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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 8 (2002) No. 1

Corelli Defended: A Response to Gregory Barnett

Peter Allsop*


1 Continuing the best tradition of Italian seventeenth-century polemical writings, I would like to offer a belated reply to the review of my book, Arcangelo Corelli: ‘New Orpheus of Our Times’ (Oxford, 1999) in JSCM/v6/no2.1 I am grateful to Gregory Barnett for pointing out a few typographical errors, but generally his criticisms either claim in his own defence precisely the views I espouse or blatantly misread the issues involved. As it is always unpleasant to be misrepresented I feel a duty to set these matters straight.

2 Barnett claims (2.2) that I cite a census, circa 1670, showing that the Corelli family owned extensive property in their locality. I cite no such census, and indeed know of none before 1696. He then includes his own misquotation of the miscopied Philharmonic manuscript which should not read "born nobly AND of noble talent" (which would at least make some dubious sense) but "born nobly BUT of noble talent" (which makes little sense), having been changed from the perfectly lucid meaning of the earliest version "born humbly but of noble talent". I do not believe that I could put the status of the Philharmonic manuscripts more clearly:

The reliability of all these Philharmonic manuscripts is suspect, since they were written as much as fifty years after Corelli’s arrival in Bologna, and all from the particular bias of an official historian of the Accademia Filarmonica, but if any of them is to be believed it must be the earliest.2

Barnett, it seems, would prefer to base his judgments on a non-existent census and the later corruptions of these Philharmonic manuscripts.

3 In his discussion of the sonata da chiesa and sonata da camera (section 3), it is difficult not to conclude that either Barnett has simply failed to grasp the gist of the argument or that he is being deliberately disingenuous. The most cursory glance at my Table of Contents will confirm that far from confusing genres as Barnett claims, the entire structure of the second part of my book is based on the recognition of absolute distinctions in Corelli’s music. Any confusion is entirely of Barnett’s own making in his effort to transform a terminological issue into one of genre: he retains the traditional classification of "sonata da chiesa", whereas I replace it with "free sonata". There are fundamental matters of principle at stake here. Sonata da camera is Corelli’s term: sonata da chiesa is imposed upon Corelli. We can easily appreciate what he understood by a "sonata da camera" since it is a designation he used consistently implying for us a musical genre, a function and a venue. We cannot, however, make similar judgments of the "sonata da chiesa" since it is a title he never used, and indeed hardly occurs by 1681, rising to popularity only in the 1690s. I do not assert as Barnett alleges that "Corelli intended no churchly categorization for his own Op. 1 and Op. 3 sonate, because the titles of both collections lack the word ‘da chiesa’" I base my assertion that Op. 1 was originally intended as concert music for his new patron on Corelli’s letter to Count Laderchi in which he writes categorically "I am at present composing certain sonatas which are to be performed at the first Academy of Her Highness of Sweden whose service I have entered as Musico da Camera". Since this seems indisputable, it seems to me not only pointless but damaging to force a classification on Corelli which cannot be disassociated linguistically from a particular venue and function. No-one would deny that sonatas were used in church, but the overwhelming body of evidence throughout the seventeenth century reveals that by far the commonest use of free canzonas and sonatas was as diversionary and concert music, but this is more a matter of patronage than of musical style as we understand it today. By his retention of this misleading post hoc categorization, Barnett only helps to maintain the longstanding fiction that free sonatas were essentially church music associated with a distinct church style whereas in fact they were all-purpose music equally suitable for both sacred and secular purposes, but, as with Corelli, rather more likely to have been originally intended for the latter.

4 Having failed to recognize the essence of this argument, he then elaborates on a whole list of alleged discrepancies under 3.3-3.5 in which it is patently obvious that we entirely agree—provided that my term "free sonata" is substituted for his "sonata da chiesa". Most of these matters I had for reasons of space previously developed at length elsewhere in the expectation that the reader would have followed up the appropriate references. Such an instance is Barnett’s association of instrumentation and genre under 3.3 which largely parallels some of my own conclusions below:

Yet there remains one firm generic distinction: the continuo instrumentation. All specified church sonatas mention organ while all free chamber sonatas which require a continuo, irrespective of their musical style, call for cembalo. Could we be guilty of over-looking so seemingly obvious a solution which surely must have occurred to every secondary school pupil of music? The situation, however, is by no means so straight-forward, for before the 1680s, almost all free sonatas which specify a continuo call for organ while the harpsichord was hardly ever mentioned. This in no way implies a da chiesa function since organs were common chamber instruments. The Accademia Filarmonica at Bologna still owns its chamber organ from that period; of Corelli’s patrons, Queen Christina kept two in the upper room of her palace where her academies where held, and Benedetto Pamphilij’s country villa at Cecchignola had an organo di legno. Yet there is no denying the absolute consistency of the specifications in the last decade of the seventeenth century and this can only suggest a fundamental change of practice: in the chamber, the primacy of the organ as the instrument of accompaniment was being usurped by the harpsichord. Could it also be the case that the practice of doubling the continuo bass may have arisen consequentially?3

As it happens, Barnett overstates his case, since in Corelli’s Op. 5 a "cimbalo" is suggested for the Parte prima which he (but not Corelli!) would presumably categorize as "da chiesa". Under 3.4 which entirely accords with my observation that "an abstract chamber idiom existed which was not suitable for use in churches",4 I am "miscorrected" since the work of Veracini I mention (Op. 3) is indeed a due, and furthermore falls into the supposed "da chiesa" category, despite its title of "Sonate da Camera."

5 Over a number of years Barnett has steadfastly attempted to dismiss G. M. Bononcini’s exposition of modal theory, no doubt because it does not support his adopted stance that the tones or modes of late seicento instrumental music derived from the psalm tones.5 The evidence for this hypothesis may be strongest in some aspects of keyboard music but Barnett has as yet advanced no convincing proof that Bononcini was mistaken in his understanding of his own system as employed in his sonatas of Op. 6. Bononcini’s treatise acknowledges the connection made between the octonary systems and the canto fermo by various other theorists but adamantly dismisses this as a valid explanation of his own usage in an entire chapter entitled "Che i tuoni del canto figurato sono dodici, e non solamente otto, come dicono alcuni". He then concludes his work with a short exposition of the "tuoni del canto fermo" which he considers necessary for those wishing to compose "sopra i salmi". As Barnett is bold enough to dismiss the explanations of Corelli’s contemporaries and associates it is hardly surprising that he will not accept mine based on them.

6 Unfortunately Barnett has too many axes of his own to grind to make a dispassionate assessment of my arguments, but it is a little galling that he so consistently imputes to me positions which I never adopt. My main concern, however, is not so much the misrepresentations and miscorrections, but the perpetuation of myths which for generations have so much hindered our understanding of seicento instrumental music. Many of these arise from anachronistic redefinings of seventeenth-century terminologies–solo, trio, "style", canzona, sonata, concertato, and in this instance, sonata da chiesa with its inherent implications of genre, venue and function. It is after all beyond question that Corelli and his contemporaries knew best how to classify their own music, and for that matter how to describe the theoretical basis of their own methods.


* Peter Allsop (p.c.allsop@eclipse.co.uk) is Reader in Musicology at the University of Exeter, UK. Besides his many articles and editions, his main contibutions are his two books The Italian ‘Trio’ Sonata from its Origins Until Corelli (Oxford, 1992) and Arcangelo Corelli: ‘New Orpheus of Our Times’ (Oxford, 1999). He is at present completing a study of Giovanni Battista Buonamente for Ashgate which he intends as a corrective to the over-emphasis on the movement-based sonata as practised by Corelli.


1. Review by Gregory Barnett, Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music 6 (2000) http://www.sscm-jscm.org/v6/no2/barnett.html.

2. Allsop, Corelli, 16.

3. Allsop, "Sonata da chiesa: a Case of Mistaken Identity?", Consort, 53/1 (1997), 10-11.

4. Allsop, "Sonata da chiesa," 10, where I particularly cite Jacchini’s Op. 2.

5. "...Bononcini’s twelve-mode theorizing simply does not fit the practice of his time.", in Gregory Barnett, "Modal Theory, Church Keys, and the Sonata", JAMS 51, no. 2 (Summer, 1998), 260.

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