Pre-dating Bach by a generation, the Italian baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) enjoyed amazing popularity during his lifetime and his music remained tremendously influential for decades after his death.
The Christmas Concerto was commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni and published, posthumously, in 1714 in Twelve Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, although it may have been written around a quarter of a century earlier. The Christmas Concerto – the eighth of the collection – is subtitled fatto per la notte di natale (made for the night of the Nativity) – that is, Christmas Eve. What distinguishes a ‘Christmas Concerto’ from the norm is the inclusion of a pastorale – an addition subsequently copied by both Handel and Bach.
This arrangement starts with the fourth movement (a short, highly rhythmic Vivace), followed by a lively Allegro which then segues directly into the Pastorale (Largo) – a serene gigue. The Pastorale is perhaps the best known of all Corelli’s compositions. In it, Corelli most effectively conjures images of the biblical shepherds attending the manger at the birth of Jesus with a simple, folk-like and lyrical melody (reminiscent of shepherd pipes) accompanied by sustained bagpipe-like drones on the lower instruments.