Who was Francesco Navara?

The Two Sinfonias/Sonatas of Francesco Navara

 Very little is known about Francesco Navara and it appears that these two works are the only pieces to have survived him.  He was evidently a composer of sufficient stature to secure the post of Maestro di Cappella to the Gonzaga court of Mantua from 1695 until 1699 when he was succeeded by Antonio Caldara.  Paola Besutti’s study of the musical court of the last duke of the Gonzagas reveals a lengthy list of operas and oratorios performed throughout this period, but alas, it is only with the arrival of the eighteenth century that the composers for these grand entertainments are recorded with any frequency.  It is therefore impossible to ascertain how many of these were by Navara; his only known opera is Basilio Re D’Oriente, which was performed at the Teatro S. Cassiano in Venice, 1696. 

 These two sonatas/sinfonias survive in Durham Cathedral Library as part of a collection of numerous late 17th and early 18th century Italian instrumental compositions which contain a substantial amount of music by other composers with Mantuan connections, Tomaso Albinoni and Marc’Antonio Ziani.  MS M.175 contains a score of these works whilst MS M.193 holds a set of parts, although sadly the tenor viola part is missing.  The parts, which are in the north European portrait format, were probably copied from the scores which are in the Italian oblong format and in a different hand.  The scores possibly hail from a source close to the composer judging from the high degree of accuracy on behalf of the copyist and also due to the biographical information contained therein; the work in a minor records the date of 1697 and his post at the Mantuan court – Maestro di Cappella di S.A.S. di Mantova, whilst the work in C is inscribed Fatta per la Signora Cati, probably alluding to one of the ladies of the court.

 The confusion caused by the differing titles of these works, (the scores refer to them as sinfonias, the parts as sonatas,) was a common anomaly of the time.  To an extent, the two titles were interchangeable; Albinoni’s opus 2, published in 1700, contains six sonatas which are advertised on the part covers as sinfonias.  Similarly, the same composer’s sinfonia to his opera Zenobia, regina de’Palmireni also survives elsewhere under the titles Sonata di concerto à VII vocibus and Sonata con violini e tromba a 6.

 Both works are fine examples of the late seventeenth century Italian ensemble sonata and are scored for the popular north Italian consort of 2 violins, alto viola, tenor viola, and bass.  The bass sometimes splits into two parts, one for bowed bass (violoncello) and the other for keyboard (harpsichord or organ) which sometimes drops down the octave, a practice often encountered at this time in the music of Albinoni, Legrenzi and Ruggieri.  It is also possible that this is evidence of the growing popularity of the violoncello over its slightly larger counterpart the bass violin.  Owing to the stringing limitations of the time, the bass violin with its greater size could attain a better sound at the bottom of its register, whilst the smaller cello sounded better in the upper half of its register and had a greater dexterity.  This problem disappeared with the advent of wound strings enabling the smaller instrument to gain a rich tone quality in its lower registers.

 There are many similarities between the two works in their structure; both have a slow stately opening followed by a faster contrapuntal binary movement (each section ending in the tonic), before another slow section and a concluding galliard-type finale where the importance of the viola parts is diminished, their function shifting from melodic to rhythmic instruments.  Again, similarities can be drawn with Navara’s slightly younger contemporary, Albinoni.  Whilst the Venetian’s ensemble sonatas are undoubtedly written in a more contemporary style, Albinoni retains the slow-fast-slow-fast plan with the most daring contrapuntal exploits occurring in the second movement.  The finales bear the greatest resemblance to dance movements, paying token lip-service to elementary counterpoint.  Indeed, there is a hangover from this style discernible even among some early concertos of Vivaldi including his concerto for violin in F, RV 292 and the eleventh concerto of his opus 3, L’estro armonico, RV 565.

 Barring any major discoveries, the life of Francesco Navara is likely to remain shrouded in mystery.   However, these two gems deserve a place on the 21st century concert platform, not only because of the quality of their musical content, but also due to their place in the history of the ensemble sonata to which the emergence of the concerto owed so much.  We can only hope that as with other famous composers to have passed through the Mantuan court, Monteverdi, Buonamente, Caldara, Albinoni and Vivaldi, the passage of time will be revealed to have been a little kinder to Navara than was at first thought.

 These two works are available on CD as part of The Rise of the North Italian Violin Concerto Vol.1 (AV2106) and the music, edited by Adrian Chandler, is available from HH Editions.

 © Adrian Chandler

Published on January 8th, 2011 • Back to all articles

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