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Locatelli. Twelve Flute Sonatas
Pietro Antonio Locatelli, who became one of the greatest violin players of his day, was born in Bergamo on 3 September 1695. He studied under Corelli in Rome, where he remained at least until 1714. During the 1720s he was in the service of various German princes; but his first published work, the Concerti grossi op.1, appeared in Amsterdam in 1721, and he may have settled there as early as 1729. In 1731 he applied for a privilege to print and publish his own compositions, the first fruits of this being the flute sonatas recorded here. The document describes him as an 'Italiaansch Muziekmeester', and he seems to have led the life of a freelance teacher, performer and composer. He died in Amsterdam on 30 March 1764: an inventory of his possessions at death included four violins, a viola, a double bass, two harpsichords, a forte-piano, two transverse flutes, a 'flute d'amour' and six music stands. A lively picture of domestic and public music-making is conjured up; and it is highly probable that Locatelli was himself a flautist and played his own sonatas.
Locatelli, with Tartini, was largely responsible for the enormous advances in violin technique made during the eighteenth century, and his L'arte del violino: XII Concerti... con XXIV Capricci ad libitum (Op.3) contains passages which have earned him the reputation of a charlatan. This is most unfair: his published output, which includes many concerti grossi, overtures ('introductioni teatrali') and sonatas with basso continuo. exhibits consistent musicianship and a lively awareness of current musical styles. In his day the late Baroque was dissolving into the early Classical idiom: 'spun-out' melody and a contrapuntal structure were being gradually replaced by a tendency towards clear-cut phrases and a simple but solid harmonic basis. These idioms cannot, of course, be defined in half a sentence each; but it is one way of expressing the distinction which we all feel between (say) a concerto of Bach and a concerto of Mozart, Bach was hardly the most advanced composer of his generation, and already from about 1720 (if not before) we can discern the change of emphasis in the works of a number of lesser composers: Italians to begin with, then central Europeans and Germans. Locatelli was by no means an insignificant figure in this process, and he carried his galanterie to a highly civilized and culturally receptive quarter of northern Europe.
The flute sonatas exhibit this galanterie, as I have called it, to perfection: though the word is used in various senses and another writer has spoken of Locatelli as 'breaking free of the cliche of the soft-toned and galante instrument so dear to Quantz'. Locatelli was certainly different from Quantz, whose rather strait-laced idiom is manifested in hundreds of works for the instrument; but Locatelli's flute was also soft-toned, and his compositions for it are deeply expressive and of a sparkling liveliness by turns. These works lack the abrasive energy of his virtuoso pieces for violin; but they are expertly conceived for the instrument and the composer paid particular attention to articulation in the flute part, distinguishing the important mezzo-staccato tonguing from both legato and staccato.
Locatelli's Flute Sonatas op.2 were published by the composer in Amsterdam in 1732. There was a second edition the following year, and an edition by Walsh in London, c.1737. Both the University of Leiden and the Bodleian Library in Oxford possess signed copies of the work, being perhaps presentation copies required by his printing privilege. Neither copy bears a date, but it looks as though the Bodleian copy may represent the second edition in view of certain additions to the engraved plates. Locatclli retains the traditional basso continuo, in which the keyboard player supplied the harmonies from the bass and a system of figures, in these works; but the bass-line is somewhat static, and harmonic rather than contrapuntal in idiom. This technique is not at all incompatible with the incipient Classical style: it may be observed in the continuo flute sonatas of C.P.E. Bach, to which these works provide an interesting parallel in many ways.
Seven of the sonatas adopt the Slow-Fast-Slow-Fast sequence of movements which was standard for Baroque composers but also considered perfectly valid as a medium for newer idioms. The remaining five arc in a three-movement form, mostly Fast-Slow-Fast (Andante implies an ambling gait, not a truly slow tempo). One of these, however (No. 10) begins with a Largo and ends with a minuet and seven variations. This sonata is interesting for another reason: it provides an early example of thematic metamorphosis, the theme of the minuet being derived from the opening of the first movement. Sonata No. 11 provides a similar, though less obvious, instance: there are eighteenth-century parallels in the works of John Stanley (who may well have known Locatclli's sonatas) and of course Mozart (e.g. Horn Quintet, second and third movements).
The composer adopts practically the whole range of major tonalities considered suitable for the simple one-keyed flute of his day, from E major on the sharp side to B flat major on the other. It is striking that only one work, No.6, is in the minor mode, though there are individual minor-key movements in the other sonatas. Within each sonata the key-range is not usually wide, though the E major work (No.9) has a slow movement in A minor; and there is a striking instance of tonal dislocation in No.7, in A, in which the third movement is in F. What is extraordinary is not so much the effect at the beginning of this movement, which will strike most listeners as making a pleasant change, but the transition from it to the finale. Here a conventional half-close leads one to expect a continuation in the same key (F) or at least no further away than C; what actually happens, the plunge back to the main key of the work (A), is a profoundly disturbing experience.
One final technicality remains to be discussed. The last sonata is a fascinating essay in double canon: in effect the work is heard twice, the second time just a short distance behind the first. In other words, a second flautist echoes the first and a cello echoes the harpsichord (which fills out the harmonies for the first but not the second performance). Leader and companion (to use conventional terminology) disport themselves in a frolic which has no exact parallel in eighteenth-century music. The work also makes sense - of a sort - without the canon, but that would hardly give a fair notion of its character. It is a great technical feat, but in conformity with the style of all the music in this collection it is carried out with tact and good taste.