30.03.2014: 250th anniversary of the death of Pietro Antonio Locatelli (1695-1764).
Pietro Antonio Locatelli was an Italian composer and violinist. Pietro Antonio Locatelli was born in 1695 in the Italian city of Bergamo. He was still a young boy when his astonishing talent for playing the violin revealed itself. Joining the Bergamo Cathedral instrumental ensemble as a boy, he left it in 1711 at the age of sixteen to go to Rome. For a violinist on the threshold of his career, Rome was the place to be as it was there that Arcangelo Corelli lived. Although Locatelli did not actually study with Corelli, he certainly absorbed a good deal of his influence.
Until early in 1723 Pietro Locatelli remained in Rome, although little is known about the ensuing period of his life because we do not know where he was. In 1725 his name appears in Mantua, where Count Philipp von Hesse-Darmstadt appointed him virtuoso da camera (Mantua was ruled by the House of Habsburg). However, there are no indications that Locatelli actually was in Mantua; he could simply have been passing through, his short stay remaining undocumented. After 1725 his name turns up successively in Venice, Munich and Berlin. In 1728 he was in Frankfurt and Kassel. Wherever he travelled he gave concerts and received rapturous acclaim for his virtuosic playing.
Pietro Locatelli was unable to settle anywhere, however, and did not wish to spend the rest of his life as a court musician. In 1729 he therefore moved to Amsterdam, a city lacking a court but which did offer ample opportunities for him to publish his compositions. Amsterdam was known throughout Europe for this aspect of its musical scene and many Italian composers, including Vivaldi, published their music there even though they themselves never visited the city. Having had every composition since his Opus 1 (composed in 1721) published by Roger en Le Cène in Amsterdam, Locatelli lived and worked there as an ‘Italian music master’ from 1729 until his death in 1764.
Amsterdam offered Pietro Locatelli many advantages: he was able to work there as a free musician, unfettered to a church or court. He could compose whatever and whenever he wanted. For an 18th-century composer this was highly exceptional. He participated little in the city’s music scene. He had no pupils and never played in public. On Wednesday evenings he did, however, give concerts in private houses, which were highly fashionable among the city’s beau monde. Being a master at the violin, Locatelli preferred not to have any professional musicians attend, a suspected reason for which is that he was afraid of their imitating him. For a musician who in terms of virtuosity left his contemporaries far in his wake—see L’Arte del Violino concertos Op. 3—such fear is remarkable. Thus the claim is occasionally made that Locatelli himself was not a virtuoso at all, rather he was merely afraid of making mistakes. In his time it was said that he had never played a wrong note – except once, when his little finger slipped and got stuck in the bridge of his instrument.
The States of Holland and West Friesland granted Pietro Locatelli permission to print his own music and to sell it from home. In addition to selling his compositions he also sold books he had acquired from all over Europe. They were about all sorts of subjects, in no way restricted to music alone but embracing theatre, literature and visual art. As a composer and merchant he was therefore able to support himself. Given his wealth when he died in 1764 (an enormous library was discovered in his house) and the extent to which his music circulated throughout Europe, he must have possessed a genuine Dutch commercial streak.
Pietro Locatelli’s works are mainly for the violin, an instrument on which he was a virtuoso. His most significant publication is probably the Arte del violino, opus 3, a collection of twelve concertos for the instrument which incorporate twenty four technically demanding capriccios (or caprices)—these could function as extended cadenzas, but are now usually extracted and played in isolation from the concertos. He also wrote violin sonatas, a cello sonata, trio sonatas, concerti grossi and a set of flute sonatas (his Op. 2). His early works show the influence of Arcangelo Corelli, while later pieces are closer to Antonio Vivaldi in style.
Pietro Locatelli may be best known to the modern public for a piece that does not actually exist. Master and Commander, the first novel in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, begins with the famous line: ‘The music-room in the governor’s house at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet.’ In fact, Locatelli is not known to have written any quartets.
L’Arte del Violino, printed in Amsterdam in 1733, was one of the most influential musical publications of the early 18thcentury. It is a collection of twelve concertos for solo violin, strings and basso continuo, with a ‘capriccio’ for unaccompanied violin inserted into the first and last movements of each concerto as a sort of cadenza.