VITALI: Trio Sonatas, Op. 1
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Tomaso Antonio Vitali (1663–1745)
Twelve Trio Sonatas, Op. 1 (1693)
The son of Giovanni Battista Vitali, Tomaso Antonio, like his father, was born in Bologna. Giovanni Battista held a leading position in the musical life of the city. He had joined the distinguished cappella of the Basilica of San Petronio in 1658 as a singer and string-player, and in the 1660s became a member of the important Accademia Filarmonica. He later served as a vice maestro di cappella, and briefly as maestro di cappella, to Duke Francesco II d'Este in Modena. His son Tomaso Antonio accompanied his father to Modena in 1674 and the following year joined the court musical establishment there as a violinist, subsequently becoming leader of the orchestra. He spent the rest of his life in Modena, employed by the court until 1742. He had perhaps studied the violin with his father, and in Modena took composition lessons from Antonio Maria Pacchioni, a leading composer there.
Giovanni Battista Vitali was a composer of some significance, particularly in the development of instrumental music and of trio sonatas, both sonate da camera, suites of dance movements, and the more formal sonate da chiesa. He died in 1692, and his son Tomaso Antonio saw to the posthumous publication of a set of his father's chamber sonatas. Publication of his own trio sonatas followed in 1693, with his Op.1 and Op. 2 Sonate a tre, and his Concerto di sonata, Op. 4, in 1695. The famous Chaconne, attributed to him by the nineteenth-century violinist Ferdinand David, is now thought to be by another composer, although Vitali's name is chiefly familiar to all violinists in connection with the work.
The trio sonata, a form that had developed in Italy in the seventeenth century, came for long to hold a leading place in instrumental music. Scored generally for four players, two treble instruments, a bass instrument and a chordal instrument or instruments, it offered a particularly useful field for the deployment of two violins, together with a cello or bass string instrument and with harpsichord, organ or other chordal instruments. Often described, as in Vitali's Opus 1 title, as a Sonata tre, a sonata for three, it generally involved the use of three part-books, one each for two violins, with the cello or bass instrument sharing a third part-book with the keyboard or plucked instrument that filled out the harmony from figuring on the bass part, numbers that indicated the chord to be played. On occasion the cello was allowed a measure of solo independence, as here in Sonata XII. As a basic instrumental form the trio sonata provided the foundation for the popular orchestral baroque concerto grosso, in which a trio sonata might be enlarged by the addition of other string instruments to louder passages, allowing a contrast between a small trio sonata group, the concertino, and the full string orchestra. Composers, with an eye to commercial possibilities, often offered other possible choices of instrument. Nevertheless, by the eighteenth century, often inspired by the example of Corelli's 48 trio sonatas, two violins, cello and keyboard instrument or its equivalent, became the norm. The sonatas themselves were roughly classed as either da camera (chamber sonatas) or da chiesa (church sonatas). The first of these arose from earlier dance suites and generally consisted of a series of dance movements. The church sonata was more formal in structure, generally consisting of four movements, slow–fast–slow–fast, with an element of contrapuntal activity in the faster movements. The distinction between chamber and church gradually became blurred.
The English scholar Roger North, writing in the second decade of the eighteenth century, provided a succinct account of the form of the sonata, as he knew it, at a time when Corelli was all the rage in England:
"It is observable that in most peices of musick the best is found at the beginning, for then the master's spirit and invention are fresh, and in full vigor, which in the process will in some measure abate. … And now in our common Sonnatas for Instruments, the entrance is usually with all the fullness of harmony figurated and adorned that the master at that time could contrive, and this is termed Grave, and sometimes, but as I take it, not so properly, Adagio, for that supposeth some antecedent nimble imployment, and a share of ease and repose to come after. But to returne, this Grave most aptly represents seriousness and thought. The movement is as of one so disposed, and if he were to speak, his utterance would be according, and his matter rationall and arguing. The upper parts onely fulfill the harmony, without any singularity in the movement; but all join in a comon tendency to provoke in the hearers a series of thinking according as the air invites, whether Magnifick or Querolous, which the sharp or flat key determines, as was observed before. When there hath bin enough of this, which if it be good will not be very soon, variety enters, and the parts fall to action, and move quick; and the entrance of this denouement is with a fuge … . This hath a cast of buisness or debate, of which the melodious point is made the subject; and accordingly it is wrought over and under till, like waves upon the water, it is spent and vanisheth, leaving the musick to proceed smoothly, and as if it were satisfyed and contented. After this comes properly in the Adagio, which is a laying all affaires aside, and lolling in a sweet repose: which state the musick represents by a most tranquil but full harmony, and dying gradually, as one that falls asleep. After this is over Action is resumed, and the various humours of men diverting themselves (and even their facetiousness and witt) are represented …"
The Sonate a tre, Op. 1, of Vitali generally follow this pattern, enshrined in the work of Corelli, three sets of whose trio sonatas had been published in the 1680s. It seems that Vitali's sonatas, church sonatas in their structure, were originally solo works, for one violin and continuo, with a second violin part added for publication. Each sonata opens with a slow movement, followed by a rapid and often contrapuntal movement. A further slow movement leads to a rapid final movement. In some sonatas this pattern is varied by the addition of other movements or brief linking passages.