- Sonatas before and after Corelli
Carlo Ambrogio Lonati and William Babell did not have much in common. They probably never met, and the closest contact the two men ever had was that Babell might have heard Lonati's violin played by his companion, William Corbett. What connects Lonati and Babell, however, is the fact that their sonatas stand on either side of Archangelo Corelli. The young Corelli worked in Rome as a rank-and-file violinist in the orchestra of Christina of Sweden, which was then led by Lonati, nicknamed 'the queen's hunchback'. Lonati's startling virtuosity and his polyphonic writing for the violin may have inspired Corelli to develop these qualities further, smoothing out the rough edges of 17th-century expressiveness into a more classical idiom. Lonati's 12 sonatas (dated 30 January 1701) and Corelli's seminal op.5 sonatas (dated 1 January 1700) exemplify this step. Whereas Lonati's sonatas hark back to the previous century, Corelli's collection looks forward, providing a model for the next generation of composers such as Babell. Babell must have been familiar with Corelli's style through, for example, the presence in London of Corelli's pupil Francesco Geminiani. John Walsh, who was the first to print Corelli's sonatas in England, also published Babell's 24 sonatas in which the composer strives to imitate the Italian master closely.
The only known manuscript source of Lonati's 12 sonatas, formerly held at the Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden, was lost during World War II. Based on pre-war photographs, Christoph Timpe has issued a facsimile of the collection. On the surface it shows the same layout as several other Italian sets of violin sonatas of the period. The 12 sonatas are divided into six sonate da chiesa and five sonate da camera, culminating in an extended set of divisions on a ground bass, in this case a descending 4th in the major key. The collection also has a number of archaic elements, such as unexpected harmonic alterations, extrovert rhetorical gestures and a degree of virtuosity unknown to the following generation of Italian violinists. All arias display extensive polyphonic writing and hence double-stopping; top notes regularly reach the 5th, occasionally the 7th position. Six sonatas use scordatura, which was rarely employed in Italy, and then often by composers with strong connections to the North (e.g. Marini, Castrucci, Nardini, Campagnoli). Notably, Lonati's set is dedicated to Emperor Leopold I, in whose realm the use of scordatura was widespread.
A few issues not mentioned in the editor's introduction may be raised here. First, three sonatas include an independent bass part displaying virtuoso runs and divisions in semiquavers in dialogue with the violin. Second, the remarkable scordatura in sonata VI has never been thoroughly discussed and deserves at least some mention: the tuning a–e'–a'–e"–a" implies an instrument with at least five strings. One might think of a viola d'amore with five wire strings and without resonance strings as they are found in 17th-century Germany. Also striking is the unusually high top string. The highest tunings for viola d'amore reach up to f" for the top string, and even tunings for violino piccolo (which naturally has shorter strings) never exceed g"; a" is beyond the breaking-point of a gut string. Such tuning is only possible at an extremely low pitch, on an instrument strung with metal wire (iron for the top string), which again points to an early form of the viola d'amore. As a further possibility, the piece might be intended to sound an octave below written pitch, as seems to be the case with some repertory for viola d'amore in Darmstadt. It is further puzzling that the grip notation used for the sonata does not take into account the presence of the top string. The piece might...