5 December 2017

Francesco Gemianini - composer and violinist

Tuscan played alongside Handel in court of George I

Francesco Geminiani moved to London in 1714 and settled there
Francesco Geminiani moved to London in
1714 and settled there
The violinist, composer and music theorist Francesco Saverio Geminiani, who worked alongside George Frideric Handel in the English royal court in the early 18th century and became closely associated with the music of the Italian Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli, was baptised on this day in 1687 in Lucca, Tuscany.

Although he composed many works and at his peak was renowned as a virtuoso violinist, he is regarded as a significant figure in the history of music more for his writings, in particular his 1751 treatise Art of Playing on the Violin, which explained the 18th-century Italian method of violin playing and is still acknowledged as an invaluable source for the study of performance practice in the late Baroque period.

Geminiani himself was taught to play the violin by his father, and after showing considerable talent at an early age he went to study the violin under Carlo Ambrogio Lonati in Milan, later moving to Rome to be tutored by the aforementioned Corelli.

Returning to Lucca, he played the violin in the orchestra at the Cappella Palatina for three years, after which he moved to Naples to take up a position as Leader of the Opera Orchestra and concertmaster.

He was by that time recognised as a brilliant violin virtuoso, although his tendency to improvise off the cuff posed problems at times for the orchestra, who had difficulty in following him.  He acquired the nickname Il Furibondo – the Madman. Some of his violin sonatas were so challenging that only a few of his contemporary violinists dared to play them in public.

The cover from a French edition of Gemianini's  treatise on how to play the violin
The cover from a French edition of Gemianini's
treatise on how to play the violin
By the time Geminiani was in his mid-20s, London had become a major centre for music, not least because Handel, the German-born Baroque maestro, had chosen to base himself there.

Handel, like Geminiani, had studied under Corelli and had introduced London to Italian musical style and. In 1714 Geminiani decided he would try his luck there too.

His accomplished performances soon attracted patronage, including that of William Capel, the third Earl of Essex, who would become a regular sponsor and whom he taught to play. Capel at one time had to rescue Geminiani from prison, the consequence of debts run up through art dealing and collecting.  

It was through the Earl of Essex that Geminiani was invited to play his violin concerti in front of George I, with Handel accompanying him on harpsichord.

He established himself in London as the leading master of violin-playing, making a good living through his concerts, his published compositions and his theoretical treatises.  He also taught music and many of his students went on to have successful careers.

Gemianini is best known for his concerti grossi – a form of Baroque music that involves an orchestra and a small group of soloists, as opposed to the single soloist of a solo concerto – of which there were 42. He also reworked some of Corelli’s pieces as concerti grossi.

Geminiani spent time in Paris and Dublin but preferred to make his permanent home in London rather than return to Italy. It was  during a visit to Dublin that he died in 1762 at the age of 74.  He was buried in the Irish capital but his remains were later reburied in the church of San Francesco in Lucca.  

Lucca's oval Piazza dell'Amfiteatro
Lucca's oval Piazza dell'Amfiteatro
Travel tip:

Lucca is situated in western Tuscany, just 30km (19 miles) inland from Viareggio on the coast and barely 20km (12 miles) from Pisa, with its international airport.  It is often overlooked by travellers to the area in favour of the Leaning Tower and the art treasures of Florence, 80km (50 miles) to the east, yet has much to recommend within its majestic walls, where visitors can stroll along narrow cobbled streets into a number of beautiful squares, with lots of cafes and restaurants for those content to soak up the ambiance but also a wealth of churches, museums and galleries for those seeking a fix of history and culture.   The Renaissance walls, still intact, are an attraction in their own right, providing a complete 4.2km (2.6 miles) circuit of the city popular with walkers and cyclists.

A bronze statue of Giacomo Puccini sits outside his birthplace museum
A bronze statue of Giacomo Puccini sits
outside his birthplace museum
Travel tip:

Lucca has a rich musical tradition of which Francesco Geminiani is just part. The city’s main claim to musical fame is as the home of the great opera composer Giacomo Puccini, who was born there in 1858. Visitors can look around the house where the composer was born in Corte San Lorenzo, off Via di Poggio in the city centre, which is now a museum, or his villa on the shores of nearby Lago di Massaciuccoli, on the way to Viareggio, while there are daily Puccini concerts throughout the summer in Lucca at the church of Santi Giovanni e Raparata in Piazza San Giovanni. The composers Alfredo Catalani and Luigi Boccherini were also from Lucca.

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