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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 6 (2000) No. 2

Arcangelo Corelli: “New Orpheus of Our Times.” By Peter Allsop. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. [xii, 308 pp. ISBN 0-19-816562-5 $75.00.]

Reviewed by Gregory Barnett*

1. Introduction

2. Corelli, Revised

3. Sonata da Chiesa—Sonata da Camera

4. Modality—Tonality

5. Corrections

6. Conclusions


1. Introduction

1.1 Nearly half a century has elapsed since the last appearance of a monograph on the violinist-composer Arcangelo Corelli. And until Peter Allsop’s Arcangelo Corelli: “New Orpheus of Our Times”, no English-language study on the composer existed, apart from the translation of Marc Pincherle’s biography,1 published in 1956. Otherwise, there has been no dearth of scholarship dedicated to Corelli: five conferences2 devoted exclusively to his life and works and held under the auspices of the Società Italiana di Musicologia have taken place in the town of Corelli’s birth, Fusignano, since 1968; and a critical edition of his works3 in five volumes, edited by Hans Oesch, was begun in 1976. Given this abundance of recent scholarship on Corelli and his contemporaries, it was high time someone took on the task of reassessing and revising our perspective of this influential composer in a book-length study.

1.2 Peter Allsop, the author of a previous book on the seventeenth-century Italian trio sonata,4 comes well-equipped to do the job: his earlier work, as he himself states (p. vii), furnishes the background necessary for understanding Corelli and his oeuvre; and he has spent some years making editions of seventeenth-century Italian instrumental music, published by his New Orpheus Editions.5

2. Corelli, Revised

2.1 Armed with this experience, Allsop takes a straightforward approach to his study of Corelli, dividing his text into two main parts that cover, respectively, the composer’s life and works: Part I “The Man” concerns fact and fiction in previous Corelli biography and then treats his Bolognese and Roman years; Part II “The Music” covers each genre in Corelli’s oeuvre and then his reception in Italy and abroad. Despite this standard life-and-works approach, Allsop’s view of Corelli departs markedly from those of earlier studies. Corelli, as Allsop states at the conclusion of his first chapter (pp. 12–13), came not from a well-off family but from a humble one; his compositional output was probably large, with only a fraction of his works having been printed; Corelli saw little distinction between the sonata da chiesa and the sonata da camera; and he composed within a modal system, even though he has been cast as a quintessentially tonal composer. In short, Allsop means to overturn much of the conventional wisdom about Corelli.

2.2 And yet, if Allsop poses important and revealing questions in this biography, that which he asserts in place of traditional views is itself open to debate. On the matter of the Corelli family’s wealth or lack of it, for example, Allsop at first furnishes evidence to support both sides of the question (pp. 15–16): on the one hand, he quotes an early biographical source of some time before 1727 that mentions Corelli’s having been “born humbly but of noble talent,” a phrase that is altered in later sources to read “born nobly and of noble talent”; on the other hand, Allsop notes a census, circa 1670, in which the Corelli family of the composer’s birthplace in Fusignano is shown to own extensive property. Then, without citing additional evidence, he sides with the first of these two sources, the biography, asserting on p. 16 that “Corelli, it seems, did not live a childhood of luxury and ease, but rose from a humble background.” But two details in Allsop’s evidence contradict his conclusion: first, the census is most likely closer to the period in question; and second, the biography emanates from the notoriously inaccurate membership records compiled by early eighteenth-century historians of the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna, a collection of materials upon which Allsop himself casts considerable doubt6 because there is no other evidence for Corelli’s ever having been a member.

2.3 The problem here lies in wanting to draw conclusions in cases where there is little basis for doing so, and, regrettably, this state of affairs characterizes all of Corelli’s life before the earliest mention of his activity in Rome (1675). For events after this date Allsop has more to draw on from both primary and secondary materials, and his discussions of this later period are more solid. Allsop’s account of the publication of Corelli’s Op. 6 Concerti grossi immediately following the composer’s death, in particular, reveals insightful scholarship (pp. 63–65). On the basis of evidence turned up by Rudolph Rasch,7 Allsop examines the behavior of Corelli’s “heir and successor,” Matteo Fornari, and effectively reveals Fornari to have capitalized opportunistically on Corelli’s reputation in dealing with Corelli’s publisher, Etienne Roger, and with the Op. 6 dedicatee, the Elector Johann Wilhelm von Neuberg-Wittelsbach.

3. Sonata da Chiesa—Sonata da Camera

3.1 Allsop’s best contributions occur when he is reinforcing or expanding upon previous scholarship through his own findings, as in his discussion of events soon after Corelli’s death. This same holds true for his discussion of motivic relationships between movements in the sonatas. Following a line of investigation initiated by Dennis Libby,8 Allsop points out a number of eyebrow-raising correlations between movements and, partly on the basis of such interrelationships, makes a strong case for the greater sophistication of Corelli’s Op. 3 compared to his Op. 1 (pp. 92–94).

3.2 But it is Allsop’s desire to overturn earlier opinion that predominates in his book and sometimes leads him to questionable positions. His discussion of the two genres of trio sonata, the sonata da chiesa and the sonata da camera, furnishes a case in point. In short, Allsop implies that the stylistic distinctions between church and chamber sonatas were almost negligible to late seventeenth-century Italians, including Corelli, and were much exaggerated by northern writers, such as Sébastien de Brossard and Roger North (pp. 73–75).

3.3 Arguing to the contrary, however, is a clear distinction of instrumentation between sonatas da camera and sonatas da chiesa. The specification of the harpsichord (“cimbalo”) as a basso continuo instrument for sonatas that include dance movements (usually specified as da camera) and of the organ for sonatas without dance movements (usually unspecified, but sometimes designated as da chiesa) applies to nearly every sonata published during the decades in which Corelli was publishing his own. This includes the sonatas of Corelli himself, whose Opp. 1–4 follow this association of instrumentation and genre. The fact that two of Corelli’s patrons, Benedetto Pamphilij and Christina of Sweden, had organs in their homes, as Allsop points out, in no way lessens the association made by Italian composers of the harpsichord with the sonata da camera and of the organ with the sonata da chiesa.

3.4 Allsop, however, makes his argument partly on the basis of the occurrence of non-dance movements within the sonata da camera. Sonatas da camera cited by Allsop—Pirro Albergati’s Op. 5, Giuseppe Jacchini’s Op. 2, and Antonio Veracini’s Op. 2 (sonatas ‘a violino solo ’, not a 2 as Allsop claims)—indeed, contain no dances. But these could never be mistaken for sonatas da chiesa, despite Allsop’s vague pronouncement that they “[comply] in all respects with the proposed ‘church plan’” (p. 74). Instead, they stand quite apart from the sonata da chiesa for two main reasons: first, these pieces are relatively light fare compared to the bulk of sonatas da chiesa—they contain numerous binary movements, mostly non-imitative or homophonic textures, and no fugues; and second, when they specify the continuo instrument (Jacchini’s Op. 2 mentions only basso continuo), it is the harpsichord and not the organ.

3.5 Rather than obscure the distinction between sonatas (da chiesa) and sonatas da camera, as Allsop implies, his examples illustrate that Italian composers thought of the sonata da camera as relatively lighter material, whether or not dance titles are involved. In fact, a dedication written by the composer Giovanni Bononcini confirms these stylistic connotations inherent in da chiesa and da camera. He writes:

This is not otherwise a simple letter of unofficial dedication, but a confessional instrument of a most binding debt. I would have recorded this in the first of my efforts that I had taken to the presses had I not deemed this third [work] a more solid foundation for my intentions, wherein I undertake to perform for the church whereas in my first and second it served for me not to risk more than to just for the chamber.9

3.6 One last point concerning Bononcini’s Op. 3 ties directly into our understanding of Corelli’s music: the title of the work, Sinfonie a 5. 6. 7. e 8 Instromenti, bears no da chiesa designation, but it is clear from the dedication that it was assumed. This contradicts another of Allsop’s points, which asserts that Corelli intended no churchly categorization for his own Op. 1 and Op. 3 Sonate, because the titles of both collections lack the words “da chiesa.” Allsop underscores his assertion by noting the title of Corelli’s Op. 4 sonatas: they are called “sonate” and not “sonate da camera,” even though they contain mostly dance movements. But Allsop omits important information here: the full title of Corelli’s Op. 4 reads “Sonate à tre composte per l’Accademia dell’Em.mo et Rev.mo Sig.r Cardinale Otthoboni [Sonatas a 3, composed for the accademia of his most excellent and most reverend signor Cardinal Ottoboni].” The key word here is “accademia”: an accademia, whether it refers to a place, a performance, learned discussions, or otherwise, typically refers to the secular world. In this case, Corelli is referring to accademie held in the household chambers (i.e. camere) of Cardinal Ottoboni, such that the inclusion of da camera would be redundant. This explanation, moreover, is substantiated by the fact that the second edition of Corelli’s Op. 4—printed one year later than the first by the same publisher in Rome—is entitled Sonate da camera a tre, here leaving out the specific information on Ottoboni’s Accademia.

3.7 While it is true that church and chamber sonatas were mutually influencing, Allsop simply goes too far in arguing that an otherwise meaningless distinction was reified in the writings of oltremontani. In the music of Corelli and his Italian contemporaries and in written testimony of the late Seicento, we can find abundant evidence that clearly distinguishes these genres.

4. Modality—Tonality

4.1 Allsop’s handling of trio sonata genres typifies several discussions in his book: one the one hand, he possesses a detailed knowledge of Corelli’s music; on the other, his interpretations based on that knowledge often miss the mark. A second point argued by Allsop substantiates this diagnosis and also bears correcting: his assessment of Corelli’s music as modal and not tonal (pp. 99–105 and 118–19). Allsop’s hypothesis is based on a set of tonalities, “tuoni ordinariamente pratticati da compositori [tones ordinarily used by composers]” set forth by Giovanni Maria Bononcini10 and apparently used by Corelli. Allsop assumes these tonalities to be modal, but recent scholarship has shown that Bononcini’s tuoni and sets identical or similar to these originate, not in modal theory, but in the psalm tones used in the Divine Offices of the Catholic liturgy.11

4.2 This distinction between modes and psalm tones is crucial, but Allsop, unaware of the history of Bononcini’s tuoni makes the tentative claim (p. 102) that “Corelli himself ... in all probability observed the twelve-mode system.” Thus he becomes mired in the task of making sense of Corelli’s music in terms of twelve-mode theory and, in the attempt, both misrepresents modal theory and misinterprets Corelli’s music. For example, he argues (p. 104) that “throughout his career, Corelli shows a particular liking for the ... less tonal cadence structures of Tone XII, which characteristically contrasts the tonic of C major with E minor as its cadenza di mezzo.” The significance of this practice lies in its divergence from tonal procedure, in which A, as the relative minor, and not E, would function as the cadenza di mezzo (or secondary cadence point) in the key of C major. Citing Corelli’s Op. 3, No. 8, a sonata in C major by modern standards, Allsop furnishes an example of a strong cadence on E therein (his example 6.16; see example 1). The observation of Corelli’s practice is astute, but three points undermine Allsop’s dodecachordal interpretation of Tone XII.

4.3 First, Bononcini’s own modal examples in C do not support the association of a secondary cadence on E exclusively with mode 12. Examples 2 and 3, taken from Bononcini’s duos in the eleventh and twelfth modes, both feature cadences on E, as seen in m. 9 of both.12 (see example 2 and example 3) Second, the evidence that Allsop adduces for the tonal characteristics of Tone XII relies on a faulty reading of the modal cadences found in Angelo Berardi’s Il Perch Musical.13 Allsop’s Table 6.6, entitled “Cadences Proper to the Tones,” appears to summarize Berardi’s musical examples, but in fact misrepresents them. In his Table, Allsop lists the cadences for Tone XII as follows: Principio, G; Mezzo, e; and Finale, C, wherein upper-case letters denote major keys and lower-case denote minor. But the cadences written by Berardi reveal otherwise. Example 4 shows Berardi’s cadences for Tone XII (p. 38), including the cadenza di mezzo: using the tonal terminology adopted by Allsop, the cadenza di mezzo in example 4 strongly implies the key of A minor, not E minor, by means of the Phrygian half cadence on an E-major triad. (see example 4)

4.4 Third, the E-minor tonal inflection that Allsop incorrectly views as characteristic of Tone XII in a twelve-mode system is instead a feature of tonalities based on the fifth of the eight psalm tones. Two final examples bear this out. Example 5 shows a two-voice setting of the fifth psalm tone, the quinto tuono, by Adriano Banchieri (1568–1634), along with the psalm tone itself.14 It is clear that E (m. 6 and m.17) and G (m. 15) function as cadence points secondary to C, which is the final; and no cadence occurs on A. Note that the importance of E and G derives from the psalm tone itself: the differentia ends on E, and the reciting tone of the original chant is G.(see example 5) Example 6 shows cadences for the same fifth tone given by Zaccaria Tevo (1651–1709/12).15 Nearly a century after Banchieri, the eight tonalities based on the psalm tones are called “li otto tuoni delli moderni [the eight tuoni of the moderns].” Focusing on the cadenza media of the quinto tuono, we may see how the E cadence is now an authentic cadence on an E minor triad (see example 5), just as in Corelli’s Op. 3 No. 8 (see example 1). In sum, there is no evidence to support Allsop’s interpretation of Corelli’s music as written according to the twelve mode system; instead there is ample evidence to contradict it.

5. Corrections

5.1 Beyond the hypotheses that Allsop advances, errors of fact and of spelling further detract from the quality of his study: Corelli’s Op. 6 Concerti grossi contain a part for the violoncello, not the violone (p. 149), and this is particularly important given the ongoing debate as to what the term “violone” meant to Corelli and his contemporaries;16 Carlo Buffagnotti, the Bolognese music-engraver, was a violoncellist, not a violinist (p. 24), which may explain his engravings of music that consistently feature the cello; Lorenzo Penna first published his treatise in 1672, not in 1684 (p. 99), which is the date of the fourth edition; Giuseppe Torelli first published his Op. 1 Sonate in 1686, not in 1695 (p. 162), which is the date of a reprint; Vinacese or Vinaccesi are the two seventeenth-century spellings used for this Venetian composer’s name, neither of which agrees with either of Allsop’s two spellings, Vinacessi (p. 74) and Vinaccese (p. 260); the proper title of G. M. Bononcini’s treatise is Musico Prattico, not Il Musico Pratico (p. 20) and not Il Musico Prattico (p. 100); and finally, aural perception, not oral, deals with phenomena that are heard (p. 40).

6. Conclusion

6.1 Anyone who reads Allsop will see that he possesses a profound knowledge of Corelli’s music. Numerous details detected here of harmonic practice, melodic style, and fugal procedure have previously gone unnoticed. But despite his powers of observation, more than a few of Allsop's conclusions do not withstand scrutiny: in his desire to break decisively with earlier opinions, he simply misconstrues the evidence. Those reading this book will therefore come away with a needlessly confused picture of the genres and styles to which Corelli contributed and of Corelli’s own contribution to them. In the end, it seems that Allsop has too many axes to grind with previous Corelli scholarship to construct a clear and logical picture of the man and his music.

Editor's Note: See subsequent discussion of this review in Volume 8, no. 1 (2002).


* Gregory Barnett (gregory-barnett@uiowa.edu) teaches at the University of Iowa. His research interests include late-Seicento instrumental music, seventeenth-century music theory, and American “Indianist” composers of the early twentieth century. Editor, 1/27/03: Gregory Barnett (gbarnett@rice.edu) is now Assistant Professor of music history at Rice University. Return to beginning


1. Marc Pincherle, Corelli et son temps (Paris: Le Bon Plaisir, 1954), trans. Hubert E. M. Russell as Corelli, His Life, His Work (New York: W.W.Norton, 1956). Return to text

2. The acts of these conferences have been published as: Studi Corelliani: Atti del Primo Congresso Internazionale (5–8 settembre 1968) (Florence: Olschki, 1972); Nuovi Studi Corelliani: Atti del Secondo Congresso Internazionale (5–8 settembre 1974) (Florence: Olschki, 1978); Nuovissimi Studi Corelliani: Atti del Terzo Congresso Internazionale (4–7 settembre 1980) (Florence: Olschki, 1982); Studi Corelliani IV: Atti del Quarto Congresso Internazionale (4–7 settembre, 1986) (Florence: Olschki, 1990); Studi Corelliani V: Atti del Quinto Congresso Internazionale (9–11 settembre, 1994) (Florence: Olschki, 1996). Return to text

3. Hans Oesch, Arcangelo Corelli: Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe der musikalischen Werke (Cologne: A. Volk Verlag ; H. Gerig, 1976–). Return to text

4. Peter Allsop, The Italian ‘Trio’ Sonata: From its Origins until Corelli (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). Return to text

5. Two editions by Allsop of Bolognese instrumental music are: Bartolomeo Laurenti, Suonate per camera, nos. 1–6 : à violino, e violoncello, op. 1 (1691), (Crediton, Devon, U.K.: New Orpheus Editions, 1993); and Tomaso Antonio Vitali, Sonate da camera : à tre, op. III (1695) ..., ed. (Crediton, Devon, U.K.: New Orpheus Editions, 1993). Return to text

6. “[Corelli’s] membership of the Accademia Filarmonica is based solely on the authority of the hardly disinterested Philharmonic manuscripts, which also present the curious anomaly that his teacher, [Leonardo] Brugnoli, did not apparently become a member until 1684, long after Corelli had departed from the city.” Corelli’s membership in the Accademia Filarmonica is given as a compositore, the highest rank for a regular member, and the year of his admission is 1670. Other than this mention of his membership in the records of the Accademia Filarmonica itself, there is no evidence of Corelli’s involvement with the organization. Corelli himself never mentions it in his published music, and there is no composition in the archives of the Accademia Filarmonica by Corelli that would have served as part of the materials required for admission at the rank of composer.” (Allsop, Arcangelo Corelli, 25). Return to text

7. Rudolph Rasch, “Corelli’s Contract: Notes on the Publication History of the Concerti Grossi ... Opera Sesta [1714],” Tijdschrift van de Koninklijke Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis 46 (1996): 83–136. Return to text

8. Dennis Libby, “Interrelationships in Corelli,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 26 (1973): 263–87. Return to text

9. Giovanni Bononcini, Sinfonie a 5. 6. 7. e 8 Instromenti, con alcune à una e due Trombe, servendo ancora per Violini . . ., Op. 3 (Bologna: Giacomo Monti, 1685). The original Italian reads: “Questa non  altrimente una semplice lettera d’ufficiosa Dedica, mà un’instromento confessionale di strettissimo debito. Havrei dovuto registrarlo nel primo de gli ardimenti, che mi son preso con le Stampe, se non havessi stimato pi sodo fondamento alla mia intentione questo terzo, dove imprendo ad operare per Chiesa, quando nel primo, e nel secondo convenne non m’arrischiassi à più, che à scherzare per Camera.”      Further testimony on the links between musical style and appropriate context, church or chamber, comes from a preface written by Benedetto Vinaccesi to his Sfere Armoniche overo Sonate da Chiesa . . ., Op. 2 (Venice: Sala, 1692). In a plea for the lenient reception of his works, a trope of dedications and prefaces, he writes:

Rather than having these [works] heard in church, they invite you to a place where errors are more readily pardoned and where a virtuous spirit extends it mantle of protection more easily over such defects that can be discovered by modern Aristarchuses of this genre, under whose hats there are Ears of Syracuse larger than a mountain. [Tanto più che facendosi essi sentir nella Chiesa, t’invitano in un Luogo dove più facilmente si perdonano gli errori, e dove l’Animo Virtuoso distende con pi agevolezza il manto della sua Prottezione s quei difetti, che ponno venir scoperti da moderni Aristarchi di questo Genere, nel piccol Capo de quali vi sono Orecchie di Siracusa più grandi d’un Monte.]

Return to text

10. Giovanni Maria Bononcini (1642–78), theorist and composer, is the father of the composer Giovanni Bononcini (1670–1747). It is the son who later attained fame as an opera composer and rival of Handel in London. Return to text

11. Harold S. Powers, “From Psalmody to Tonality,” in Tonal Structures in Early Music, ed. Cristle Collins Judd (New York: Garland, 1998), 275–340; and Michael R. Dodds, “Tonal Types and Modal Equivalence in Two Keyboard Cycles by Murschhauser,” also in Tonal Structures, ed. Judd, 341–72. Return to text

12. Giovanni Maria Bononcini, Musico Prattico (Bologna: Monti, 1673), 133–34. Return to text

13. Angelo Berardi, Il Perché Musicale overo Staffetta Armonica (Bologna: Monti, 1693), contains cadences in four voices for each of the twelve modes on pages 38–43. He calls these cadences (p. 37): “clausule armoniche, cioè principio, mezzo, e fine de’ tuoni, secondo l’opinioni di molti, e diversi autori [harmonic clausulae, that is, the principle, middle, and final of the tuoni, according to the opinions of many and diverse authors].” Although Allsop mentions Berardi’s treatise, Lorenzo Penna’s Li Primi Albori Musicali (Bologna: Monti, 1672), and Bononcini’s Musico Prattico in connection with modal cadences, he does not attribute his Table 6.6 “Cadences Proper to the Tones” to any one source. Because no such information can be found in Bononcini’s treatise and because the eight-mode cadences in no way correlate with Table 6.6, it would appear that Allsop relied wholly on Berardi for the particular cadences he lists. Return to text

14. Adriano Banchieri, Cartella Musicale, 3rd ed. (Venice: Vincenti, 1614), 76. Return to text

15. Zaccaria Tevo, Il Musico Testore (Venice: Bortoli, 1706), 294. Return to text

16. See the review in the present issue of JSCM by Stephen Bonta of The Baroque Double Bass Violone by Alfred Planyavsky <http://www.sscm-jscm.org/v6/no2/bonta.html>. Ed. Return to text

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