Few composers evoke elevated sentiments such as “wow!” and “we get the picture” as powerfully as Locatelli. Contemporary accounts and modern commentaries concur, describing the violinist/composer as both instrumental innovator and relentless showoff, with his legacy neatly summarized as a mere stepping-stone to Paganini’s incredible exploits. Yet he was more than a technician warranting strictly academic interest.
Pietro Antonio Locatelli (1695-1764) was an active performer and esteemed artist in his own right, busy in the bustling musical scene of early eighteen century Rome, working in Venice as well as throughout Germany and finally settling in the music publishing center of Amsterdam to oversee the publication of his own compositions. As for those often-flashy works, they contain some of the most sincere showmanship of an era brimming with virtuosos.
Locatelli is now frequently associated with the twenty-four unaccompanied, technically demanding violin solos at the end of the first and third movements of his Opus 3, L’Arte del Violino (“The Art of the Violin”). These caprices often possess a “look ma, no hands” quality yet their spontaneity belies any sense of canned pyrotechnics. The polyphonic effects of the ninth concerto’s concluding caprice illustrate a composer interested in pushing the expressive as well as technical limits of the violin. Some of Locatelli’s acrobatics don’t wear as well, such as Opus 3’s final and most difficult caprice, ostentatiously subtitled Il Laberinto Armonico: Facilis Aditus, Difficilis Exitus (“Harmonic Labyrinth: Easy to Enter, Difficult to Escape”). It tests the soloist’s fingers but requires the right combination of even tone and coloration to avoid sounding like a lengthy exercise. Opus 3’s many passages in the violin’s extreme high registers, for example the first movement of the eleventh concerto, can occasionally sound like a concerto for dog whistle, yet demonstrate a performer and composer who isn’t afraid to take risks.
While Locatelli’s reputation has largely rested on the white-knuckled displays of L’Arte del Violino, as critic John Greene explains this work is “an anomaly within his oeuvre and certainly unrepresentative of his prodigious and creative skill as a composer.” Other sets reveal distinct sounds such as the bright, rhythmic Introduttione Teatrale of Opus 4. Most likely intended to bring noisy eighteenth century opera audiences to their seats, these works are far removed from the elegant lines and calculated harmonic effects of Locatelli’s Baroque and Galant contemporaries. The central movements of these works also move beyond the “arias without words” that characterize so many concertos from this period: the first Introduction for example parts ways for an addictively agitated chase between its brash outer movements.
Lyrical moments in Locatelli’s music are harder to find but worth looking for. Purely melodic, relaxed central movements are sandwiched between Opus 3’s virtuosic episodes. The Opus 1 concerti grossi are indebted to Corelli’s restrained style, featuring beautiful string textures and lush concertinos enriched by the (then innovative) presence of violas. The third movement of this set’s “Pastoral” concerto drips with dark lyricism. While Locatelli didn’t write any operas, the sixth concerto of Opus 7, subtitled Il Pianto d’Arianna (“The Tears of Ariadne”), portrays tears of anger and despair from the stranded Greek princess with evocative accuracy.
Historical teleology notwithstanding, Locatelli had no way to predict Paganini or edge out more well known contemporaries such as Vivaldi and Handel. Listening to his work as the unique output of an individual instead of a predecessor or footnote, in other words hearing his music as his music, probably won’t knock any great composers off their pedestals. It might just yield some interesting “new” sounds for open ears.
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