Here is that conference to Unitre. Of course, it was delivered in Italian but I’m giving you the English text and add that I hardly ever followed it. There is nothing guaranteed to bore an audience more than someone reading out their lecture!
This year is the two hundredth and fiftieth anniversary of the death of the great Lucchese composer and violinist, Francesco Xaverio Geminiani. This recurrence is already being celebrated with the publication of Geminiani’s complete works, under the direction of the internationally-known English musicologist and conductor Christopher Hogwood, with the collaboration of the Centro Studi Opera Omnia Luigi Boccherini of Lucca and the patronage of the assessorato alla cultura of Lucca.
Lucca has been land of emigrants of extraordinary ability. One recollects, in particular, the figurinai manufacturing their plaster-of-paris statuettes throughout the world. Notable artists also emigrated from the Repubblica. In painting one remembers Pompeo Batoni, re-assessed in the splendid exhibition held in the palazzo Ducale of Lucca in 2008. In the musical field, one of the most illustrious of Lucca’s emigrants was certainly the composer, Geminiani.
Geminiani was born in 1687, the fourth of Giuliano and Angela’s eleven children, and was baptized on 5th December of the same year. A pupil of Alessandro Scarlatti and Ambrosio Lonati, in 1707 he succeeded his father as Maestro di Cappella in Lucca’s palatine chapel. In 1707 he was appointed director of the Florentines’ theatre orchestra in Naples. Geminiani returned to Lucca in 1714 and then left for London, where he spent the greater part of his life and where he wrote his best-known works. He found protection under Baron Kielmansegge, chamberlain to King George I.
Beecham once wagged “the English don’t know much about music but they love the noise it makes”. After Henry Purcell’s premature death in 1695, there was a lack of significant native composers and the field was open to il divino sassone, George Frederick Handel, who dominated British musical life even beyond his death. In Rome, under Cardinal Ottoboni protection, Handel discovered the music of the Roman school and Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerti Grossi. These works employ a string orchestra called the concerto grosso, the ripieno (“full”), in contrast to a smaller solo group, called the concertino. For half century, while a new galante style was developing in the rest of Europe, music in England remained solidly baroque and under Handel’s conservative supremacy.
It was in this milieu that Italians who studied the acceptable Corellian style were welcomed. Among these were Bononcini, Veracini and Geminiani himself. Two years after his arrival, he published twelve sonatas for violin and continuo, with great success. Subsequently, he played with Handel, who became one of his patrons and succeeded in throwing off the older style of Corelli with more modern forms.
In the animated musical life of eighteenth century England Geminiani was particularly esteemed. Charles Burney, the great music historian and author of “A musical trip in Italy” declared that his Op.3 concerti grossi, “placed Geminiani at the forefront of all the masters in this kind of composition” (General History of Music, Vol. 4, 1789). Avison, the Newcastle composer, famous for his concerti grossi drawn from Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, points to Geminiani, (whose pupil he became), as a model of instrumental music, with sweet and expressive modulations and perfect harmony.
Like Corelli, Geminiani was principally a composer of non-vocal music. Even his theatrical piece, La Foresta Incantata, (performance on 11th March by the Associazione Musicale Lucchese) based on Tasso’s verses, was written for orchestra. Perhaps this was because the operatic field had already become monopolized by others (including the great Handel himself) and was much too financially risky. (Even Handel was almost bankrupted by his operatic ventures). Geminiani’s music was mainly appreciated by English aristocrats, who, after their grand tour of Italy, rebuilt their residences in a classical Palladian style, decorated their halls with Italian pictures and made them echo to Italian music.
It’s a fact, that, as part of the audience in a Baroque concert played in an eighteenth-century English country house, one gains the impression of being transported to a villa of the Venetian Brenta or the Roman Campagna; an illusion often rapidly dispelled if one exits during the interval on the parterre to be drenched by the showers and gusts of that northern island!
Geminiani’s originality lies in his supreme virtuosity as a violinist, not only in his sonatas for that instrument, but also in the solo parts of his forty-two concerti grossi. One has only to think of the follia concerto in Corelli’s version and its re-creation by Geminiani to gauge the advance in virtuoso techniques. In fact, many contemporary musicians were almost incapable of playing these concerti, so amazing were their difficulties and brilliance. At the same time, Geminiani introduced a greater expressive element in his music, so that musicians often complained about the accellerandi and ritardandi he introduced in his playing.
Unfortunately, Geminiani was such a lover of paintings that he got into extreme debt through his purchases. He had to put himself under the protection of a law that assured servants to the high nobility the freedom from a debtor’s prison. It was thus that he became a retainer of the Count of Essex.
Geminiani deserves the maximum consideration as a didactic writer. Among his six most famous volumes, the art of playing on the violin is outstanding. It is a necessary text for all those who wish to play on period violins in the correct style. His educational works were aimed at the British market, and often use popular Irish and Scottish themes as examples.
Geminiani was a founder member of two important musical organizations: the academy of Vocal Music (even if he wrote almost nothing for voice) and the Philo-Musicae et Architecturae Societas, a group associated with the Masonic order. The group raised funds and subscriptions to print volumes of music; among these are collections by Corelli and Geminiani himself.
He died in Dublin on the 17th of September, 1762.
Lucca is a city with an importance in the history of western music out of all measure to her small dimensions. Is she a Salzburg of the south? (Or is Salzburg a Lucca of the north?). Among the notable statues erected in memory of her musical sons: for example, to Puccini, to Catalani and to Boccherini, should there not be one to Geminiani, or, at least, a commemorative plaque on the house where this considerable composer, who united English and Italian sensibilities in such a sophisticated way, was born, in this, his anniversary year?