About this Recording
8.573397 - HANDEL, G.F.: Keyboard Suites, Vol. 2 (P.E. Fisher) - Nos. 5-8

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Keyboard Suites Vol. 2, Nos. 5–8


‘Keyboard’ in the first half of the eighteenth century could refer to any one of a number of instruments; harpsichords, clavichords, organs, spinets and even early fortepianos all fell under the keyboard umbrella, and they could be further subdivided into different types. They also served a variety of functions, from continuo parts to church music to personal use. The clavichord, for instance, was cheaper and more intimate than the harpsichord, and was often found in private homes. Handel, himself an astonishingly gifted keyboardist, commended by contemporaries for his brilliance and energy, noted that the clavichord was an ideal instrument for a beginner. In London, where Handel worked for much of his life and gained the greater part of his renown, keyboards were increasingly becoming part of everyday life for the aristocracy and burgeoning middle class. It is difficult to know exactly how many people in the early eighteenth century owned one (of whatever description), but inventories around the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666 put the figure at just under a tenth of households—a small but significant number that continued to rise throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. There was a substantial market for instruments, music lessons and sheet music—more than a hundred instruction books appeared across the course of the century, which also saw an explosion in the number of sheet music publishing companies.

As London’s power and influence grew, it became a cultural centre as well as an economic and political one. Participation in musical life was not simply a question of taste but also of social standing, and talented musicians were in high demand. Foreign composers and performers came from across Europe to make their names, Handel among them, and many used their keyboard pieces to teach students and impress friends and potential patrons, only later publishing them for a more general audience. Handel, for instance, taught several royal pupils, and his concerts garnered him a fearsome reputation as a keyboardist. According to one contemporary account, at an aristocratic soiree in Rome in 1707 (during Handel’s travels around Italy), he sat down to play with his hat under his arm, and performed with such skill that certain members of his astonished audience suspected that the hat might be the source of some sort of diabolical power. When this was surreptitiously communicated to Handel, he played along by dropping the hat at a propitious moment then continuing to play as virtuosically as ever.

Handel composed keyboard music in many genres—not just suites, but sonatas, fugues, fantasies and many other pieces. The keyboard suites of 1720, or the ‘eight great suites’ as they are sometimes known, were composed over several years prior to their publication, and chronicle the development of Handel’s musical style over this time. Some date from the period when he was working in Hamburg, some from his early years in England (presumably whilst he was staying at Cannons, the Duke of Chandos’s residence), but most appear to have been completed by 1717. Many sections were revised for publication, however, and a number of entirely new movements were added. These were perhaps not solely aesthetically motivated; in his preface to the edition, Handel commented somewhat acidly that, ‘I have been obliged to publish some of the following lessons because surreptitious and incorrect copies of them had got abroad. I have added several new ones to make the work more useful, which if it meets with a favourable reception, I will still proceed to publish more, reckoning it my duty, with my small talent, to serve a nation from which I have received so generous a protection.’ In revising the suites, then, Handel may well have been trying to stay one step ahead of his imitators and give the music-buying public a reason to purchase the genuine article. Although the Copyright Act of 1709 had, in theory, ensured that authors would earn royalties from publication of their work, in practice it was difficult to enforce, and piracy remained widespread throughout the eighteenth century. In the same year that his ‘eight great suites’ were published, Handel secured a Royal Privilege, which was intended to protect his work from disreputable publishers.

The suites proved immensely popular, and sold extremely well—they were republished several times during Handel’s lifetime. In them a variety of styles and forms are represented, and they contain some of Handel’s most dramatic and beautiful music. The first on this disc, Suite No. 5 in E major, HWV 430, is very well known, particularly the final movement, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’. This name seems to have been a nineteenth-century invention, and was not given to it by Handel. There is a good deal of variety between the movements, from the gentle imitative counterpoint of the Prélude to the lively and elegant Courante to the final Air with its five variations, each of which becomes increasingly virtuosic as the note values decrease (quavers, semiquavers, semiquaver triplets and finally demisemiquavers) and the tension builds.

Suite No. 6 in F sharp minor, HWV 431, begins with a majestic Prélude that leads into a dignified Largo, its solemnity leavened by occasional major-mode sonorities. The Allegro follows, characterised by carefully articulated rhythms, before the suite ends with a dance-like, delicately ornamented Gigue. The first movement of Suite No. 7 in G minor, HWV 432, the Ouverture, opens in a dramatic, declamatory style, though the second half, full of nervous energy, has a rather different quality. This suite includes a number of particularly lovely movements, including the bitter-sweet Sarabande and the final, lushly textured Passacaille.

The last of Handel’s ‘eight great suites’, No. 8 in F minor, HWV 433, is another exciting work. The Allegro, a fugue, is unusually free in terms of texture, incorporating some sudden and dramatic chords when the subject enters in the bass voice, while the Gigue is characterised by wide leaps, lively rhythms and tension-building repeated bass notes. It is a fitting conclusion to a set of suites that, despite being written and revised across many years and incorporating a range of different forms and styles, somehow seems to unify them into a complete and magnificent whole.

Caroline Waight

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