Snapshots of a Genre in the Making: Francesco Geminiani’s Sonate a violino, Op. 1, and Francesco Scarlatti’s 11 Sonatas a4 as Precursors of English Corellian Concertos

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Concertos were first cultivated in Britain by professional musicians who performed them in London concerts as early as the 1690s. The earliest were five-part “sonatas” by the Moravian viol player and composer Gottfried Finger (c.1660–1730), the German Gottfried Keller (1657–1704), and the English organist and composer William Croft (1678–1727), whose structural technique involved pitting pairs of solo treble instruments against each other in dialogue; later concertos intended mainly for performance by professionals in concerts were modelled on the north Italian concerto a cinque and adopted Vivaldian ritornello form. There was, however, a practice of mixed amateur and professional performance in Britain, which resulted in the cultivation of a different kind of concerto, or sonata, sometimes performed with multiple players on each part. This type of concerto – referred to in this article as the English Corellian concerto – seems to have been introduced in the mid-1720s. The long-standing interest of British amateurs in Italian sonatas and their practice of doubling parts, either with professionals or fellow-amateurs, created the ideal conditions for the development of this concerto type.
In the mid-1720s, British amateurs, such as members of the masonic Apollo Society, were still performing sonatas or sonata-like concertos orchestrally, some of which had been published 20 years or more earlier. However, at this time, the British-resident Italian composers, Francesco Geminiani and Francesco Scarlatti, also began to compose new sonata-like concertos tailored to this market. An explanation for why these works appeared in the 1720s is that they appealed to the growing interest at that time in what was known as “ancient”-style music, which was opposed to ostentatiously florid vocal style in opera, and its counterpart in virtuosic concertos.
Geminiani was well-placed to spearhead the development of the English Corellian concerto; he came to London in 1714 at an auspicious moment, establishing quickly his reputation as Corelli’s disciple through his Op. 1 Sonate a violino (1716), which includes movements directly modelled on Corelli’s Op. 5. Through his Op. 1, with its centre-piece fugues and harmonically striking slow movements, he became a composer recognised for his “learnedness”. Geminiani’s concertos were eventually published as his Opp. 2 and 3 in 1732, though it is likely that the English Corellian concerto had developed over the preceding 10 years. There is little doubt about Geminiani’s central role in its development: one of the concertos in Op. 3 may have been composed as early as 1721 and this article suggests that many of the hallmarks of his fugal technique can already be seen in his Op. 1 sonatas. His concertos also clearly influenced other British-resident composers who contributed to the genre in the 1730s and 1740s, especially Giuseppe Sammartini, Charles Avison and John Stanley.
It appears, however, that Geminani was not the only composer of sonata-like concertos active in Britain in the 1720s; a set of 11 “Sonate” attributed to Francesco Scarlatti, the younger brother of Alessandro Scarlatti, who came to Britain c.1719, seem to represent an intermediate stage between the sorts of concertos that the Apollo Society were performing in the mid-1720s and the mature Corellian concertos of the 1730s. The only complete source, which preserves them in a state altered by its copyist, is a manuscript score included in a workbook copied around 1737 by the instrumental composer, arranger and orchestral leader, Charles Avison of Newcastle. The extent of their influence is difficult to ascertain. However, they suggest that the English Corellian concerto developed in response to a range of influences that included not only Corelli’s Op. 6 Concerti Grossi, but also the sonata-like concertos that British amateurs had long favoured and the Neapolitan quartet sonata.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-133
Number of pages20
JournalRecercare - Rivista per lo studio e la pratica della musica antica
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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