Born at Lucca, he received lessons in music from Alessandro Scarlatti, and studied the violin under Carlo Ambrogio Lonati in Milan and afterwards under Arcangelo Corelli. From 1707 he took the place of his father in the Cappella Palatina of Lucca. From 1711, he led the opera orchestra at Naples, as Leader of the Opera Orchestra and concertmaster, which gave him many opportunities for contact with Alessandro Scarlatti. After a brief return to Lucca, in 1714, he set off for London in the company of Francesco Barsanti, where he arrived with the reputation of a virtuoso violinist, and soon attracted attention and patrons, including William Capel, 3rd Earl of Essex, who remained a consistent patron. In 1715 Geminiani played his violin concerti for the court of George I, with Handel at the keyboard. In the mid 1720s he became a freemason in London, notably as a leading member of the short-lived lodge Philo-musicae at -architecturae societas (1725-7) at the Queen's Head tavern on Fleet Street. He seems to have retained his masonic connections thereafter.
Geminiani made a living by teaching and writing music, and tried to keep pace with his passion for collecting by dealing in art, not always successfully. Many of his students went on to have successful careers, such as Charles Avison, Matthew Dubourg, Michael Christian Festing, Bernhard Joachim Hagen and Cecilia Young. See: List of music students by teacher: G to J#Francesco Geminiani.
After visiting Paris and residing there for some time, he returned to England in 1755. In 1761, on one of his sojourns in Dublin, a servant robbed him of a musical manuscript on which he had bestowed much time and labour. His vexation at this loss is said to have hastened his death.
He appears to have been a first-rate violinist. His Italian pupils reportedly called him Il Furibondo, the Madman, because of his expressive rhythms.
Geminiani's most well-known compositions are three sets of concerti grossi; his Opus 2 (1732), Opus 3 (1733) and Opus 7 (1746), (there are 42 concerti in all) which introduce the viola as a member of the concertino group of soloists, making them essentially concerti for string quartet. These works are deeply contrapuntal to please a London audience still in love with Corelli, compared to the galant work that was fashionable on the Continent at the time of their composition. Geminiani also reworked his teacher Corelli's Opp. 1, 3 and 5 into concerti grossi.
Geminiani's significance today is largely due to his 1751 treatise Art of Playing the Violin, published in London, which is the best known summation of the 18th-century Italian method of violin playing and is an invaluable source for the study of late Baroque performance practice. The book is in the form of 24 exercises accompanied by a relatively short but extremely informative section of text, giving detailed instructions on articulation, trills and other ornaments, shifting between positions, and other aspects of left- and right-hand violin technique. The instructions in this treatise are famously opposed to those expressed by Leopold Mozart in his Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing (1756) on several issues, including on bow hold, use of vibrato, and the so-called "rule of the down-bow", which states that the first beat of every bar must be played with a down-stroke.
His Guida harmonica (c. 1752, with an addendum in 1756) is one of the most unusual harmony treatises of the late Baroque, serving as a sort of encyclopedia of basso continuo patterns and realizations. There are 2,236 patterns in all, and at the end of each pattern is a page number reference for a potential next pattern; thus a student composer studying the book would have an idea of all the subsequent possibilities available after any given short bass line.
Geminiani also published a number of solos for the violin, three sets of violin concerti, twelve violin trios, The Art of Accompaniment on the Harpsichord, Organ, etc. (1754), Lessons for the Harpsichord, Art of Playing the Guitar or Cittra (1760) and some other works.
Geminiani's compositions are noted for their imagination, expression, and warmth, but also for their lack of discipline and for under-development. Charles Burney took Geminiani to task for irregular melodic structure. Hawkins, on the other hand, was of the opinion that Geminiani's approach represented an important advance in composition. "That we are at this time in a state of emancipation from the bondage of laws imposed without authority, is owing to a new investigation of the principles of harmony, and the studies of a class of musicians, of whom Geminiani seems to have been the chief.... It is observable upon the works of Geminiani, that his modulations are not only original, but that his harmonies consist of such combinations as were never introduced into music till his time. The rules of transition from one key to another, which are laid down by those who have written on the composition of music, he not only disregarded, but objected to as an unnecessary restraint on the powers of invention. He has been frequently heard to say, that the cadences in the fifth, the third, and the sixth of the key which occur in the works of Corelli, were rendered too familiar to the ear by the frequent repetition of them. And it seems to have been the study of his life, by a liberal use of the semitonic intervals, to increase the number of harmonic combinations; and into melody to introduce a greater variety than it was otherwise capable of." (Hawkins, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music Vol. 5, T. Payne & Sons, London, 1776, p. 389 et seq.).
- He was possibly born 3 December, the feast day of St Francis Xavier.
- Andrew Pink 'A music club for freemasons: Philo-musicae et -architecturae societas Apollini, London, 1725-1727'. Early Music , volume 38, issue 4 (2010) pp. 523-536, website accessed 2 April 2016
- Andrew Pink. 'Francesco Geminiani and Freemasonry' in Hogwood, C (Ed) Geminiani Studies (Series: Ad Parnassum Studies vol. 6). Ut Orpheus Edizione : Bologna (2013); website accessed 2 April 2016.
- Halbreich, Harry. Concerti Grossi, Op. 7 (LP Record). I Solisti Veneti conducted by Claudio Scimone. New York: Musical Heritage Society. MHS 1142.
Hawkins, Sir John: A General History of the Science and Practice of Music Vol. 5, T. Payne & Sons, London, 1776.
- This entry incorporates corrected and expanded material originally from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.