Handel (Rolland)/The Clavier Compositions

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Handel (Rolland) by Romain Rolland
The Clavier Compositions

Handel's instrumental music deserves very close notice: for it is nearly always wrongly assessed by historians, and badly understood by artists, who treat it for the most part as a merely formal art.

Its chief characteristic is that of a perpetual improvisation. If it was published, it was more in spite of Handel than at his instigation.[1] It was not made to be played and judged coldly, but to be produced at white heat to the public. They were free sketches, in which the form was never completely tightened up, but remained always moving and living, modifying itself at the concert, as the two sensibilities the artist and the public—came into touch with one another.[2] It is necessary then to preserve In this music a certain measure of the character of living improvisation. What we too often do, on the contrary, is to petrify them. One cannot say that they are a caricature of the work of Handel. They are rather a negation of it. When one studies with a minute care every detail of the work, when one has attained from the orchestra a precision of attack, an ensemble, a justness, an irreproachable finish, we have yet done nothing more than raise up the mere figure of this genial improvisator.

Further, there is with his instrumental music, as with his vocal music, nearly always an intimate and picturesque expression. For Handel, as with Ms friend Geminiani, "the aim of instrumental music is not only to please the ear, but to express the sentiments, the emotions, to paint the feelings,"[3] It reflects not only the interior world, but it also turns to the actual spectacle of things.[4] It is a precise poetry, and if cannot define the sources of his inspiration, one can often find in certain of his instrumental works the souvenir of days and journeys, and of scenes visited and experienced by Handel. It was here that he was visibly inspired by Nature.[5]

Others have a relationship with vocal and dramatic works. Certain of the heroic fugues in the fourth book of the Clavier pieces published in 1735 were taken up again by Handel in his Israel in Egypt and clothed with words which agreed precisely with their hidden feeling. The first Allegro from the Fourth Organ Concerto (the first book appeared in 1738) soon became shortly afterwards one of the prettiest of the choruses in Alcina. The second and monumental concerto for two horns in F Major[6] is a reincarnation of some of the finest pages from Esther. It was quite evident to the public of his time that the instrumental works had an expressive meaning, or that as Geminiani wrote, "all good music ought to be an imitation of a fine discourse. "Thus the publisher Walsh was justified in issuing his six volumes of Favourite Airs from Handel's operas and oratorios, arranged as Sonatas for the flute, violin, and harpsichord, and Handel himself, or his pupil, W. Babell, arranged excellently for the clavier, some suites of airs from the operas, binding them together with preludes, interludes, and variations.—It is necessary always to keep in view this intimate relation of the instrumental works of Handel with the rest of his music. It ought to draw our attention more and more to the expressive contents of these works.

· · · · ·

The instrumental music of Handel divides itself into three classes: firstly—music for the clavier (the clavecin and organ); secondly—chamber music (sonatas and trios); thirdly—orchestral music. The compositions for clavier are the most popular works of any that Handel wrote, and these have achieved the greatest number of European editions . Although they comprise three volumes, yet there is only one, the first, which represents him properly, for it is the only one which he prepared himself, and supervised. The others, more or less fraudulently published, misrepresent him.

This First Volume, published in November, 1720, under the French title Suites, etc., affords us the means of appreciating the two most striking of Handel's traits: his precocious maturity, which hardly developed at all in the course of time; and the European universality of character which distinguished his art even at an epoch when the great artists were less national than they are to-day. For the first trait one would remark in fine that these Clavier Pieces published in 1720 had already been written some time, certainly before 1700. One discovers a part of them in the Jugendbuch of the Lennard Collection.[7] Others come from Almira, 1705. Naturally Handel enlarged and revised, and carefully grouped all these pieces in his edition of 1720. The interest of the Jugendbuch is chiefly that it shows us the first sketches of the pieces, and how Handel perfected them. Side by side with the oldest pieces there are others more recent, composed, it may be, in Italy or in England.[8] One can trace in these pages the course of the different influences. Seiffert and Fleischer have noted some of them,[9] German influences, French, and Italian. [10] In England even, sometimes Italian elements, sometimes German, predominated with him.[11] The order of the dances varies in each Suite, and also the central point, the kernel of the work. The introductory pieces are sometimes preludes, sometimes fugues, overtures, etc. The dances and the airs are sometimes related to one another, and sometimes independent, and nevertheless the prevailing impression of the work, so varied in its texture, is its complete unity. The personality of Handel holds it all together and welds the most diverse elements—polyphony and richness of German harmony, Italian homophony, and Scarlattian technique, the French rhythm and ornamentation[12] with English directness and practicability. Thus the work made its impression on the times. Before this time, there had perhaps been more original volumes of pieces for the clavier, but their inspiration was nearly always very much circumscribed by the limits of their national art. Handel was the first of the great German classics of the eighteenth century. He did for music what the French writers and philosophers of the eighteenth century did for literature. He wrote for all and sundry, and his volume took the place on the day of its publication which it has held since, that of a European classic.

The following volumes are less interesting for the reasons I have given. The Second Volume published in 1733 by Walsh, unknown to Handel, and in a very faulty manner, gives us little pieces which we find in the Jugendbuch, and which date from the time of Hamburg and Halle.[13] They lack the setting which Handel had certainly planned for them: preludes and fugues.

This arrangement was ready; and Handel, frustrated by this publisher, resigned himself to publishing them later on, as an Appendix to the preceding work : Six Fugues or Voluntaries for the Organ or Harpsichord, 1735, Opus 3. These fugues date from the time when Handel was at Canons before 1720, the second in G Major was from the period of his first sojourn in England. They became celebrated at once, and were much circulated in manuscript even in Germany.[14] Handel had trained himself In fugue in the school of Kuhnau, and specially with Johann Krieger.[15] Like them he gave his Fugues an essentially melodic character. They are so suited for singing that two of them, as we have said, afterwards served for two choruses in the first part of Israel[16] but Handel's compositions possess a far different vitality from that of his German forerunners. They have a charming intrepidity, a fury, a passion, a fire which belongs only to him. In other words they live. "All the notes talk," says Mattheson. These fugues have the character of happy improvisations, and in truth they were improvised. Handel calls them Voluntaries, that Is fanciful and learned caprices. He made frequent use of double fugues with a masterly development. "Such an art rejoices the hearer and warms the heart towards the composer and towards the executant," says Mattheson again, who, after having heard J. S. Bach, found Handel the greater in the composition of the double fugue and in improvisation. This habit of Handel—one might say almost a craving—for improvising, was the origin of the grand Organ Concertos. After the fashion of his time, Handel conducted his operas and oratorios from the clavier. He accompanied the singers with a marvellous art, blending himself to their fancy, and when the singer had done, he delivered his version.[17] From the interludes on the clavier in his operas, he passed to the fantasies or caprices on the organ in the entr'actes of his oratorios, and his success was so great that he never again abandoned this custom. One might say that the public were drawn to his oratorios more by his improvisations on the organ than by the oratorios themselves. Two volumes of the Organ Concertos were published during the lifetime of Handel, in 1738 and in 1740; the third a little after his death, in 1760.[18]

To judge them properly it is necessary to bear in mind that they were destined for the theatre. It would be absurd to expect works in the strict, vigorous, and involved style of J. S. Bach. They were brilliant divertissements, of which the style, somewhat commonplace yet luminous and pompous, preserves the character of oratorio improvisations, finding their immediate effect on the great audience. "When he gave a concerto," says Hawkins, "his method in general was to introduce it with a voluntary movement on the diapasons, which stole on the ear in a slow and solemn progression; the harmony close wrought, and as full as could possibly be expressed; the passages concatenated with stupendous art, the whole at the same time being perfectly intelligible, and carrying the appearance of great simplicity. This kind of prelude was succeeded by the concerto itself, which he executed with a degree of spirit and firmness that no one can ever pretend to equal." Even at the height of the cabal which was organised against Handel, the Grab Street Journal published an enthusiastic poem on Handel's Organ Concertos.[19]

    "Oh winds, softly, softly raise your golden wings
        among the branches!
     That all may be silent, make even the whisperings of
        Zephyrs to cease.
     Sources of life, suspend your course. . . .
     Listen, listen, Handel the incomparable plays! . . .
     Oh look, when he, the powerful man, makes the forces
        of the organ resound,
     Joy assembles its cohorts, malice is appeased, . . .
     His hand, like that of the Creator, conducts his noble
        work with order, with grandeur and reason. . . .
     Silence, bunglers in art! It is nothing here to have
        the favour of great lords. Here^, Handel is king?"

It is necessary then to view these Organ Concertos in the proper sense of magnificent concerts for a huge public.[20] Great shadows, great lights, strong and joyous contrasts, all are conceived in view of a colossal effect. The orchestra usually consists of two oboes, two violins, viola, and basses (violon-cellos, bassoons, and cembalo), occasionally two flutes, some contrabassos and a harp.[21] The concertos are in three or four movements, which are generally connected in pairs. Usually they open with a pomposo, or a staccato, in the style of the French overture,[22] often an allegro in the same style follows. For the conclusion, an allegro moderato, or an andante, somewhat animated, sometimes some dances. The adagio in the middle is often missing, and is left to be improvised on the organ. The form has a certain relation with that of the sonata in three movements, allegro-adagio-allegro, preceded by an introduction. The first pieces of these two first concertos published in Volume XLVIII of the Complete Edition (second volume) are in a picturesque and descriptive style. The long Concerto in F Major in the same volume has the swing of festival music, very closely allied to the open-air style. Finally, one must notice the beautiful experiment, unfortunately not continued, of the Concerto for two organs,[23] and that, more astonishing still, of a Concerto for Organ terminated by a Chorus,[24] thus opening the way for Beethoven's fine Symphony, and to his successors, Berlioz, Liszt, and Mahler.[25]


  1. Soon Handel was obliged to publish these works, because fraudulent and faulty copies were being sold. It was so with the first volume of Suites de pièces pour le clavecin, published in 1720, and the first volume of Organ Concertos published in 1738. Some of these publications had been made in a bare-faced manner without Handel's permission by publishers who had pilfered them. So it was with the second volume of Suites de pièces pour le clavecin, which Walsh had appropriated and published in 1733 without giving Handel an opportunity of correcting the proofs. It is very remarkable that, notwithstanding the great European success achieved by the first volume for the Clavecin, Handel did not trouble to publish the others.
  2. All his contemporaries agree in praising the wonderful genius with which Handel adapted himself instinctively in his improvisations to the spirit of his audience. Like all the greatest Virtuosos he soon placed himself in the closest spiritual communion with his public; and, so to speak, they collaborated together.
  3. Geminiani's Preface to his Ecole de violon, or The Art of Playing on the Violin, Containing all the Rules necessary to attain to Perfection on that Instrument, with great variety of Compositions, which will also be very useful to those who study the violoncello, harpsichord, etc Composed by F. Geminiani, Opera IX, London, MDCCLI.
  4. Geminiani himself had attempted to represent in music the pictures of Raphael and the poems of Tasso.
  5. For example, the 'Allegro of the First Organ Concerto (second volume published in 1740), with its charming dialogue between the cuckoo and the nightingale, or the first of the Second Organ Concerto (in the same volume), or several of the Concerti Grossi (referred to later).
  6. Vol. XLVII of the Complete Handel Edition.
  7. It is a manuscript of 21 pages, the writing appearing to date from about 1710. It is certainly a copy from some older works. Chrysander published it in Volume XLVIII of the Complete Edition. It is probable that Handel had given to an English friend a selection from the compositions of his early youth. They were passed from hand to hand, and were even fraudulently published, as Handel tells us himself in the Edition of 1720: "I have been led to publish some of the following pieces, because some faulty copies of them have been surreptitiously circulated abroad." In this number appear, for example, the Third Suite, the Sarabande of the Seventh Suite, etc.
  8. It is said that Handel wrote these for the Princess Anne, whom he taught the clavecin; but Chrysander had observed that the princess was only eleven years old at the time. It is more probable that these pieces were written for the Duke of Chandos or for the Duke of Burlington. It is in the second book of Clavier Pieces that we find the much easier pieces written for the princesses.
  9. In their republication of the Geschichte der Klaviermusik by Weitzmann (1899), in which the chapter devoted to Handel contains the fullest information of any description of the Clavier works.
  10. Influences of Krieger and of Kuhnau, particularly in the Halle period (see Vol. XLVIII, pp. 146, 149); French influences in the Hamburg Period (pp. 166, 170); influences of Pasquini (p. 162); and of Scarlatti (pp. 148, 152), about the time of his Italian visits. The influence of Kuhnau is very marked, and Handel had all his life a well-stocked memory of this music, and particularly of Kuhnau's Klavier-Uebung (1689-1692), and the Frischen Klavier-Früchte (1696), which were then widely known and published in numerous editions. Here is the same limpid style, the same neat soberness of line. Kuhnau's Sarabandes especially are already completely Handelian. It is the same with certain Preludes, certain Gigues, and some of the airs (a trifle popular).
  11. For the German influence, see the Suites 1, 4, 5, 8 (four dance movements preceded by an introduction) . For the Italian, see the Suites 2, 3, 6, 7, of which the form approximates to the Sonata da camera.
  12. M. Seiffert adds that none of these elements predominate. I would rather follow the opinion of Chrysander, who notices in this fusion of three national styles a predominant tendency to the Italian, just as Bach inclines most to the French style.
  13. One finds there, cycles of variations on Minuets, on Gavottes, especially on Chaconnes and many other Italian forms. The Gigue of the Sixth Suite (in G minor) comes from an air in Almira (1705). One notices also that the Eighth Suite in G major is in the French style (particularly the Gavotte in rondo with five variations).
    It is necessary to follow this second volume by the third, which contains works of widely different periods : Fantasia, Capriccio, Preludio e Allegro, Sonata, published at Amsterdam in 1732, and dating from his youthful period (the Second Suite was inspired by an Allemande of Mattheson): Lessons composed for the Princess Louisa (when aged twelve or thirteen years) about 1736; Capriccio in G minor (about the same date); and Sonata in C major in 1750.
    Finally, there should be added to these volumes, various clavier works published in Vol. XLVIII of the Complete Edition under the title: Klaviermusik und Cembalo Beavbeitungen. There is also a selection of the best arrangements of symphonies and airs from the operas of Handel by Babell (about 1713 or 1714).
  14. Mattheson in 1722 quoted the Fugue in E minor as quite a recent work.
  15. Handel himself told his friend Bernard Granville so, when he made him a present of Krieger's work: Anmuthige Clavier-Uebung, published in 1699.
  16. The Fugue in A minor was used for the Chorus, He smote all the firstborn in Egypt, in Israel in Egypt, and the Fugue in G minor. The Chorus, They loathed to drink at the river. Another (the 4th) served for the Overture to the Passion after Brockes.
  17. The indications: ad libitum, or cembalo, found time after time in Ms scores, marked the places reserved for the improvisation.
    Despite Handel's great physical power, his touch was extraordinarily smooth and equal. Burney tells us that when he played, his fingers were "so curved and compact, that no motion, and scarcely the fingers themselves, could be discovered' (Commemoration of Handel, p. 35). M. Seiffert believes that "his technique, which realised all Rameau's principles, certainly necessitated the use of the thumb in the modern style," and that "one can trace a relationship between Handel's arrival in England and the adoption of the Italian fingering which soon became fully established there."
  18. A fourth was published by Arnold in 1797; but part of the works which it contains are not original. Handel had nothing to do with the publication of the Second Set.
    Vol. XXVIII of the Complete Edition contains the Six Concertos of the First Set, Op. 4 (1738) and the Six of the Third Set, Op. 7 (1760). Vol. XLVIII comprises the concertos of the Second Set (1740), an experiment at a Concerto for two organs and orchestra, and two Concertos from the Fourth Set (1797).
    Many of the Concertos are dated. Most of them were written between 1735 and 1751; and several for special occasions; the sixth of the First Set for an entr'acte to Alexander's Feast; the fourth of the First Set, a little before Alcina; the third of the Third Set for the Foundling Hospital. The Concerto in B minor (No. 3) was always associated in the mind of the English public with Esther; for the minuet was called the "Minuet from Esther."
  19. May 8, 1735. It was the year when Handel wrote and performed his first Concertos of the First Set.
  20. Hawkins wrote further: "Music was less fashionable than it is now, many of both sexes were ingenuous enough to confess that they wanted this sense, by saying, 'I have no ear for music.' Persons such as these, who, had. they been left to themselves, would have interrupted the hearing of others by their talking, were by the performance of Handel not only charmed into silence, but were generally the loudest in their acclamations. This, though it could not be said to be genuine applause, was a much stronger proof of the power of harmony, than the like effect on an audience composed only of judges and rational admirers of his art" (General History of Music, p. 912).
  21. In the Tenth Concerto there are two violoncellos and two bassoons. The same in the Concerto for two Organs. In the long Concerto in F major (Vol. XLVIII) we find two horns.
  22. Sometimes the name is found marked there. See the Eighth Concerto in Vol. XXVIII and the Concerto in F major in Vol. XLVIII.
  23. Vol. XLVIII, page 51.
  24. Mr. Streatfeild was, I believe, the first to notice an autograph MS, of the Fourth Organ Concerto to which is attached a Hallelujah Chorus built on a theme from the concerto itself. This MS., which is found at the British Museum, dates from 1735, and appears to have been used for the revival in 1737 of the Trionfo del Tempo to which the Concerto serves for conclusion.
  25. Scriabin also.—Translator.