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Ever heard of Antonuccio?

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

In 1708, Rome saw the lavish production of Handel's oratorio La Resurrezione. The impressive orchestra of 47 musicians was led by the famous Arcangelo Corelli. But who was the violinist sitting next to him?

On 8 January 1713 Arcangelo Corelli died. With his passing the community of string players in Rome lost not only its most internationally famous violinist and composer but also its recognized capo: the person with the twofold task of directing major orchestral performances from the concertmaster’s desk and of recruiting (and managing the payment of) the players themselves. There were two obvious candidates to succeed him in the latter role. One, Matteo Fornari, had acted for several years as his co-leader and had deputized for him in his last few years, which were marked by failing health. The other, Giuseppe Valentini, was more a rival than a friend of Corelli, but was at least a regular “front desk” player and a very prolific composer with an original, if sometimes rather bizarre, musical style. In the event, both men were passed over in favour of a violinist somewhat lower in profile: Antonio Montanari, previously often known in Rome by the diminutive of his given name, “Antonuccio”. (The relatively modest social status of most professional musicians meant that in accordance with Italian custom they were commonly referred to by their baptismal names, diminutives often serving to distinguish younger from older bearers of the same name.)

Montanari’s career path

Montanari’s career path had to some extent followed Corelli’s. He is described as a subject of the duchy of Modena on the title page of his published concertos, but there is evidence that his formative years (he was born in 1676) were spent at least partly in the city of Bologna. ‘Antonuccio’ came to Rome soon after 1690 and gradually worked his way up the ranks.

There are hints that soon after his arrival in Rome Montanari had been taken under the wing of cardinal Carlo Colonna, and he later also performed often at functions, both secular and sacred, of the noble Borghese and Ruspoli families. For example, in 1708 he was co-leader (under Corelli) at the performance of Handel’s oratorio La Resurrezione, given under Ruspoli auspices. After becoming capo, however, Montanari no longer needed, for financial or other reasons, to be attached to any particular household: existing records show that he performed – but always in Rome, never further afield – in an immense variety of locales and functions up to his death in 1737.

The stability of Montanari’s residence in Rome – not for him, the life of touring virtuosi such as Vivaldi, Locatelli or Tartini in their younger years – made him a sought-after teacher of his instrument. Valentini may have studied with him, to judge from a manuscript sonata and a poem that the younger man dedicated to Montanari. The German violin virtuoso Pisendel, who visited Italy in 1716–17 partly to further his musical education (and augment his vast musical collection) and partly to provide musical entertainment for his master, the Saxon-Polish crown prince, took lessons from him and came home with several manuscripts of his sonatas and concertos.

Ghezzi's caricature drawing of Montanari

We are fortunate to possess a lively ink drawing of Montanari in the act of performing from the hand of the artist and keen amateur musician Pier Leone Ghezzi, who frequently entered into his sketchbooks the likenesses of the musicians who frequented the accademie held at his home. From this sketch we see that Montanari holds his instrument loosely against the collar bone, employs a bow rather long for the period (holding it, rather surprisingly, in the traditional French manner with the thumb under the heel) and concentrates hard without adopting any particular facial expression.

Montanari’s violin concertos

Relatively little of Montanari’s music has survived. This is partly because so little of it was published. The apparent lack of effort to publish his own music may have been a deliberate strategy on Montanari’s part, if he calculated that his cachet as a performer of his own works would suffer from their passing too freely into other hands (this was the very consideration that led Domenico Scarlatti to publish hardly any of his keyboard sonatas).

In 1730 Le Cène psthumously published eight violin concertos by Montanari in Amsterdam. Two of the concertos in this collection (nos. 6 and 8) are found also in Dresden in manuscript copies originating from Pisendel’s visit to Rome, while no. 7 also survives in the library of the counts of Schönborn at Wiesentheid. There are two further violin concertos in Dresden – one in F sharp minor copied in Rome by Pisendel and another in C major copied by Quantz.

Montanari’s opening slow movements are unusually long and intricate for their time. Most are cast in what, in a Vivaldian context, one would term ritornello form, where fully scored passages employing recurrent material alternate with lightly scored ones, free in their thematic invention, which bring the one or more soloists to the fore. Montanari’s “light” textures are often very light indeed, consisting of a single strand on violins or in the continuo part. At their most extreme, the solo violin is totally unaccompanied for one or more bars. This delight in the unaccompanied violin, its sound often enriched by multiple-stopping in polyphonic style, is a “trademark” feature of Montanari’s musical language – one finds a classic instance of it in the final movement (Giga) of his D minor sonata for violin and continuo (in the Pisendel collection), which, unlike the movements preceding it, is unaccompanied from start to finish.

As well as testing the ability of the principal violinist to negotiate multiple-stopping, Montanari sometimes takes the part into the ultra-high register (up to B in altissimo). He also calls for rapid arpeggiation and wide leaps. The writing is not quite so demanding as in Vivaldi’s or Locatelli’s concertos, but it exceeds by a considerable margin what one finds in Corelli. Montanari also has considerable lyrical gifts, shown to their best advantage in the internal slow movements. One is left in no doubt that Montanari has a distinctive musical voice, recognizably but not narrowly Roman. He is less polished than Corelli, less facile than Valentini and less systematic than Locatelli, but he is perhaps the most adventurous and many-sided of them all, even on the evidence of such a small surviving production.

Where now for Montanari?

One is right always to be more than a little cautious about pleading in favour of the admission of a previously ignored composer to the modern performing repertoire. Music does not become better from the sheer fact of being “rediscovered”. However, when Maunder can write that Montanari’s concertos 6 and 7 are “particularly original works that ought to be ranked with the best Italian concertos of the whole baroque period” and that this composer “has an understanding of long-range tonal planning that is normally associated only with later composers such as Haydn”, or Hirshberg and McVeigh can claim that “Montanari’s concertos rank among the most impressive achievements of the Italian repertoire”, one senses that a turning point in his fortunes cannot be long delayed.

Find more details about Montanari and an in-depth examination of his concertos by Michael Talbot in Ensemble Diderot's award-winning recording.


Johannes Pramsohler on recording Montanari

Montanari is little known today, not to be found in the standard music encyclopedias, and his violin concertos have never been recorded, although in his time he was very well-known as a violinist and teacher. Where would you place him between Corelli, whose immediate successor he was in Rome, and Vivaldi, his great contemporary?

Johannes Pramsohler. Corelli developed a style and a form that contributed significantly to musical history. Thus there is a “before Corelli” and “after Corelli.” Montanari belongs to “after Corelli.” At that time, two completely different types of music were predominant in Northern and Southern Italy, respectively. Venice was the realm of the solo concerto with Vivaldi as the main figure, while in Rome the concerto grosso was the norm. Although there was naturally a flow and exchange of information, these two worlds were very different.

Corelli embodied absolute perfection, and everybody, even outside Italy, knew him. After his death, there were a number of possibilities for the further development of the concerto form that he had so impressively perfected. Vivaldi chose one way, and Montanari another, very personal and interesting path. And with that he stood in a unique position: concertos for four violins in the style of the Roman concerto grosso, however with a very virtuoso treatment of the first solo violin as it was favored in Venice, and additionally with a contrapuntal manner of writing and a harmonic boldness that we don’t know in this form from the “Red Priest.”

The concertos are written for seven parts in the typical Roman style. How is the dialogue organized between the instruments? Are there options in the scoring?

Johannes Pramsohler. This is Italian music for strings. The ensembles are known to us today. Incidentally, the various formations in Rome also coincide between the different composers. I can well imagine that, at concerts in Palazzo Ruspoli or at Cardinal Pamphili’s, a cantata by Handel was followed by a violin concerto by Montanari.

As far as the basso continuo is concerned, I prefer a transparent scoring that leaves enough space for the upper voices and that doesn’t mask the “legibility” of the individual parts. For this recording, I decided for a one-on-a-part setting in the other voices, which in the context of a violin concerto might seem a bit unusual. However, it is all quite logical and, due to Montanari’s style of composition, the decision was obvious: the pieces are peppered with solo passages – everybody, even the two so-called ripieno voices, is integrated in the musical discourse with virtuoso solo passages and very soloistic fugue entries. The borders between solo and tutti are often not clear, so that, with more than one on a part, editorial intrusions verging on arrangements would have to be undertaken. I thought about this for a long time and came to the conclusion that there are no such problems with a one-on-a-part setting. When you work on a score, the result is always an irrefutable musical logic that you should respect as long as there is no evidence to the contrary.


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