HANDEL: Harpsichord Suites Nos. 1- 5
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George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759)
Suite No.1 in A Major
Suite No.2 in F Major
Suite No.3 in D Minor
Suite No.4 in f Minor
Suite No.5 in f Major
When the thirty-five year old Handel set about making an authorative editionof his finest harpsichord music in London, he claimed he was "obliged topublish ...because surrepticious and incorrect copies ...had got abroad" -referring to a pirate edition which had appeared in Amsterdam. Handel's new 1720publication of fight Suites is drawn from a stock of work which goes back insome instances to his teenage years in Hamburg. Only the Allemande and Couranteof the third suite were newly composed. Otherwise, it is clear from themanuscript sources that the bulk of it was composed by 1717/18, and that after1720 Handel virtually abandoned keyboard solo composition.
As a boy Handel had received his early training from the organist Zachau athis birth place, Halle. In 1698 the student assembled and dated a manuscriptmusic book of works composed by his own master together with those other 17thcentury German composers whose influence we can detect in his own earliestsurviving compositions. In 1703 he went to Hamburg, remaining for three years.
In 1705 his opera Almira was performed there, and in it are found certaindistinctive cadence patterns which may also be discovered in some of the piecesof keyboard music. They may be judged to be contemporaneous, as the cadences arenot found in later works. Probably Handel earned part of his living in Hamburgby giving harpsichord lessons. As was customary, he must have written music forhis public to play. Nor was the organ - for which he was to write the firstconcertos -forgotten at this time -s everal pieces 'work' on either instrument.
There is an interesting anecdote related by Johan Mattheson, who was alsoemployed with Handel at the Hamburg Opera. In 1703, aged 21, Mattheson relateshow he and Handel "travelled together on the 17th August of that year toL??beck, and in the coach we composed many double fugues - in our heads, notwritten down ...There we played almost all the organs and harpsichords and wearrived at a particular conclusion with respect to our playing ...namely, thathe wanted to play only the organ and I the harpsichord".
The reason for their journey was to visit Dietrich Buxtehude, then aged 66,who, having served for 35 years as organist at St. Mary's, was looking for asuccessor who would also marry his eldest daughter. Neither of these twoprospective candidates seems to have fancied the idea.
The five splendid fugues found in the harpsichord suites put us in mind ofthe budding 18-year old on his coach trip. In their maturer manifestationsHandel's fugues are not inferior, despite their looseness of part-writing, tothose of Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier. The dramatic juxtaposition ofdifferent kinds of texture at the beginning of the F minor Fugue moreover alertsus to the characteristically physical feel of Handel's writing for theharpsichord. And Handel's notation -particularly in the preludes - signals tothe player the liberty to bring the fantasy of his own fingers in to play whatMattheson was to call the "Stylus Phantasticus" and contrasts wellwith the rigidly structured fugues they made up in their heads.
The Roman Diary of Francesco Valesio for 14 Jan. 1707 tells us that"There has arrived in this city a Saxon who is an excellent harpsichordplayer and composer of music - who today exhibited his process by playing theorgan at St. John Lateran, to the astonishment of everybody."
At 22 Handel shows us in his early Italian-period works that he hadcompletely assimilated the French and Italian styles of instrumental music. Bothare boldly juxtaposed in his harpsichord suites Nos. 2 and 6 and part of No.7were originally Italianate sonatas. Handel did not strictly adhere to the formof the French dance-suite, so Variations and Chaconnes are found, as wellas Adagios and Allegros.
In the first biography of the composer, published in 1760, John Mainwaringtells us that "Handel had an uncommon brilliancy and command of finger, butwhat distinguished him from all other players who possessed these same qualitieswas that amazing fullness, force and energy which he joined with them. And thisobservation may be applied with as much justness to his compositions, as to hisplaying."
In the years after 1720 further collections of Handel's harpsichord piecesappeared, taken from the miscellaneous stock left over. They too proclaim thoseyouthful years, and that fire and fervour of which Mainwaring so eloquentlyspeaks.
Alan Cuckston was born in England and now lives in Yorkshire, the county ofhis birth. He studied music at King's College, Cambridge and took a B Mus. inPerformance and Palaeography. As a pupil of the late Thurston Dart, Mr. Cuckstondeveloped his enthusiasm for early English music. He is now a well-knownharpsichordist and has made many recordings for RCA and Swinsty Records.