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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 5 (1999) No. 1

Antonio Bononcini, Complete Sonatas for Violoncello and Basso Continuo. Edited by Lowell Lindgren. Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era, 77. Madison: A-R Editions, Inc., 1996. [xxvi, 157 pp. ISBN 0-89579-333-4. $57.60.]

Reviewed by Gregory Barnett*

1. The Early Violoncello

2. Assessing Bononcini's Sonatas

3. Dating the Sonatas

4. Evaluation of the Edition


All the music examples for this review can be downloaded as a single file in PDF format by clicking here.

1. The Early Violoncello

1.1 We have precious little music for the violoncello soloist that was written before 1700. Lowell Lindgren's clear and informative edition of Bolognese composer Antonio Bononcini's twelve sonatas for violoncello with continuo accompaniment therefore constitutes a substantial contribution both to the study of Italian Baroque music and to our repertory of early cello pieces. Lindgren's inclusion of three individual sonatas from the early eighteenth century-composed probably by Antonio or possibly by his older brother Giovanni Bononcini-completes this edition and augments an already considerable volume of music.

1.2 In the early history of the cello, cellists, and their repertory, late seventeenth-century Bologna stands apart as the mother lode: during the last quarter of the seventeenth century, in the context of a flourishing musical culture in this northern Italian city, cellist-composers such as Domenico Gabrielli, Giuseppe Jacchini, and Domenico Galli produced some of the earliest compositions written specifically for the solo violoncello. The term "violoncello" had just come into use during the 1660s in Bolognese printed music, wherein it specified a smaller version of the bass violin vis-à-vis the violone.(note 1) Soon "violoncello" became the preferred and enduring term for the bass member of the violin family. The instrument itself benefited from the late seventeenth-century invention of wire-wound strings—probably a Bolognese contribution to string making-which rendered an improved tone on smaller and more easily playable bass violins covering the same low register as larger versions did.(note 2)

1.3 Given this background for the violoncello of the late seventeenth century, we might not wonder at the appearance of a set of twelve highly virtuosic cello sonatas by Antonio Bononcini, thought to have been composed in Bologna around 1693. And yet we should take special note of these remarkable pieces because they resemble nothing from the 1690s: despite the blossoming cello literature written by the Bolognese virtuosos mentioned above, not one from among their published works approaches the length and virtuosic level of these pieces by Bononcini. If, as Lindgren believes, these sonatas were composed in the 1690s—while the composer was in his teens, no less—they will fundamentally alter our understanding of the cello and its repertory in the late seventeenth century.

2. Assessing Bononcini's Sonatas

2.1 Some data from contemporary pieces for the violoncello illustrate the uniqueness of Bononcini's contribution: First, only one publication of the period is devoted solely to cello pieces, G. B. Degli Antonii's Ricercate, Op. 1 (1687) for unaccompanied violoncello.(note 3) Otherwise, cello pieces appeared in print one or two at a time as additions to collections of violin sonatas, violin and cello duets, or trio sonatas.(note 4) Second, compositions of the 1690s for the cello average around 100 measures in length whereas the average for Bononcini's sonatas easily exceeds 200 (the shortest is 190 mm.; the longest, 307). Third, multiple stopping on the violoncello in most of the previously known literature occurs only infrequently and for brief passages. In Bononcini's sonatas entire pages of music (up to a dozen measures) comprise passages wholly in double stops.

2.2 Specific examples from both the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries further demonstrate the extraordinary nature of Bononcini's cello sonatas. Antonio Bononcini's older brother Giovanni was himself a cellist, but he wrote nothing for the cello that compares to the sonatas of Antonio. A few of the slow movements from Giovanni Bononcini's Sinfonie, Op. 3 (1685)—written when Giovanni was himself fifteen—feature obbligato parts for the violoncello. In one case, the final movement (Vivace e spiccato) from the Sinfonia Terza (example 1), the cello plays a continuous running line, reaching b' at one point (m. 15). One of Giuseppe Jacchini's sonatas for violoncello, his Op. 3, Nº10 (1697), furnishes a representative example of a full-fledged cello sonata of the 1690s (example 2, which shows the opening Grave and Presto e Spiritoso). The technical challenge here lies mostly in the passages of broken intervals played over two strings (mm. 11-12) and the rapid and extended sequential progressions (mm. 20-29). Giovanni Bononcini's and Giuseppe Jacchini's examples thus render some idea of cello music of the late Seicento; and yet neither of these examples contains writing for the cello even close to that of Antonio Bononcini.

2.3 Turning to cello pieces of the early eighteenth century for further comparison, we begin to find similarities, although Bononcini's pieces continue to stand apart in certain respects. On the one hand, the formal characteristics of Bononcini's sonatas resemble more the cello sonatas of Benedetto Marcello and Antonio Vivaldi than anything from Bologna of the 1680s and 90s:(note 5) common to Bononcini's and the Venetians' sonatas are a strict reliance on a four-movement plan and the use of binary forms in pieces without dance titles. On the other hand, Bononcini's sonatas are still longer and more difficult than those of Vivaldi and Marcello. The Venetian composers, moreover, did not use da capo form in their cello sonatas as Bononcini seemed fond of doing.

3. Dating the Sonatas

3.1 In terms of sheer length and virtuosity, the concertos of Nicola Porpora (1686-1768) come closest to Bononcini's sonatas;(note 6) therefore, Bononcini's sonatas of the 1690s show off writing for the cello that parallels the virtuosic levels seen in concertos written decades later. In fact, a later date for Bononcini's sonatas is arguable because of his strict reliance on a four-movement plan (slow-fast-slow-fast) in all twelve sonatas; this strictness of procedure is anomalous for instrumental music of the late seventeenth century. Arcangelo Corelli, for example, whose sonatas are sometimes taken as the models for the period, used this pattern in little more than half of his sonatas. Judging from the published literature, the four-movement sonata was an eighteenth-century codification that arose from the variety of approaches used during the late seventeenth century.

3.2 Lindgren's case for dating Bononcini's sonatas to the 1690s, however, outweighs other possibilities. His argument rests on another composition by Bononcini, a Laudate pueri from 1693 for voice, continuo, and obbligato cello, in which we find the same virtuosic writing for the violoncello as is found in the undated twelve sonatas. Like the sonatas, the psalm setting survives in manuscript, and Lindgren notes that Bononcini's cello writing probably represents the closest analog that we have to 1690s improvisatory practice on the violoncello, precisely the sort of thing that was not usually written down, much less published.

3.3 The very fact that Bononcini's sonatas survive in manuscript furnishes further evidence in support of Lindgren's proposed date. During the last decades of the seventeenth century, composers of both violin and cello music appear to have worked on two distinct levels. On the first, that of the published repertory, composers produced contrapuntally sound and musically satisfying works that were not especially challenging to the instrumentalist. On the second, these same musicians produced virtuoso showpieces, which were never published—probably because because these more difficult works were intended for performance only by the composer. The clearest demonstration of this phenomenon lies in the oeuvre of the Modenese composer Giuseppe Colombi (1635-93). Colombi's five published collections of sonatas contain no double stops and rarely require the violinist to play above first position. His violin solos in manuscript, by contrast, exceed first position by up to an octave and contain pseudo-fugal expositions, which are effected by intricate double stopping.

3.4 The same dichotomy between printed and manuscript repertories exists on the violoncello. Domenico Gabrielli (1650-90), a Bolognese cellist, never published any cello solos, and his only published music, a collection of trio sonatas, uses an undistinguished bass line throughout. His two manuscript sonatas for violoncello and continuo, however, tell a different story: example 3 shows the beginning of the third movement from one sonata, and example 4 shows the end of the first movement and beginning of the second from the other.(note 7) Both passages contain a good measure of multiple stops, and the Allegro of Ex. 4 further elaborates its extended passage in sixteenth notes with bursts of thirty-second notes (mm. 3-5), precisely the kind of intricate diminutions that might characterize improvised solos. Although Bononcini's cello sonatas demonstrate a technical level beyond Gabrielli's, the two collections of sonatas are more akin to one another than to anything in print during that time.

3.5 As extraordinary as they appear, Bononcini's twelve cello sonatas most likely date from the 1690s as Lindgren hypothesizes. Given this probability, the importance of these works cannot be underestimated: they illustrate both how little we still know of late Seicento instrumental music and how much of what we may still learn lies in music that was never published.

4. Evaluation of the Edition

4.1 Lindgren's preface is well planned and highly informative; he methodically divides the text into sections on the composer, the music, the sources, notes on performance, editorial methods, critical notes, and acknowledgments. His approach to the preface reflects a sound strategy in making an edition of music: he provides as much information as possible while not belaboring the questions raised by his research. One issue that he mentions, for example, is the question of precisely what instrument Bononcini had in mind in writing his twelve sonatas. Lindgren acknowledges two possibilities in addition to the violoncello: one is a five-stringed variant of the cello, tuned C, G, d, a, e'; the other is the tenor violin, an instrument with dimensions somewhere between those of the viola and violoncello and tuned an octave below the violin (G, d, a, e'). Both of these possibilities, however remote, are worth exploring, and Lindgren has gone the extra mile to bring the pros and cons of each to the reader's attention.

4.2 One conclusion that Lindgren draws about these sonatas is that they are church sonatas. Although he may well be correct, I have reservations for two reasons: first, assigning a genre to these pieces is unwarranted since Bononcini himself used only the term sonata (without adding da chiesa)—in fact, only a handful of prints from this period did use the title sonata da chiesa; and second, modern readers might draw misleading conclusions on the basis of calling these pieces church sonatas. Specifically, the some might infer that these were originally intended for performance in a church with continuo accompaniment on the organ. While this may have been the case, the grounds for these conclusions are not firm. Lindgren has made the designation of church sonata on the basis of there being no dance titles in any of the twelve sonatas. To counter such a designation, however, I would cite examples of sonatas da camera whose movements bear no dance titles(note 8) and sonatas that bear both modifiers, those that were deemed acceptable for both church and chamber.(note 9) Generally speaking, modifiers such as da chiesa, da camera, and for that matter, da teatro, indicate a suitability of the music for these specific contexts—they do not refer to immutable genres. To take them as such risks an overly schematized view of this music and its uses.

4.3 In the musical text, Lindgren has added many figures to the continuo line, and these are duly bracketed. Although he does not explain his system for adding figures, the relationship between the two lines of music, continuo and violoncello, served as his guide for adding figures in most cases. Given the perpetual motion writing for the cello, unfortunate page turns are the unavoidable rule. A-R Editions might have chosen a different musical font for these pieces because the notes, however well spaced horizontally, appear flattened within squat little staves; taller staves and larger note heads would have been easier to read.

4.4 These last points, however, constitute a reviewer's nit-picking. I learned a considerable amount from reading Lindgren's preface and from studying this music. His edition of Bononcini's sonatas constitutes a large step forward in our understanding and appreciation of early violoncello music; specialists of Baroque music, cello historians, and performers alike owe Lindgren a debt of gratitude for his work here.


*Gregory Barnett (gregory-barnett@uiowa.edu) is a member of the musicology faculty at the University of Iowa. He completed a Ph.D. in musicology at Princeton University in 1997 and is currently completing a book on Italian instrumental music of the late seventeenth century to be published by the University of California Press. Return to beginning


1. For a thorough study of this issue, see Stephen Bonta, "Terminology for the Bass Violin in Seventeenth-Century Italy," Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 4 (1978), 5-43. Return to text

2. See Stephen Bonta, "From Violone to Violoncello: A Question of Strings?" Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 3 (1977), 64-99. Return to text

3. Claudio Sartori, Bibliografia della musica strumentale italiana stampata in Italia fino al 1700, 2 volumes. (Firenze: Olschki, 1952-68), 1687a, contains a complete bibliographic listing for Degli Antonii's ricercars, which are available in modern edition: Gianbattista degli Antonii, Dodici ricercate per violoncello solo, edited by Lauro Malusi. (Padova: Zanibon, 1976). Curiously, these same pieces survived in manuscript form (I-MOe, MS.MUS.D.9) as duets with an added violin line. Return to text

4. Printed collections from around 1700 that include one or two cello sonatas are Giuseppe Jacchini, Sonate à Violino è Violoncello, et à Violoncello solo per camera, Op. 1 (?Bologna: Carlo Buffagnotti, before 1695), Sartori, Bibliografia, anteriore al 1695; ibid., Sonate per camera, . . . e nel fine due Sonate à Violoncello solo col Basso, Op. 3 (Modena: Rosati, 1697), Sartori, 1697c; Luigi Taglietti, Suonate da camera à trè . . . con alcune aggiunte à Violoncello solo, Op. 1 (Bologna: Silvani, 1697), Sartori, 1697e; Giacomo Cattaneo, Trattenimenti armonici da camera ... & una Sonata per Violoncello, Op. 1 (Modena: Rosati, 1700), Sartori, 1700g; and Pirro Albergati-Capacelli, Concerti varii da camera...., Op. 8 (Modena: Rosati, 1702). Return to text

5. See Benedetto Marcello, 6 Sonate per violoncello e basso continuo, István Máriássy and Árpád Pejtsik, eds. (Budapest: Editio Musica, 1991); and Antonio Vivaldi, 9 Sonate per violoncello e basso continuo, István Máriássy and Árpád Pejtsik, eds. (Budapest: Editio Musica, 1995). Return to text

6. See Nicolò Antonio Porpora, Konzert für Violoncello, a moll, György Orbán, ed. (Budapest: Editio Musica, 1984); and Concerto in Sol maggiore, Francesco Degrada, ed. (Milano: Ricordi, 1970). Return to text

7. Both sonatas are found in a single manuscript source, MS.MUS.F.416, located in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena (I-MOe). Return to text

8. Two such examples are Pirro Albergati, Pletro Armonico Composto di dieci Sonate da Camera à due Violini, e Basso con Violoncello Obligato, Op. 5 (Bologna: Monti, 1687), Sartori, 1687b; and Antonio Veracini, Sonate da Camera a due, Violino, e Violone, ò Arcileuto, col Basso per il Cembalo, Op. 3 (Modena: Rosati, 1696), Sartori, 1696d. Return to text

9. Massimiliano Neri, Sonate e Canzoni a quatro da sonarsi con diversi Strumenti in Chiesa & in Camera..., Op. 1 (Venezia: Gardano, 1644), Sartori, 1644b; Marco Uccellini, Sonate, Correnti, et Arie da farsi con diversi Stromenti sì da camera che da chiesa..., Op. 4 (Venezia: Gardano, 1645), Sartori, 1645f; Giovanni Legrenzi, Sonate dà chiesa, dà camera, Correnti, Balletto, Alemane, e Sarabande à tre..., Op. 4 (Venetia: Magni, 1656), Sartori, 1656d; D. Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi-Mealli, Sonate à Violino solo, per Chiesa e Camera..., Op. 3 (Innsbruck: Wagner, 1660), Sartori, 1660b. Return to text

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