|About this Recording
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
George Frideric Handel was born in Halle in 1685, the son of a successful barber-surgeon and his much younger, second wife. His father opposed his son’s early musical ambitions and after his father’s death Handel duly matriculated at the University in Halle in February 1702, as his father had insisted. He was able to seize the chance of employment as organist at the Calvinist Cathedral the following month, holding the position for a year, until his departure for Hamburg. There he worked at the opera, at first as a violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer, contributing in the latter capacity to the Italian operatic repertoire of the house. At the invitation of the son of the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, he travelled, in 1706, to Italy, where he won considerable success during the next four years. Connections he had made in Venice, brought appointment in 1710 as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. From here he was granted immediate leave to fulfil a commission in London.
Handel’s first opera for London was Rinaldo, with which he won general acclaim, and after little over a year in Hanover again, he returned to England in the autumn of 1712. The following year he took up residence at Burlington House in Piccadilly as a guest of Lord Burlington. He had, at the same time, accepted a commission from Queen Anne for his first contributions to the English liturgy, settings of the Te Deum and Jubilate in celebration of the Peace of Utrecht. After a brief period in Germany in the summer of 1716, Handel returned to England, joining the establishment of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (sic) and later Duke of Chandos, at Cannons, near Edgware. Principally, over the following years, Handel established himself as a composer of Italian opera, for which there was a fashionable audience, gradually achieving a dominant position in the musical life of the English capital. He enjoyed the royal patronage of George I, Elector of Hanover, who had succeeded to the English throne in 1715, on the death of Queen Anne, and on the death of the former in 1727 was commissioned to provide anthems for the coronation of George II. In the following years he was again called upon to provide music for royal occasions. At the same time his involvement with Italian opera brought increasing commercial difficulties, particularly after the establishment of a rival opera company in 1733 under the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, himself later a strong supporter of Handel.
While Handel’s work in Italian opera continued, with a final opera to be staged in 1741, he increasingly turned his attention to a new English form, that of the oratorio. This had certain very practical advantages, in language, lack of the need for expensive spectacle and the increasing employment of native singers. The content of oratorios appealed to English Protestant susceptibilities, providing a winning synthesis of religion and entertainment, and offering no offence to those who had found operatic conventions ridiculous in a city with strong pre-existent dramatic traditions. Handel’s first English oratorio, in 1732, was Esther, with a libretto based on Racine, followed, in 1733, by the biblical Deborah in March and in July Athalia. During the following years he continued to develop the form, chiefly on biblical subjects but with an occasional excursion into the mythological. These works, with their Italianate melodies, strong choral writing and demonstrable dramatic sense, ensured their composer’s continued popularity and dominance, particularly, after his death, with the wider development of choral singing in the nineteenth century. Handel’s most famous oratorio, Messiah, was first performed in 1742, his last, Jephtha, ten years later. While Messiah may be exceptional in its ambitious subject, most treat narratives derived from the Old Testament, well characterized by the composer’s own descriptive title of them as sacred dramas.
Handel died in London in April 1759 and was buried, as he had requested, in Westminster Abbey. There he was commemorated three years later by an imaginative and slightly improbable monument by Louis François Roubiliac, who had provided, thirty years before, a statue of the composer for the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall. In the Abbey he is represented in his night-cap and slippers, in the guise of Apollo, an indication of his popular reputation. His funeral drew a crowd of some three thousand mourners, while posthumous Handel celebrations could muster a similar audience in the Abbey, with a proportionate number of performers.
According to the general custom of the time, Handel did not hesitate to borrow from other composers or, more often, from his own earlier work, when occasion arose for material to be used again. The date of composition of his earlier set of Concerti Grossi, Op. 3, is not known. These six concertos were published in London in 1734 by John Walsh and draw on Italian, French and German styles of the period, derived from various sources. Handel’s Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, published by the younger John Walsh in 1740, form a coherent and planned set of twelve works. They were written more or less in the order in which they appeared in publication, scored for a concertino solo group of two violins and cello, contrasted, in traditional concerto grosso style, with the main body of the string orchestra and continuo, the ripieno. Handel later began to add oboe parts, perhaps for theatre use, but these were never completed.
The Concerto Grosso in G major, Op. 6, No. 1, starts with a movement apparently derived from a planned overture to the opera Imeneo, its final dominant chord leading directly to the following Allegro, with its continuing contrasts between concertino and ripieno. An E minor Adagio leads to a fugal Allegro and a final dance-like movement in 6/8.
The Concerto Grosso in A minor, Op. 6, No. 4, opens with a slow movement, variously marked by Handel, who eventually removed the word Larghetto, leaving the simple direction Affettuoso. The movement is followed by a fugal Allegro, with a third movement in F and in a gently lilting 3/2. The concerto ends with a spirited Allegro.
The Concerto Grosso in B flat major, Op. 6, No. 7, is introduced by a short Largo, leading to a fugal Allegro. A G minor Largo is followed by an Andante in which the original key is restored, the whole concerto capped by an essentially English dance, a Hornpipe.
The Concerto in D minor, Op. 6, No. 10, starts with a French overture, the first part in the traditional slow dotted rhythms of the form, capped by a fugal Allegro, which ends, as it should, with a return to the rhythms and pace of the introduction. This leads to an Air, a slow movement replete with dynamic contrasts. A short Allegro follows, leading to a fugal movement in which the concertino again has an independent part to play. The concerto ends in a D major Allegro moderato, a concluding dance.
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