At the height of his career in eighteenth-century London, violinist and composer Francesco Geminiani (1687–1762) was ranked alongside the two great composers who shaped English musical life at the time; the Italian violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli and the German-born composer George Frideric Handel.
Geminiani's music was explosive, choppy, and difficult to play; it did not fit into the common symmetrical, repetitive patterns of the Baroque era (c. 1600–1750) in which he worked. Even so, it was well known in London and in Dublin, Ireland, where Geminiani lived for a time; two sets of concertos, published in 1732, sold well when they were published, and insured Geminiani's reputation. He later wrote accompanied sonatas for solo violin that provide modern players with considerable technical challenges, and the various instructional writings he penned toward the end of his life are valuable repositories of information about Baroque-era violin technique. Geminiani's music was mostly forgotten for a time, even as the works of other Baroque composers like Antonio Vivaldi were rediscovered. But the flowering of the historical performance movement, whose practitioners perform Baroque music on original instruments and according to the techniques of its own time, finally brought Geminiani's music alive once again.
Studied with Corelli
Geminiani was baptized in Lucca, Italy, on December 5, 1687; it is likely, when local customs are taken into account, that he was born two days earlier. Records of his life are spotty, and some events in his career have to be deduced from publications by other writers that mention him in passing. His father was a violinist employed by the city of Lucca. Geminiani himself is known to have remained in Lucca until 1704, at which time he probably moved to Rome to seek his fortune in music. He may have played in an opera orchestra in Lucca and been dismissed for missing too many performances. In contrast to most composers of his time, who found employment with noble courts or with theaters in major cities, Geminiani moved from place to place for much of his life, making a living by performing, publishing his music, and undertaking side ventures. In Rome he met some of the top musicians of the day, and he is thought to have studied with Corelli, the player and composer who did more than anyone else to give the violin the status of difficult yet lyrical solo instrument that it still enjoys today. In Geminiani's instructional Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick (1749), he recalled detailed conversations with Corelli.
Perhaps finding Rome overpopulated with talented young violinists, Geminiani moved on to Naples in 1706 and took a post as the leader of an opera orchestra at the Fiorentini Theater. According to the English musical historian Charles Burney, who was not sympathetic to Geminiani, he was demoted from orchestra leader to a chair in the viola section because the other players could not follow his beat. Geminiani returned to Lucca and took over his father's job. After two years his salary was doubled, probably because city administrators knew that their native son was a major talent who might well move on to bigger things. Geminiani did just that, leaving for London in 1714.
There were several reasons why a young Italian musician might have chosen London. Corelli's music was already extremely popular there, and a talented violinist who could play in the Corelli style was a strong candidate for profitable employment. The prosperous city's concentration of noble families and a growing middle class ensured a vibrant concert scene, and many potential patrons had traveled to Italy when they were young, as part of a Grand Tour, a voyage through the capitals of Europe that served some of the same functions as the undergraduate semester abroad in modern times. Geminiani's intuition about London proved to be absolutely correct; within two years, he had given a performance for King George I, with Handel himself accompanying him on the harpsichord, and he published his first known compositions, a set of 12 sonatas for violin with continuo (or harmonic) accompaniment. Even though these sonatas were almost impossible for ordinary violinists to play, they were often reprinted in subsequent decades.
In the late 1710s and the 1720s, Geminiani augmented the income from these pieces by teaching the violin and by giving concerts in the houses of wealthy patrons. Even though he rarely gave public concerts, his name became well known in London musical circles. In 1725 he was named to the hiring committee when the post of organist at St. George's Church fell open, a sign that he was considered an important musical authority. Around this time, he became a founding member of two influential musical organizations, the Academy of Vocal Music (even though he himself wrote very little for voices) and the Philo-Musicae et Architecturae Societas, a group affiliated with the Masonic order. The latter group raised funds, via subscription to the eventual printed music volumes, to publish a set of six Geminiani arrangements of Corelli violin sonatas for violin and orchestra.
Turned Down Irish Post
In 1728 the Earl of Essex, one of Geminiani's well-born violin students, put forth the composer's name for the post of master and composer of state music in Ireland, a high-level post and a lucrative one in the days when governments largely controlled the printing business. Geminiani declined the position, but his reasons for doing so are not clear. One writer at the time suggested that he might have been religiously motivated; the Italian Geminiani was a Catholic, but Ireland at the time was ruled by England, and he would thus have been in the service of Anglicanism, the English state church. It seems more likely that Geminiani simply enjoyed his freelance status.
For a time, that decision seemed to work out well. Geminiani had composed and often led performances of two new sets of concerti grossi (a concerto grosso is a composition that contrasts a small group of solo instruments with a larger orchestral group), and in 1731 he organized a series of 20 concerts at a small hall called Hickford's Room. The aim was to raise money to publish the concerti grossi, and they appeared, with much attendant publicity in London newspapers, as the composer's Op. 2 and Op. 3 (classical compositions at the time were sometimes listed by opus number, or published work number) in 1732. These works are now considered Geminiani's most significant.
Then, as now, however, the music business was plagued by piracy, and unauthorized editions cut into Geminiani's profits. To make money on the side, he turned to dealing in fine art, traveling back and forth between Paris and London to acquire new paintings for sale. Geminiani's passion for visual art was genuine; he was a painter himself, and a visitor once found that he insisted on devoting their entire conversation to art rather than music. His head for business, however, was weak, and he made some unsuccessful investments. Deeply in debt, Geminiani was jailed for a short time in the early 1730s when a creditor demanded payment. He was released after the Earl of Essex interceded.
Geminiani now decided to accept the invitation of another noble patron, the Baron of Tullamore, to visit Ireland. He arrived there with little money but got back on his feet with several public concerts. Opening a combination concert hall and art gallery called Geminiani's Great Room, he shuttled between Dublin and London between 1733 and 1740 and made a reasonable living. His wheeler-dealer image did not sit well, however, with English music writers. Other star violinists presented themselves as being in touch with supernatural forces, and Geminiani seemed crass by contrast. "It is to be feared that a propensity toward chicane and cunning … operated a little upon Geminiani; whose musical decisions ceasing to be irrevocable in England, determined him to try his hand at buying cheap and selling dear; imposing upon grosser ignorance with false names, and passing off copies for originals," wrote English critic Charles Burney (as quoted by Enrico Careri in his book Francesco Geminiani). Partly as a result of such attitudes, Geminiani's historical reputation suffered, obscuring his importance in the tradition of violin music even two centuries later.
Met Turlough O'Carolan
One famous incident in the annals of Irish traditional music involved Geminiani during his stay in Dublin. Geminiani was told of the legendary skills of Ireland's greatest traditional musician, the Irish harp player Turlough O'Carolan, and decided to test his skills. Geminiani took an Irish melody, rewrote it in such a way that the original melody was well hidden, and sent it to be performed for O'Carolan. After listening to the piece, O'Carolan said, in Gaelic, that it was an admirable piece but that it "limps and stumbles," and he in turn played a corrected version of the music that restored the original melody. This was sent from Connaught, where O'Carolan lived, back to Dublin, where Geminiani gave the opinion that O'Carolan was a musical genius.
Geminiani returned to London by 1741, performing for the royal family at the Haymarket Theatre and publishing several volumes of new music: a set of sonatas for cello and accompaniment and a new set of concerti grossi, Op. 7. Although Geminiani's Op. 3 set was by now considered a classic, these new works sold less well than he had hoped. For the last 15 years of his life, Geminiani devoted himself mostly to instructional treatises, although he did emerge to write music for a pantomime called The Enchanted Forest in 1754.
Beginning with Rules for Playing in a True Taste in 1748, Geminiani wrote six instructional books in all; one was devoted to the art of accompaniment, and another, in 1760, concerned the guitar. Other violinists had published instructional books before Geminiani, but his were at a higher level than those of any of his predecessors. They were aimed at professional violinists rather than at novices, and they included valuable details, much studied by performers today, on how to improvise details that a composer might not fully write out in musical notation, something now considered critical to the authentic performance of Baroque music. Geminiani's most important treatise was The Art of Playing on the Violin (1751). His instructional works, aimed at the English market, often used English, Irish, and Scottish folk songs as examples.
Geminiani continued to travel to London and Paris through the 1750s, but he eventually settled in Ireland as music master to a nobleman named Charles Coote. Living in Dublin, he gave his last concert in 1760, by which time musical fashions had changed considerably from his heyday. He died in his home on September 17, 1762.
The idea of a body of "classical" music embodying the best work of the past is of comparatively recent invention; earlier ages tended to discard the old as they discovered the new, and all but the most famous works of even Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach were mostly forgotten in the century after their deaths. The twentieth century saw an explosion of renewed interest in music of Geminiani's Baroque era, but it was not until very late in the century, when the spectacular virtuosity of Baroque violin music was fully investigated and appreciated, that Geminiani's music was rediscovered. With a free-spirited quality that seemed to match its composer's attitude toward life, it was performed more and more often in the first years of the twenty-first century by violinists with an interest in the Baroque era.
Careri, Enrico, Francesco Geminiani, Clarendon Press, 1993.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed. Macmillan, 2001.
"Francesco Geminiani," Baroque Composers and Musicians, http://www.baroquemusic.corg/bqxgem.html (January 22, 2006).
"Francesco Geminiani," http://www.geocities.com/connidsunday/geminiani.html (January 22, 2006).