opus numbers of popular and commercially successful music, thus being able to live well without patrons. In his “Essai sur la musique ancienne et moderne” of 1780, J.B.de la Borde summed him up : “Boismortier appeared at a time when simple, undemanding music was the fashion. This gifted musician knew how to make use of this trend, and wrote countless Airs and Duets for the general public, to be played on flutes, violins, oboes, bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy… People said “happy Boismortier, whose fertile pen can produce a new volume each month, without stress”. Boismortier would only answer “I’m earning money”.”
Francois Couperin was the most distinguished of a highly musically successful family, several generations of which produced important composers and performers. The post of organist at the church of St. Gervais in Paris, which Francois took over in 1685, was more or less a family business: his father had held the position before, his cousin Nicolas would inherit it from him, and other family members would get their turn. More importantly, in 1693 Francois Couperin succeeded his teacher Jacques Thomelin as organist at the Chapelle Royale, with the title “organiste du roi”, the King in question being Louis XIV, the Sun King. In 1717 he became “ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du Roi”, which post involved playing regular chambermusic concerts in the private rooms of the King, who was a connoisseur of music. Couperin’s harpsichord music, and his famous book “L’Art de toucher le clavecin” (The Art of Harpsichord Playing), was highly regarded in his own time – a significant fan and disciple was J.S. Bach – and has retained its fascination for all sophisticated keyboard players since.
Arcangelo Corelli is perhaps the key figure in this program. In spite of a life spent almost exclusively in Bologna and Rome (there is no concrete evidence of him ever leaving Italy) his influence on the subsequent development of European music was considerable. By establishing a viable form for the concerto grosso he was the initiator of the entire modern history of the solo/orchestral concerto; and as the teacher of innumerable students from throughout the Western world, he can truly be said to have founded all the main modern schools of violin playing. His trio sonatas were a huge success throughout Europe and beyond – Francois Couperin flattered sincerely by imitating them in his “Apothéose de Corelli” – and his Opus 5 violin sonatas have never been out of print since their 1st edition dated 1st January 1700, an unusual distinction for baroque music. The title page of opus 5, like those of many collections of baroque sonatas, explicitly calls for accompaniment by cello or harpsichord, so today we are offering a still rare chance to hear the first suggested instrumentation.
Antonio Vivaldi, the “Red Priest”, died in Vienna in July 1741, leaving behind in Venice a vast collection of manuscripts (mainly of his own works, but also containing sacred music by other composero). By 1745 all these manuscripts were bound into the 27 volumes of the Foa and Giordano collections which today belong to the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin, Italy. Oddly, these volumes contain few sonatas of any description, and none at all for one instrument and bass. One can only speculate over the fate of the sonata manuscripts: given that we have, so far, more than 500 concertos, 46 operas, plus numerous sinfonias and pieces of sacred music, it seems highly likely that he composed more than the 73 sonatas currently attributed to him. Of these, a significant group consists of 9 sonatas for cello and continuo. 6 of these were published in Paris by Le Clerc, as part of his reaction to an extraordinary vogue for the cello in Paris in the late 1730s (Le Clerc published at least 26 volumes of cello sonatas between 1738 and 1750). As we have heard, Leclair contributed to the new fashion with his obbligato cello part in the B flat sonata from op.5, and if the distinguished Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot is correct in dating the Paris manuscript, on which the Le Clerc edition is based, to the 1720s, it may be that the influence was from Vivaldi on Leclair. Certainly Leclair, like so many of his contemporaries, adopted the Vivaldi 4-movement sonata form, not the 5-movement structure used by Corelli in the first half of his Opus 5.
Francesco Maria Veracini was one of the most self-assured violinists who ever lived: “There is only one God, and only one Veracini”, he is said to have asserted! Nonetheless, he was quite clear about the importance of Corelli to him as player and composer: though it cannot be proven that he studied with Corelli, he rewrote the whole of Corelli’s Opus 5 as a work of homage, extending many of the contrapuntal passages and bringing the music to what he certainly believed was a new level of perfection to be presented to violinists and connoisseurs 50 years after Corelli’s death. For an Italian virtuoso and supposed “wild man” of the violin, Veracini was remarkably conservative in his composing techniques: he was fascinated by counterpoint, at a time when it was clearly going out of fashion, and he remained faithful to the Corelli 5-movement “sonata da chiesa” form long after his contemporaries had adopted the 4-movement Vivaldi form, or still later the 3-movement Tartini model. It is the combination of Veracini’s extraordinary violinistic imagination with these intellectual compositional tendencies which makes his sonatas so fascinating. His Opus 2 are called “Sonate accademiche”, meaning sonatas for the knowledgeable connoisseurs of the “academy”. As such, they are the peak of his surviving violin works. The last is a truly remarkable creation: like the last sonata in Corelli’s op.5, the famous “Follia”, it is based throughout on one ground bass. Veracini, however, succeeds in building a series of variations on his theme which explore its contrapuntal and harmonic possibilities to the limit; and at the same time he manages to remain true to the 5-movement sonata form of his mentor Corelli.
The conservative English commentator Charles Burney, writing a generation later: “Veracini and Vivaldi had the honour of being thought mad for attempting in their music and performance what many a sober gentleman has since done uncensored; but both these musicians happening to be gifted with more fancy and more hand than their neighbours, were thought insane”.