Interview, Bojan Čičić on Carbonelli
Since moving to England just over a decade ago, the Croatian violinist Bojan Čičić has rapidly established himself as one of today's leading interpreters of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century repertoire, working regularly with groups including The Academy of Ancient Music, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Florilegium, Les Talens Lyriques, and The Gabrieli Consort and Players. He was recently appointed Professor of Baroque Violin at the Royal College of Music, and his recording of the Bach Double Concerto with Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque won widespread critical acclaim, including a Building A Library recommendation last April.
For his debut disc with his group The Illyria Consort (released later this month on Delphian), he's exhumed the sole surviving work of Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli, one of the many Italian composer-violinists who came to London to seek their fortune in the early eighteenth century. I met up with Bojan in Oxford recently to pick his brains about Carbonelli's rather unusual career-trajectory, the peculiar technical demands of these pieces, and the Illyria Consort's genesis and plans for the future…
How much (or how little!) do we know about the life of this composer, who until now has been relegated to little more than a footnote in the musical history-books?
Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli (or ‘John Stephen Carbonell’, as he styled himself after becoming a British citizen) is indeed a composer whom many people don’t know - yet he’s a part of London’s history and of Handel’s time in London in particular (with an interesting twist to his career, which I'll come to later...). Handel and Carbonelli actually had the same patron in the Third Duke of Rutland, who sponsored and put on Handel’s operas – he had a house in London with a music salon, and perhaps the two of them even played these works together...OK, that’s a fantasy, but it might have actually happened!
How did you come across these sonatas, and what in particular excited you about them?
From an early age, I was always keen to support the underdog (when I was growing up in Croatia, I was fascinated by lesser-known languages and unexplored periods in history); I’m passionate about things that aren’t necessarily mainstream, and going into early music was a natural extension of that. My discovery of Carbonelli happened just by chance: when Edition HH published the first modern edition of the sonatas a few years ago I came across the name of Michael Talbot [who edited them], and over the next five years or so we corresponded about the pieces. It’s always a joy to meet someone who is passionate about a period on which they want to shine a light, and Michael firmly believed that this composer deserved more popularity: why, for example, do people play Vivaldi sonatas and not Carbonelli? Though actually Carbonelli has more to do with Corelli’s style and school than with Vivaldi…
Do you think there’s much truth in the rumours that he was actually a pupil of Corelli, or was that more of a clever marketing strategy?!
I think everybody was a ‘pupil of Corelli’, especially the Italians who came to England…! It somehow conferred a kind of legitimacy. Some of them of course genuinely were, and tried to continue the tradition. But in Carbonelli’s case, he would have had to be in touch with Corelli from a very young age for this to make sense: we don’t really know much about his early life, but he was born in Livorno and it seems very unlikely that he would have gone to Rome to study. But at some point in his early twenties (maybe around 1720) he came to England, and nine years after that he published his only known surviving work [these sonate da camera]. He worked as a leader of theatre orchestras (including the Orchestra of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane); a job such as that would have meant that he probably performed any theatrical music that was à la mode at the time, including many of his own works - but nothing else by him survives.
Do you think that this lack of other surviving works has contributed to his fall into obscurity?
I don’t know of any composer that’s become really well-known on the strength of a single surviving work – at least with someone like Pachelbel or Albinoni, whose popularity has come to rest on one single movement, there’s still a whole body of other existing works to support it. And that might be the reason why musicologists in this period are interested in Carbonelli’s other career – at some point when he was still relatively young, he moved away from music and became a wine-merchant! His last known performance was in 1744, in Handel’s Deborah, with the composer conducting; he came out of semi-retirement for this, and probably by that point his style of composing (and possibly even playing) was beginning to seem dated. This was the time when Rococo and early Classical style were really beginning to take hold; Geminiani was at his full power then, which could be the reason why Carbonelli fell into neglect even during his lifetime, and rather than wait for this to happen he decided to explore his other talents. But the sonatas that we do have are a really nice mixture of Italian technique and the style that Corelli brought to England before him…
You mentioned the ‘school’ of Italians in London – do you see many parallels with his contemporaries from similar backgrounds, or do you view him more as an innovator who preferred to strike out in new directions?
I think he’s actually quite old-fashioned, which is why I like him! We only focused on the first part of the book, which is more concerned with fugal writing and perhaps technical prowess - much like the first six sonatas of Corelli’s Op. 5, where the other six are more of a suite with dance-movements. So this slight outdatedness was something which really interested me, but at the same time he puts in a couple of movements that are slightly quirky in a very English way – Daniel Purcell, that sort of style – based on the idea of the ‘Fancy’, which is essentially just a nice little interlude that didn’t necessarily have to be virtuosic or of unparalleled beauty. This mixture of the two styles was something I found particularly appealing, and I found myself thinking: ‘If not me, then who? And if not now, then when?’. (There is actually another CD available by Hélène Schmitt on Alpha, but that focuses more on the latter part of the book, so only Nos. 1 and 6 are included there). I just hope that not just listeners but also performers will realise that there is still a lot to discover and to learn from this period, and from the period before: there’s so much music sitting in libraries, and that’s the most exciting part of this work for me.
The booklet-notes mention the technical difficulties which these sonatas pose as being a possible factor in why they haven’t been recorded in their entirety…
What you really have to work hard on is the double-stops and chordal playing - these six sonatas are really full of that! And he likes to push boundaries in terms of keys – whereas Corelli would write in G major, A major, G minor (all these keys with relatively few sharps and flats), Carbonelli goes off into B major and C sharp minor, and there were moments where I honestly couldn’t hear the sound...they were in such awkward keys that I just didn’t have the experience of doing it on gut strings. And I think that’s what makes it difficult and different, because you have to spend such time training your ear to play, approach, hear these quite novel works.
Yet the difficulty doesn't manifest itself in overt virtuosity...
No: it belongs to a type of playing (to which I believe Corelli also belonged) where virtuosity was largely concealed behind good compositional and instrumental technique. If you think of [Locatelli’s] L’arte del violino, written just a few years later, they really don’t have much in common. Carbonelli didn’t really venture far into Locatelli and Vivaldi’s territory by using very high positions; he does that only very occasionally (for instance in the variations in the Sixth Sonata, which is the last movement on the CD), and that really heralds a type of music that was coming onto these shores. It’s worth noting that there were a lot of contrary, defensive remarks written about Locatelli and that style of music at the time – people didn’t really appreciate it! There’s a letter from a friend of Gaspard Fritz, a Swiss violinist in the 1730s who was trying to set up some performances in England, where the friend says: ‘I’m really sorry, but nobody’s interested – all these ‘Goths’ want to hear are endless interpretations of Handel, Corelli and Geminiani!’. It’s interesting that this [musical conservatism] worked well for Carbonelli at the time, but perhaps later became his downfall – nowadays we see him as an interesting component of a school that withered and died and was replaced by something much more progressive, something that eventually leads to Paganini and to the Romantic concerto.
This is the Illyria Consort’s first recording – how did the group come into being, and get its name?
The group started life as ‘Suonar Cantando’ (which comes from Caccini’s introduction to his works, so it really belongs to a seventeenth-century idea, but I still like the name!) with whom I toured Holland and Belgium in 2013/4. The people in it are David Miller [theorbo] and Steven Devine [harpsichord] and Susanne Heinrich [viola da gamba], and what the group set out to explore was this tradition from Croatia that shows both Venetian and Hapsburg influences.
Anyway, once the contract with Delphian was set up, we were advised to dump the Italian name, just because there are so many similarly-named ensembles! You always return to things that you love to get inspiration, so I started thinking about what made me decide to become an early music specialist in the first place; that took me back to Andrew Manze’s early recordings with La Romanesca, and Jordi Savall’s with Hèsperion [named after the Iberian peninsula], and I thought ‘Well, what’s the Latin word for the area where I’m from?’. And it’s 'Illyria'! (This all happened around the same time as we found out we were expecting our first child, who now shares her middle name with the ensemble!). It’s maybe familiar to some people through Shakespeare [who uses it in Twelfth Night], but I think Shakespeare actually took it from antique history – it was a kind of generic name which the Romans gave to the whole Dalmatian coastline, and then there’s the story of Prospero’s Island in The Tempest being one of the Dalmatian islands, so there’s a lot of resonances with what I’m trying to do and where I’m from. And Carbonelli in a way is also an obvious choice, as another immigrant who came from Southern Europe and strove to make his name in England, which pretty much mirrors my own story!