Handel (Rolland)/The Chamber Music (Sonatas and Trios)

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Handel (Rolland) by Romain Rolland
The Chamber Music (Sonatas and Trios)

The chamber music of Handel proves to be of the same precocious maturity as his clavier music.

Six Sonatas in Trio for two oboes and harpsichord[1] appear to date from about 1696, when, he was eleven years old, and while he was still at Halle, where he wrote as he said, "like the devil," above all for the oboe, his favourite instrument. They are in four movements: adagio, allegro, adagio, allegro. The slow movements are often very short, and the second between them is sometimes a mere transition. The Sonata for Viola da Gamba, and Cembalo Concertato in C Major[2] probably belongs to 1705, when Handel was at Hamburg. It is the only one of its kind in the works of Handel, which shows him as a forerunner of Bach. The sonata is in trio form. The clavier plays a second obbligato besides the bass part, as Seiffert notes: "Ten years before Bach worked at his Sonatas with accompaniment for cembalo obbligato, Handel had already a clear perception of their value."

Three Sonatas for Flute and Bass,[3] of an elegiac grace, also perhaps date from the Halle period, and according to Chrysander seem to have been continued up to 1710 at Hanover.

But the chief instrumental chamber works written by Handel were published in London between 1732 and 1740, and they comprise three volumes:[4]

(1) Fifteen sonatas or solos for a German flute, oboe or violin, with a thorough bass for the harpsichord, or bass violin, Op. 1.
(2) Nine sonatas or trios for two violins, flutes, or oboes, with a thorough bass for the harpsichord, or violoncello, Op. 2.
(3) Seven sonatas or trios for two violins, or German flutes, with a thorough bass for the harpsichord, or violoncello, Op. 5.

The first volume contains very old pieces, of which some date from the time when Handel was at Burlington and Chandos. Others might have been intended for the Prince of Wales, whose violin teacher, John Dubourg, was a friend of Handel, as they date from about 1730. The second volume appeared at first in Amsterdam, afterwards in London with Walsh, under a French title[5] in 1733.

The third volume was composed in 1738, and published about the beginning of 1739.[6]

The first feature to notice In general is the want of definition in the choice of instruments for which this music was written. Following the same abstract aesthetic of his time, the composer left it to the players to choose the instruments. However, there was no doubt that in the first conception of Handel certain of these pieces were made for the flute, others for the violin, and others for the oboe.

In the volume Op. 1 of the solo sonatas (for the flute or oboe, or violin) with bass (harpsichord or violoncello), the usual form is generally in four movements:[7] adagio, allegro, adagio, allegro. The slow pieces are very short. Several are inspired by the airs of Italian cantatas and operas. Some of the pieces are joined together.[8] The harmony is often thin, and requires to be filled in.

The second and third volumes have a much greater value, containing trios or sonatas in two parts (for two violins, or two oboes, or two flautitraversi) with Bass (harpsichord or violoncello). All the sonatas in the second volume, with only one exception,[9] have four movements, two slow and two fast alternatively, as in the Opus I. Sometimes they are inspired by the airs of the operas, or of the oratorios; at other times they have furnished a brief sketch for them. The elegiac Largo which opens the First Sonata is found again in Alessandro, the allegro which finishes the Third Sonata forms one of the movements in the overture of Athaliah, the larghetto of the Fourth serves for the second movement of the Esther overture. Other pieces have been transferred to the clavier or other instrumental works, where they are joined to other movements. The finest of these Trios are the First and the Ninth, both of enchanting poetry. In the second movement of the Ninth Trio, Handel has utilised very happily a popular English theme.

The Seven Trios from the third volume afford a much greater variety in the style and in the number[10] of the pieces. Dances occupy a great part.[11] They are indeed veritable Suites. They were composed in the years when Handel was attracted by the form of ballet-opera. The Musette and the Allegro of the Second Sonata come from Ariodante. Some of the other slow and pompous movements are borrowed from his oratorios. The two Allegri which open the Fourth Sonata are taken from the Overture of Athaliah. On the other hand, Handel inserts in the final movement of Belshazzar the beautiful Andante which opens his First Sonata.

Whoever wishes to judge these works historically or from the intellectual point of view, will find, like Chrysander, that Handel has not invented here any new forms, and, as he advanced, he returned to the form of the Suite, which already belonged to the past, instead of continuing on his way towards the future Sonata. But those who will judge them artistically, for their own personal charm, will find in them some of the purest creations of Handel, and those which best retain their freshness. Their beautiful Italian lines, their delicate expression, their aristocratic simplicity, are refreshing alike to the mind and to the heart. Our own epoch, tired of the post-Beethoven and post-Wagnerian art, can find here, as in the chamber music of Mozart, a safe haven, where it can escape the sterile agitation of the present and find again quiet peace and sanity.


  1. Six Sonatas or Trios for two Hoboys with a thorough bass for the Harpsichord. Published in Vol. XXVII.
  2. Volume XL VIII, page 112.
  3. Volume XLVIII, page 130.
  4. Volume XXVII.
  5. VII Sonatas à 2 violons, 2 hautbois, ou 2 flûtes traversières et basse continue, composées par G. F. Handel, Second ouvrage.
  6. Later on, Walsh, made arrangements of favourite airs from Handel's Operas and Oratorios as "Sonatas" for flute, violin and harpsichord. Six Vols.
  7. In eleven sonatas out of sixteen. One sonata (the third) is in three movements. Three are in five movements (the first, the fifth and the seventh). One is in seven movements (the ninth).
  8. In the first Sonata, the final Presto in common, time uses the theme of the Andante in 3-4, which forms the second movement. In the second Sonata, the final Presto in common time is built on the subject of the Andante in 3-4, slightly modified.
  9. The fifth Sonata is in five movements -larghetto, allegro (3-8), adagio, allegro (4-4), allegro (12-8).
  10. From, five to seven movements.
  11. A Gavotte concludes the first, second, and third trios. A Minuet ends the fourth, sixth, and seventh. A Bourrée finishes the fifth. There are also found two Musettes and a March in the second Trio, a Sarabande, an Allemande and a Rondo in the third; a Passacaille and a Gigue in the fourth.