A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Pastoral Symphony (Handel)

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PASTORAL SYMPHONY in Handel's 'Messiah.' A short and unaffected little piece of music in 12-8 time, serving to introduce the scene of the 'Shepherds abiding in the field.' Handel more than any other great composer was accustomed to 'prendre son bien partout où il le trouvait,' and mostly without acknowledgment. In the present instance he has affixed the word 'Pifa' to this movement, more probably to indicate the reason for inserting it than to show that it was not his own composition, a matter which probably did not occupy his thoughts in the least. People in those days had not ready access either to older or contemporaneous works, and were not in a position to compare one thing with another; and our composer, often in a great hurry to get through his mighty task, did not trouble himself to enlighten them: his superb genius answered for all, as it gave life and immortality to anything he chose to put on paper. When it was first called a Pastoral Symphony is not very clear; Randall & Abell's edition gives the word 'Pifa' only, a fact overlooked by Dr. Rimbault in his preface to the Handel Society's edition (1850); but Arnold's edition has 'Sinfonia Pastoralle.' Handel's MS. and the Smith transcripts give only 'Pifa.' As to the origin of the music Dr. Rimbault, in his Preface to the edition of the Handel Society professes to give the melody note for note from a MS. collection of ancient hymns written in 1630; but what collection, and where it is to be found, is not told us.

{ \time 6/8 \key g \major \relative g' { g4 a8 b4 c8 | d4. e | d8. c16 b8 c4. | b c8. d16 e8 | d8. c16 b8 c8. d16 c8 | b4. ~ b4 a8 | b8. c16 d8 c8. d16 b8 | a4. } }
etc., 16 bars in all.


Playford's 'Musick's Handmaid' (1678) has a very similar tune, and in Crotch's specimens this also figures as an example of Italian music—a Siciliana. In these two works the title of 'Parthenia' has been added to it. Doubtless Handel heard the peasants playing such an air about the streets of Rome at Christmas during his visit there, and stored up the. idea for future use. [See Pifero.]

At first it consisted of the first part alone, the second being added on a slip of paper wafered into the original MS. Of the second part there are two versions, one which is in use, 10 bars long, the other, 12 bars, with the sequence prolonged, taking the music into F, in which key it winds up before the Da Capo. The second version, which is on the back of the slip of paper just mentioned, Handel has crossed through.

This little Symphony is scored only for strings, with a third violin part which has curiously often been left out. In a piece of music intended to represent the playing of Pifferari, it is singular that Handel should not have given the melody, at least, to his favourite instrument the hautboy, which had in his day a very broad reed, and a tone somewhat reminding one of the Roman peasants who pipe a pastoral in our streets at the present time.

[ W. G. C. ]