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ClassicsOnline Home » HANDEL, G.F.: Organ Concertos, Op. 7, Nos. 1-3 (Lindley, Northern Sinfonia, Creswick)
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Organ Concertos, Op. 7, Nos. 1–3
There is an element of paradox about the career of George Frideric Handel. Born in Halle in 1685, the son of a distinguished and elderly barber-surgeon by his second wife, 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 performer. A meeting in Venice with Baron Kielmansegge led him to Hanover as Kapellmeister and from there, almost immediately, to London, where he was invited to provide music for the newly established Italian opera. It was, then, 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 king as successor to Queen Anne, the public was less whole-hearted in its support of foreign opera. Common sense found some objection to the artificiality of the form, supported by the strong existing 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 novel 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 Italianate 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 and texts, to Protestant religious proclivities.
Although Handel’s oratorios were to fascinate generation after generation of English choral singers and exercise an effect so overwhelming as to paralyse future 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 from 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 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 perform organ concertos even after he had lost his sight, either trusting his memory for older concertos or improvising the solo parts of new ones, while the players of the orchestra supplied the skeleton frame-work of ritornelli between solo passages.
The only organ concertos to be published in that form in Handel’s life-time were issued by Walsh in 1738 as the composer’s Opus 4. In 1761, however, two years after Handel’s death, Walsh issued a further set of organ concertos, Opus 7. The Organ Concerto in B flat major, Op. 7, No. 1, is dated 17 February 1740 and was performed by Handel on 27 February with L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, the first two parts compiled from Milton by Charles Jennens, who added the third section. The performance took place at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre and the organ concerto, scored for pairs of oboes and bassoons, with strings, is the only such work by Handel that calls for an instrument with pedals, introduced to great effect in the first movement. The organ starts the second Andante, and the D minor third movement, marked Largo e piano, is followed by a final Bourrée.
The Organ Concerto in A major, Op. 7, No. 2, is scored for an orchestra of two oboes, three violins, viola and basso continuo. It is dated 5 February 1743 and was first performed at Covent Garden on 18 February with the oratorio Samson, its text adapted from Milton by Newburgh Hamilton. The first movement is in the form of a French overture, its opening dotted rhythms followed by a fugal section. The concerto is completed by a second movement, an Allegro, which had its origin as an overture movement for Samson. This, as elsewhere, provides scope for solo display.
The Organ Concerto in B flat major, Op. 7, No. 3, scored for the same forces, is dated 4 January 1751 and was first performed at Covent Garden on 1 March with a revival of Alexander’s Feast and a first performance of The Choice of Hercules, its music adapted from Handel’s music of the previous year for Tobias Smollett’s Alceste, a work that never came to the stage. The scoring is the same as that for the second concerto of the set. The first Allegro offers an orchestral opening, which provides the substance of the ritornello passages that frame the succeeding solo episodes for the organ. This is followed by a possible improvised Adagio e Fuga, an ad libitum movement, left to the discretion of the performer. The Spiritoso is followed by a pair of Menuets.
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HANDEL, G.F.: Organ Concertos, Op. 7, Nos. 1-3 (Li...