Among Handel’s most popular instrumental works are the twelve concerti grossi, opus 6 of 1739 published under the English title “Grand Concertos,” and the six in opus 3, published in 1734, which are known as the “oboe” concertos. While we know from the autograph manuscripts that all the Grand Concertos of opus 6 were composed during September and October of 1739, we are uncertain about the compositional dates for the works in opus 3.

The opus 6 Grand Concertos, composed for a string orchestra with a solo group of two violins and cello, form a corpus of masterpieces that represent the culmination of the concerto grosso genre already firmly established by the works of the Italian violinist-composers such as Corelli, Torelli, and Vivaldi. These dozen works are varied in texture and sonority, and rich in content in every way: melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, emotionally, structurally.
Grand Concerto in E Minor, Op. 6, No. 3 begins with a somber movement of four antiphonal phrases that leads without interruption to a fugal second movement. The allegro and polonaise movements that follow accentuate the contrast between the alternating solo and tutti sections not just by disparate instrumental forces but also by different thematic material reinforced by clear cadential boundaries. The tutti sections of the polonaise also feature a drone-like accompaniment from the low strings, which gives it a touch of the pastoral. Surprisingly, the last movement is a witty gigue expressed in quirky phrases, and in an extremely asymmetrical binary form in which the truncated first half has only four measures.

Grand Concerto in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 6 is one of four concertos in the collection for which Handel provided in later years a re-orchestrated version with two oboes added. (The others are Nos. 1, 2, and 5.) Our performance today of Concerto No. 6 will be in this later version. Although the presence of the oboes adds instrumental color to the orchestral sections, it does not introduce any substantive musical changes to the work. Because of the similarity in structure and content between Concerto No. 3 and No. 6, I have programmed them in this concert in order to provide a live comparison between the sonorities of the two instrumental versions.

The Grand Concerto No. 6 in G Minor, like No. 3, also has five movements, beginning with a somewhat tragic first movement that is followed by a fugue with an unusually chromatic theme. The third movement Larghetto is a lengthy Musette in four sections. The first section is a pastorale with a frequent drone-like accompaniment. The second is mainly a leisurely Italian dance in triple time featuring the Lombard rhythm. The third is for strings alone, and the fourth is a repeat of the second. The fourth movement Allegro consists of three different sonorities: one of the full orchestra of strings and oboes, one of the string orchestra, and and one of a solo violin accompanied by only strings. The finale is a gigue-like dance for the full orchestra.

The six concertos in opus 3 have been called the “oboe concertos” ever since they were published by John Walsh in 1734, because they contain important oboes parts. They are not oboe concertos in the modern sense: works for a solo oboe accompanied by orchestra. Handel experts have considered these to be new guises of older works dating back to 1710-1720. It is very likely that Handel’s recycling of earlier works for a new set of concertos was done in quick response to the publisher’s desire to capitalize on the demand for music in this popular concerto grosso genre.

The third concerto in G Major in this set is for oboe or flute solo, violin solo, strings and continuo. For the sake of variety, we are performing it with a flute solo in this concert. In contrast to the two Grand Concertos from opus 6, this concerto is unique in its formal scheme, consisting of two fugues, each preceded by a slow introduction. The first movement has only nine “staccato” chords followed by a three-chord cadence, upon which the flute improvises a melodic fragment. This leads into a fugue, in which the solo flute and solo violin appear in turn as soloist during the episodes. The Adagio third movement for flute solo is, in spite of its brevity, the moment of lyrical beauty in this work. The concerto ends with a jocular fugal finale.

One could consider Handel as the inventor of the organ concerto in England, for his six concertos in opus 4, composed during the 1730s, were the first such works heard in England. The original purpose for the creation of these concertos was not for independent concert performance, but rather to serve as added attractions to the performance of his oratorios, with the composer himself as the organ soloist. Handel composed at least 18 organ concertos. Regardless of their utilitarian origin, they have in the course of time become an important part of the organist’s solo repertoire.

Concerto in F Major, Op. 4, No. 4 is a four-movement work in which two bright and happy Allegro movements enclosed two serene and expressive movements for the solo organ. In the first movement, the frequent unison texture of the orchestral sections serves to enhance the brilliance and richness of the solo passages. In the second movement, the organ solo is supported by an unobtrusive accompaniment of only strings, marked pianissimo throughout, without the continuo keyboard. The accompaniment is reduced further to nothing in the third movement, with the organ playing alone. The orchestra returns to join the organ in a cheerful finale, the theme of which resembles that of the final movement in Concerto Op. 3, No. 3 in the presence of a measure of repeated notes.

Missa Brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo by Joseph Haydn is a short mass for chorus with soprano solo, string orchestra, and organ solo. It was composed for the Chapel of the Brothers of Mercy in Eisenstadt, and dedicated to their Patron Saint, Sancti Joannis de Deo. For its first performance at the Chapel Haydn himself played the organ solo part. Since the autographed manuscript is undated, we are uncertain about the date of this mass. Other sources of this work seem to suggest that it was composed in 1778 or a little earlier.

In spite of its brevity, this Missa Brevis is rich in its variety of musical textures and inventive musical ideas. In the Kyrie and Gloria there is the successful merging of brilliant instrumental idioms with choral declamation, which, though independent and seemingly different in character, are based on the same melodic outline and harmonic background. The Credo is in three sections. The first, marked Allegro, pits the trio-sonata texture of the strings against polyphonic texture of the chorus. The second, Adagio, is a homophonic section for the chorus accompanied by the orchestra, with the violins playing mostly broken-chord figures upon a steady bass line of repeated eighth-notes. The third, Allegro, is the re-appearance of the music of the Gloria, but beginning in g minor instead of in B-flat major. It is interesting to note that in both the Gloria and Credo movements, Haydn accommodated the entire text to the comparative brevity of the music by conflating different lines of the sung text, thus the four voices of the chorus sing different words simultaneously.

The Sanctus is a four-voice fughetta with just two expositions. Instrumentally, the violins double the soprano and alto parts, while the cello and violone double the bass part. The Benedictus, the longest movement in this mass, is a duet for solo soprano and organ. It is a musical dialogue of expressive, elegant, and ornate melodic lines, with substantial support from the string orchestra. This music of blessedness is followed unexpectedly by the return of the music from the final episode of the preceding Sanctus, now with the chorus singing “Osanna in excelsis.”

Haydn must have intended the Agnus Dei, marked Adagio, to be an ultra dramatic ending to this short but sophisticated work, for it is the only movement that is meticulously and fully supplied with dynamic markings that call for the frequent alternation of loud and soft. The movement ends magically with the repetition of a nine-measure phrase followed by a six-measure cadence that together encompass the entire dynamic range of the performing forces. The first time begins with fortissimo for “Agnus Dei” and ends with piano for “dona nobis pacem,” and the second time begins with forte for “Agnus Dei” and ends with pianissimo for “dona nobis pacem.” The conclusion after this dramatic utterance is the repetition of “dona pacem” in six measures marked pianissimo for the chorus and perdendosi for the orchestra.

©2007 John Hsu