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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Concerti grossi, Op.3
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 sons early musical ambitions and after his fathers 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.
Handels 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 Handels 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. Handels 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 composers continued popularity and dominance, particularly, after his death, with the wider development of choral singing in the nineteenth century. Handels 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 composers 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 the Concerti Grossi, Opus 3, is not known. The concertos draw on Italian, French and German styles of the period, although, as a set, they lack the planned consistency of the later Concerti Grossi, Opus 6. Nevertheless there is considerable originality in the varied collection, which was published in London in 1734 by John Walsh. The concertos were said by Sir John Hawkins to have been performed for the wedding celebrations of the Princess Royal and the Prince of Orange in March 1734. It has also been suggested that they represented Handels contribution to the court music of Hanover in 1711, but this remains pure conjecture.
The first of the set, in B flat major, provides some justification for the popular English description of these works as oboe concertos. The concerto uses two oboes and a solo violin, providing, with the continuo, the concertino or small solo group, contrasted with the ripieno main body of the orchestra, which provides the recurrent ritornello that serves to frame the solo sections. The G minor slow movement uses a solo group of two flutes, oboe and violin, with French double-dotting, a feature that Corelli, in Rome, had found foreign in Handels style. In fact, like Bach and other German composers of the time, Handel offers a synthesis of Italian, French and German, with an operatic leaning towards the first of these. The last movement, in G minor, makes significant use of a pair of solo bassoons, but the choice of key suggests a certain element of chance in the assembling of the composition for publication.
The second concerto makes use of a concertino group of two solo violins and continuo in the B flat major first movement, while the second, in G minor, allows initial interest to fall on the two cellos that provide a moving element in the accompaniment of a solo oboe aria. The fugal movement in B flat that follows was used to introduce the Brockes Passion first performed in Hamburg in 1716. Here this leads to a dance-like movement in which two oboes and solo violin, with the bass line entrusted to the bassoon, a possible choice, provide the solo group. Something of the French suite is continued in the final movement, with its theme returning in varied repetitions and finally with a lively accompanying triplet rhythm.
Material used in the G major third concerto is also found in one of the Chandos Anthems, written in 1717-1718, in the so-called Chandos Te Deum and in Handels keyboard works. There is a short slow introduction to the first movement, scored for a solo group of flute and violin. The flute provides the melodic interest of the brief E minor Adagio that forms an introduction to the extended fugue with which the concerto ends.
A French overture opens the fourth concerto, in F major, with a stately double-dotted introductory section followed by a lively fugue, with no use of a concertino section. The next movement makes use of a solo oboe which often doubles the first violin, a procedure followed with the two oboes in the opening of the following fugal Allegro, which goes on to use a solo group of two oboes and two violins. A Minuet, with a second Minuet in the tenor register, ends a concerto which uses material that had appeared in the overture to the 1716 opera Amadigi and in a Birthday Ode for Queen Anne.
There is much of the French overture style about the fifth concerto, with its more extended slow introductory section leading to a fugue. A short Adagio leads to a further fugal movement and a final dance movement in which the first section returns in repetition. Here Handel makes use again of elements that had appeared earlier in the Chandos Anthems.
In the first of the two movements that make up the last concerto of the set, two oboes and bassoon appear in brief solo passages. The movement had been used in 1723 in the opera Ottone. The second movement is scored for the usual orchestra, but now with a solo organ part, a foretaste of the organ concertos that Handel inserted into his oratorio performances in the following years.