The early violin

Among the instruments of Western music, the piano and violin hold the loftiest reputations, and are regarded elsewhere as emblems of our music. In fact, the violin has long since been adapted to traditional music in other cultures, from Morocco to India and beyond, and continues to hold a certain mystique. While the origins of the piano are more open to exploration, those for the violin are relatively opaque, and perhaps that adds to the mystery. It apparently originated in 16th century Italy, as a modification of one or more related string instruments. Published violin music appears from the beginning of the 17th century. While technical aspects of construction might be interesting, especially as the modification of sound relates to a modification of composition, the emphasis today will be on this early violin repertory. Although instruments were obviously played idiomaticaly for some time before music was written down, the origin of those repertories continues to hold a fascination for me.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this music is that it is so under-explored on record, and indeed that it is viewed so thoroughly through an English musicological lens. When it comes to the latter, I am equally guilty, as I have few other resources at my disposal. My view of the early violin is conditioned strongly by the English consort repertory of the early 17th century, a repertory which fits most comfortably on viols, but which was also performed on the violin. Indeed, the new violin in England was met with some resistance by the viol, leaving it to take on the equally novel light dance repertory instead of the serious contrapuntal music in which I am generally more interested. The English music is amply recorded, and has been for years. We first see specific "violin music" there by William Lawes (1602-1645), with his unpublished suites. What is apparently understated is the degree to which violin writing in Italy had already influenced English consort music by the time of Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), and a particular discovery to be related has provided some of the impetus for the present article. Continuing the English thread, the New Grove tells us quite matter-of-factly that Biagio Marini (1597-1665) was the first important violinist-composer, and goes on to devote a mere handful of sentences to the violin repertory prior to Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1707). Of course, what is completely evident from Corelli's trio sonatas is that they represent more the end of a tradition than the beginning of one. Yet, there has been little written about it, and even less heard. Curiously enough, the early violin publications are represented in ample modern editions, available in quantity at good music libraries, yet recordings are few or even nonexistent.

The development of idiomatic keyboard music in Italy is fairly well marked, emerging as it does directly from the Franco-Flemish polyphonists, specifically Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1562) and his disciples. The first major summation is likewise much earlier, by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), before violin repertory had even made a dent in publication. Perhaps the primacy of the keyboard is an interesting topic on its own, but must be left for another time. The early Italian instrumental compositions did not give specific instrumentation, and when they did begin to name the violin, it was generally in music which could be as well suited to another instrument. Indeed, many of the first composers to name the violin, Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1555-1612), Giovanni Paolo Cima (c.1570-c.1622), and Frescobaldi, were primarily keyboardists. However, when it came to more specific scoring, the violin was one of the first melody instruments to be named, and together with the cornetto, holds pride of place in the early instrumental sonata. While the cornetto seems to have been more important at the beginning, the violin upstaged it in the course of decades, in particular because of virtuoso composers such as Biagio Marini.

There are very few recordings devoted to this music. There are tracks here & there on predominantly vocal collections, and a fine introductory survey by Musica Antiqua Köln on an LP recorded in 1978, but few dedicated recordings. Fortunately, there have been two of decided significance in the past couple of years: complete recordings of Marini's Opus 1 and the third book of Salomone Rossi (fl.1587-1628). Both of these recordings are relatively difficult to find, but of top quality in performance and music. Amazingly, as far as I know, each of these is the first dedicated to these composers' violin music. The Consort of Musicke recorded a couple of albums of Marini's concerted vocal music, and Rossi had a Columbia LP by Noah Greenburg as early as 1957. Indeed, Rossi has had something of a recent Renaissance, by way of his Jewish sacred songs, a definite novelty for Baroque music. When it comes to even earlier violin music, it is generally less lyrical and more sectional, but does offer some interesting perspective, making the fine recent set from Ensemble Sonnerie on a major label welcome as well. Still, two early violin composers with substantial print reputations remain virtually unrecorded, namely Giovanni Battista Buonamente (d.1643) and Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690). For now, it is Rossi and Marini who dominate the recorded pre-Corelli violin literature, with lesser figures such as Carlo Farina (c.1600-c.1640), Marco Uccellini (1610-1680) and Maurizio Cazzati (1620-1677) providing contemporary violinistic pieces by which to gauge substance.

As the New Grove tells us, Marini was the more important contemporary figure, and while we have only the one dedicated instrumental recording, his music finds a place on nearly any collection which uses string music from early 17th century Venice. Indeed, his Opus 1 is a brilliant publication, especially given its precedents and Marini's age. While I'm not one to obsess over child prodigies, Marini's publication at age 20 is remarkable indeed, and one is left to wonder what he might have achieved in an environment more supportive of composing for violin. His rhythmic organization and melodic ideas are both outstanding, and far in advance of Fontana, whom some have suggested as his teacher. Rossi's publication actually predates Marini's, and should be equally hailed for its harmonic disposition and formal ideas. While Rossi's religion placed him in a marginal position, his music was apparently not as neglected as some contemporary accounts might suggest. The New Grove spends some time discussing the unacknowledged similarity between one of his madrigals and one by Weelkes, and I have recently noticed that a famous 6-part fantasia by Gibbons is based directly on a 3-part sinfonia by Rossi. One wonders how many similar examples will turn up once the Italian composers get their due in relation to the English.

One aspect of this music which is discussed is the history of who did what, from a clinical angle. We learn that Uccellini extended the violin to its usual range, that Farina wrote double stops, and that Rossi was the first to publish with the treble-bass disposition. Likewise, there is ample discussion of how the words "sonata", "canzona", "sinfonia" etc. were used by these early composers (answer: as a group, they didn't make consistent distinctions). In short, the music continues to be appraised in terms of how it might have influenced later Baroque music, with little concern for how compelling it actually is on its own terms. Hopefully this will be rectified soon, but for now it is clear that Marini & Rossi (not a cheap bubbly!) stand out as violinist-composers in the pre-Corelli era.

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Todd M. McComb