Exploring the Cornetto and Breathtaking Composers — Part Two

Bruce DickeyThe sonatas on this recording are by three of the most important masters of the instrument in the 17th century. Biagio Marini is, together with Giovanni Battista Fontana, undoubtedly the most innovative composer for the violin in the first half of the Seicento, and his reputation as a violinst was considerable on both sides of the Alps. He held positions in his native Brescia, in Parma, at Saint Mark’s in Venice, as well as Milan, Vicenza and Bergamo. He also served as Kapellmeister at the Wittelsbach courts in Neuburg an die Donau and Düsseldorf. He was among the first to write solo pieces for violin (or cornetto) with a basso continuo and pioneered many violin techniques such as double and triple stopping, scordatura, and tremolo con la’arco. Giovanni Battista Bassani was one of the most celebrated violinists in the generation after Marini. He is said to have studied in Ferrara with Giovanni Legrenzi, and was held by some to be an even better player than Corelli. Burney, in particular, felt that no one before him had written so idiomatically for the violin.

“...Among the best, excellent”: this is the way Giovanni Battista Fontana is described on the title page of his posthumous collection of sonatas for one, two, and three instruments published in Venice in 1641. We owe nearly all of our biographical information about Fontana, and indeed the very existence of his sonatas, to Giovan Battista Reghino, maestro di cappella in 1641 of the Chiesa delle Grazie at Padua. It was to the Monastery of this church, presumably Fontana’s last place of employment, that he bequeathed his manuscripts upon his death, due probably to the plague, around 1630. According to Reghino, who wrote the dedication to the published collection, “Gio: Batista Fontana of Brescia was one of the most singular violin virtuosi of his age and was known as such not only in his native land but also in Venice, Rome and lastly in Padua…” The Sonata 11 a 2 on tonight’s program truly has one foot in the 16h and the other in the 17th centuries. Slow-moving Passages in long notes alternate with exuberant bursts of ornamentation which recall the written-out ornamentation examples of an earlier generation. The sonata carries the indication “per violino o cornetto” but it is not entirely clear whether this was Fontana’s preference or that of his editor.

For many days in September of 1686, the city of Ferrara celebrated the defeat of the Turks in a great battle at Budapest.  The celebrations were followed by a period of supplication for the souls of those who died in this “Christian enterprise against the Turks”.  Prominent among the musical works performed in honor of the dead was the oratorio La Morte Delusa by the Paduan composer Giovanni Battista Bassani. Bassani, already maestro di cappella of the famous Accademia della Morte in Ferrara, attained the same position at the Ferrarese Cathedral in the year 1688, very likely as a result of the success two years earlier of his oratorio, standing as it did at the center of those important celebrations. Thus La Morte Delusa is not only of great historical interest for its connection to the Battle of Budapest, but also because it represents a high point in the musical output of a composer who, although relatively unknown today, was greatly celebrated by his contemporaries. At the time this music was written, the cornetto was already beginning its long slide into obsolescence, and yet Bassani gives great prominence to the instrument, prefacing each aria with a sinfonia in which the cornetto, accompanied by two violins and basso continuo, anticipates the melody to be sung. We have created a small suite of arias and sinfonie from this oratorio.

While the history of 17th-century Italian opera does not often involve the cornetto, Naples presented a surprising exception in the last decade of the century. Both Giovanni Bononcini and Alessandro Scarlatti included arias in a handful of operas with obbligati for the cornetto of extreme difficulty and displaying an unusually high tessitura. Among these is L’Emireno, o vero Il consiglio dell’ombra, composed by Scarlatti and first performed at the Teatro Bartolomeo in Naples in 1697. Though this opera survives in a Viennese manuscript bearing an attribution to Giacomo Antonio Perti, its true authorship was recognized as early as 1976. The existence of this cluster of operas in Naples in the last decade of the century leads to the intriguing question of who this late cornetto virtuoso may have been, a question we are not yet able to answer. From this opera we perform a selection of three arias including the cornetto, one of Rosinda, sharing her lovelorn weeping with a nightingale, and two of her lover Emireno.

Read Part One

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