Wednesday 16 January 2019

A day for musical birthdays

Karl Jenkins
Karl Jenkins
Arcangelo Corelli

George Hamilton

Today's tale is of two musicians who could scarcely be more different, yet both would blaze a trail of their own. If classical was what followed medieval in the loosest of ways, then Arcangelo Corelli was there right at the start.

Karl Jenkins came in at the other end of the calendar. Something they have in common is that they share this as their birthday.

The name Corelli is pretty synonymous with the term concerto grosso.

Unlike the more classical concerto which features a single instrument with orchestral back-up, the concerto grosso or big concerto, as its name implies, features a number of soloists.

Corelli didn't exactly invent the form, but he made it his own.

These concerti, in terms of their publication at least, belong to his later output. The sonatas he wrote in his 20s and 30s virtually kick-started the Baroque period.

Born in northern Italy in 1653, Corelli was well ahead of Handel - almost exactly 32 years younger - and Bach, both of whom first saw the light in 1685.

It wasn't just Corelli's compositions that secured his place in history. He was the player who popularised what was a relatively new instrument at the time - the violin.

He toured extensively and it was his playing technique that became the norm. The shorter bow used in early baroque performance has become known as the Corelli bow.

He was pushing an open door in terms of what he wrote. It became instantly popular, graceful and precise in equal measure.

Corelli blazed the trail. Vivaldi, Handel and Bach would follow.

Handel came to visit, and performed with him. Bach wrote a fugue for organ based on one of his themes.

One of the 12 concerti grossi, published the year after Corelli's death in 1713, is his most famous piece of music.

Inscribed "Fatto per la notte di Natale" (composed for Christmas night), this Christmas Concerto was written many years before for the Cardinal who had just become his patron.

It concludes with the most popular passage of Corelli music, the slow, captivating Pastorale.

Karl Jenkins, born in 1944 in a village near Swansea in south Wales, is at the absolute other end of the musical spectrum.

If "captivating" is a word to describe Corelli's most famous composition, then it applies in spades to the work of Karl Jenkins.

His musical education took in Cardiff University and the Royal Academy in London.

From there it was into jazz, making regular appearances at Ronnie Scott's club and winning first prize at the Festival in Montreux.

For a period in the 1970s, he was the main man in the rock band Soft Machine.

Yet, it was a piece of music that he wrote for a Delta Airlines television commercial that propelled him to prominence. 'Adiemus' was released commercially on an album subtitled Songs of Sanctuary in 1995.

This was Jenkins drawing on all manner of influences to create something new - classic yet classical. The title - a play on the sound of Latin - introduces songs in the vocalise style, harmonies sung, but without any lyrics as such.

The Armed Man - A Mass for Peace was commissioned for the millennium and was first performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

This time, Jenkins augmented human voices with the one instrument in the orchestra that comes closest to that sound - the cello. Julian Lloyd Webber was the soloist.

It's a haunting, ethereally beautiful work throughout, though some passages have found enduring popularity on their own. The 'Benedictus' is probably the most-loved section of all.

Where Jenkins has crossed boundaries, Corelli in his day pushed them back. Two composers. Two styles. Two winning formulas. One birthday.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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