Of the three great composers born in 1685—Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti—one was described by no less than Ludwig van Beethoven in this way: “the master of us all… the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” We in our time might assume that he was talking about Bach, but in fact he was speaking of Handel; and Beethoven’s exalted opinion of Handel was shared by his older contemporaries Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven was certainly aware of Bach’s mastery of intricate counterpoint and of harmony, having studied Bach’s music in great depth during his student years; but what he found so compelling in Handel’s music was the direct simplicity of expression that nevertheless carried great emotional power.

The differences between the modes of expression of Handel and Bach are doubtless the result of different personalities, about which we can say or know little, but must also have been influenced by very dissimilar circumstances of their lives. Bach belonged to the fifth generation of a family of town- and church-musicians with a very strong tradition, whereas Handel was the only member of his family to pursue music as a career (his father was a barber-surgeon, who forbade his son to study music seriously) and so had to find his own way. Bach worked throughout his career in either church or court, obliged to satisfy only his God or his noble patron. Handel was a man of the theater, who sought to move his audiences, and to retain them; in this regard Handel was very much a more modern man. It could well be argued that Handel (not Beethoven, nor Mozart) was the first to break free from the ancient system of noble or ecclesiastical patronage under which all previous composers (and many afterward) worked. Handel achieved great success—and also notable failure—in the theater, with his operas and then his oratorios, but at a significant price: a stroke when he was only fifty-two, and more than one nervous breakdown.

By far the greater part of Handel’s output was his dramatic work, the operas and the oratorios. Of his instrumental music, the best-known are found in four sets: the Water Music (first performed 1717, but not published until 1733), the Six Concerti Grossi op. 3 (1734), the Twelve Grand Concertos in 7 Parts, op. 6 (1739), and the Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749); there are also three sets of organ concertos (Op. 4 from 1738; two from 1739 and published the next year without opus number; and Op. 7 published posthumously in 1761).

The Twelve Grand Concertos, op. 6, were created in a very short time, a 30-day period in the fall of 1739, a feat of inspiration and concentration that rivals the composition of Messiah in only a few weeks of 1741. They are generally accepted to be the ultimate achievement in the Baroque concerto grosso, along with Bach’s six “Brandenburg” Concerti, but they resemble the “Brandenburgs” only in quality, not in form or structure. Whereas Bach used a strikingly different palette of tone-colors for each of his concerti, Handel used the same orchestra, only strings, divided into a four-part ripieno and a three-part solo ensemble, for all twelve concertos. Also, whereas Bach modeled his concertos on the three-movement format of Vivaldi, Handel’s concertos resemble the more flexible format of Corelli’s concerti grossi—hardly an accident, since Handel knew and worked with Corelli during his five-year stay in Italy. The D- major concerto, no. 5 in the set, has six movements. The moderate first movement, characterized by jagged rhythms, leads to a fast second movement, which in turn leads to an even faster third movement. The fourth movement is a broad Largo based on three descending notes, which leads to a rollicking Allegro; it is completed by Menuet with two variations.

The concerto for solo keyboard-instrument and orchestra was created virtually simultaneously by Bach and Handel in the 1730’s, in both cases to feature themselves before public audiences. Bach invented the harpsichord concerto to play with his Leipzig Collegium Musicum, and Handel invented the organ concerto as a way to bring in audiences for his oratorios. The Concerto in F which bears the nickname “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” was composed to be played in between the first and second acts of the oratorio Israel in Egypt in 1739—the same year in which Handel created his Opus 6 concertos. It gets its nickname from the bird-like motives in the second movement. Because Handel intended all of his organ concerti for himself to play, and because he was known throughout Europe as a great improviser, he often left entire movements blank, marking them only “ad libitum organo,” as is the third movement of this concerto. One of his keyboard pieces is used to fill in the gap.

The Six Concerti grossi, op. 3 were actually assembled not by Handel, but by his publisher John Walsh, apparently with only minimal supervision by the composer. (The first concerto in the set suggests this rather strongly, since it ends in the wrong key.) Unlike the concerti in Opus 6, these early ones call for oboes and bassoon as a necessary part of the orchestra. The second concerto in the set begins with a dramatic declaration of the tonality, and proceeds by combining the declamatory idea with rapid figuration. A brief connecting passage leads to a slow movement which highlights two cellos in dialogue with each other, surmounted by a cantilena in the solo first violin. A lively fugue follows, and then two dance-movements—a passepied (like a fast menuet) and a gavotte with two variations.

According to a well-known story, made known in the first biography of Handel published shortly after his death, his Water Music was composed in 1717 for the new King of Great Britain, George I, in an attempt to regain the new king’s favor. In 1710 Handel asked his new employer, the Elector of Hanover, for leave of absence to travel to London to produce some new operas. The Elector gave him leave for only a few years, but in 1714, when it was clear to all the Handel had no intention of returning to Germany, his employer instead moved to London as the successor to his recently-deceased cousin Queen Anne. No doubt Handel was acutely aware of the awkwardness of his position (especially since he was the recipient of grant of 200 pounds per year from the late Queen), and wished to continue in the good graces of the Crown. He composed three suites to be performed in the King’s presence while on a boating party on the Thames. The suite in F major uses oboes and horns in addition to the normal complement of strings. Although a harpsichord would not have been used on board the boats in 1717, it is called for in the first publication in 1733. The final two movements, usually heard in the key of D with trumpets, are here heard in an alternate version that also circulated at that time for horns without trumpets, and in the key of F.

The Chaconne in G originally was composed for harpsichord alone. However, Handel’s music for harpsichord often displays an orchestral sensibility in its textures; since he was himself a frequent recycler of his own music (and that of other composers), creating an orchestral version of the piece is within the style, and enables modern audiences to experience a seldom-heard but major composition.

©Daniel Pyle 2009