About this Recording
8.550069 - HANDEL: Famous Organ Concertos

There is an element of paradox about Handel's career

There is an element of paradox about Handel's career. Born in Halle in 1685, the son of a distinguished and elderly barber-surgeon, he gave up other studies in order to become a musician, working first in Hamburg at the opera, as composer and harpsichordist. From there he moved to the source of all opera, Italy, where he made a name for himself as a composer and a performer. A meeting in Venice with Baron Kielmansegge led him to Hanover as Kapellrneister, and from there, almost immediately, to London, where he was invited to provide music for the newly established Italian opera. It was primarily as a composer of Italian opera that Handel made his early reputation in England.


Xenophobia has always run strong in England, and while ready, in the interests of Protestantism, to accept a German kin~ as successor to Queen Anne, the public was less whole-hearted in its support of foreign opera. Common sense found some objection to the form, supported by the strong literary and dramatic traditions of the country. It seemed that The Beggar's Opera, a political parody of grand opera, in the satirical vein of Henry Fielding's Jonathan Wild, appealed to a much wider public, than any foreign entertainment ever could.


Handel was deeply concerned in the business of Italian opera, and when rivalry of an opposing company and fickle popular taste suggested the need for change, he turned instead to a form of music that seemed admirably suited to London audiences. English oratorio provided what was essentially an operatic entertainment, at least as far as the music was concerned. It had the advantage, however, of being in English, and the further attraction of an appeal, through its choice of subjects, to Protestant proclivities.


Although Handel's oratorios were to fascinate generation after generation of

English choral singers and exercise an effect so overwhelming as to paralyse English musical creativity, in their own time they suffered variable fortunes at the box-office. There were critics who found something unsuitable in the mixture of sacred and secular, and audiences came and went as fashions changed froU1 season to season: In the end, though, it was the creation of this new and peculiarly English artistic and religious compromise that ensured Handel's lasting fame.


The organ concertos were designed to fill intervals in the oratorio performances, works in which the composer could display his virtuosity, which he generally did by introducing each concerto with an improvised voluntary. Handel continued to play organ concertos even after he had lost his sight, either trusting his memory for older concertos or improvising the solo parts of new concertos, while the players of the orchestra supplied the skeleton frame-work of ritornelli between solo passages.


The rust set of organ concertos was published in 1738 by Walsh as Opus 4. It consists of six concertos rust performed in 1735 and 1736. The Concerto in B Flat, Opus 4 No.2, was played for the first time on 5th March, 1735, with the oratorio Esther and three weeks later the Concerto in F, Opus 4 No. 5 was played in the intervals of performances of Deborah. The rust of these concertos opens with a brief introduction followed by a lively Allegro. A third movement serves as little more than a brief, improvisatory prelude to the cheerful final Allegro.

The fourth concerto of Opus 4 was rust performed in 1735 with Handel's Athalia, a version of the tragedy by Racine. This work had had its first performance at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, to the dismay of more conservative members of the academic establishment, one of whom referred in his diary to "Handel and (his lowsy crew) a great number of foreign fidlers", while another objected that the theatre was "prostituted to a Company of squeeking, bawling, out-landish Singsters". The oratorio was revised for London in 1735, the occasion of the present concerto. The work opens with an Allegro, the orchestra offering a brief introduction before the entry of the soloist and providing a skeletal framework for what follows. The organ introduces the second movement, which is followed by a short Adagio linking it with the final Allegro. The next concerto in the collection of 1738, the Concerto in F, Opus 4 No.5 has a Larghetto opening movement, followed by a brief Allegro, in which the orchestra offers the sketchiest of frameworks for the solo organ. A pastoral Siciliana follows, leading to a final gigue, with the parts shared as in the second movement.


A further set of six organ concertos was published by Walsh in 1761, two years after Handel's death. The first of the set, the Concerto in B Flat, was first performed in February, 1740, with L 'Allegro, adapted from Milton by Charles Jennens, who provided the text for Messiah. It opens with a more extended rust movement, in which organ and orchestra are more closely integrated. The organ introduces the second movement, alternating with the orchestra, and the gentle third movement is followed by a final brisk Bourree. This concerto is the only one to demand an organ with pedals, and presumably such an instrument was available at Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre, where L' Allegro was performed.


The Concerto in F, generally known as "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale", was published in 1740. It was rust performed with the oratorio Israel in Egypt in

1739, and may seem singularly inappropriate as an accompaniment to such a weighty subject. The concerto opens with the usual slow introduction, followed by a movement in which the cuckoo is all too apparent, the nightingale entering later in the proceedings. There is a pastoral third movement, introduced by an organ improvisation, and followed by a vigorous final Allegro.


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