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The Avison Ensemble, directed by Pavlo Beznosiuk, present George Frideric Handel's complete Opus 6 Concerti Grossi. This work is widely regarded as the composer's greatest contribution to the Baroque period.
In the latter part of the seventeenth century Purcell was the most important force in British music but, despite what others have said, native music did not entirely stagnate after his death. At the dawn of the eighteenth century there was a tremendous amount of music production occurring: some of the native musicians reflected on the glories of the past, while others adopted more continental styles. However at the same time there was a huge influx in the number of foreign musicians visiting England. Some came just for short visits, while others spent substantial parts of their lives creating music for a clientele that was eager to hear these new continental styles, and patronise their performance. The fashion for anything foreign, and particularly Italian, was so great that many of the domestic musicians were pushed into second place, a few even Italianising their names to take advantage of the trends at that time. Many of the foreign musicians who came to England found the environment, particularly in London, highly competitive, forcing them to either branch out into the provinces or return home. However, there were those who did make a substantial impact, with musicians such as Geminiani, Herschel, Giardini, Pepusch, J C Bach, and many others, making a name for themselves in Britain. However, one musician, who had also originated from continental Europe, had a far larger impact than any other musician working at that time and in the process became to be so closely associated with British music that his Germanic origins were largely forgotten. The musician in question was, of course, George Frideric Handel.
Besides his fame as a composer of oratorios, Handel was also an important composer of operas, spending a great deal of his early creative energy trying to establish Italian opera in London. Although he did enjoy some initial success with this genre, it slowly fell out of favour with the public; it was the success of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in 1728 that sounded the death bell for sung dramatic works in Italian. Handel continued to persevere with opera but began to expand into other, more profitable, areas, the most important of these being the oratorio, which perpetuated his reputation long after his death in 1759. However, Handel was also an important composer of concertos, his examples for organ being particularly popular and highly influential and he was also a significant composer of string concertos.
The concerto grosso was something of a phenomenon in Britain during the eighteenth century, with many of the native composers writing such works for use at their own concerts. Its popularity stemmed from a set of twelve by the Italian violinist Arcangelo Corelli, which had been first published in Amsterdam in 1714. They quickly became a staple of concert life across Britain, and remained popular throughout the rest of the century. In 1789, seventy-five years after their first publication, Charles Burney wrote that the ‘concertos of Corelli seem to have withstood all the attacks of time and fashion with more firmness than any other of his works’. Handel would have been acutely aware of the popularity of the Corelli with British audiences and opted to exploit their selling potential by issuing his own set. His publisher, John Walsh, would also have been aware of the profit in such works, having previously produced editions of Corelli’s concertos, as well as those by Geminiani. The entire set of twelve was written in a burst of creative energy in September and October 1739, and, even before they were finished, a proposal to publish them by subscription had appeared in the London Daily Post. They were subsequently issued in April of the following year and were included in the 1739–40 winter concert series.
Before composing his ‘Grand Concertos’, Handel had already produced numerous other examples of this genre, including his three for oboe that date from c1703. There is also a set of six that were issued as his Op 3 in 1734 which have, unlike his later set, obligatory wind parts. They further differ in that they were assembled from several disparate sources, while the ‘Grand Concertos’ were conceived, and published, as an integrated set, clearly in emulation of Corelli’s famous Op 6. Handel notably paid homage to the great Italian violinist by giving his set the same opus number.
The ‘Grand Concertos’ are scored for the same resources as the Corelli, consisting of a concertino of two violins and cello, supported by four-part ripieno strings and continuo. Each concerto has an individual form, and there is a considerable amount of diversity within the set although structurally Handel adopted the Corellian four-movement di chiesa paradigm of slow-quick-slow-quick. However, like Corelli he regularly added more movements to individual concertos, with three having six movements, while others have five.
A large number of the first movements are distinctly regal in nature, and several feature the dotted rhythms of the French ouverture. As in the ouverture, these are often followed by a dynamic and inventive fugue. A notable example of this style is Concerto No 10, which, with its arresting opening movement, shows a marked similarity with his operatic overtures. Most concertos contain dance movements, frequently several; a prominent example is Concerto No 8 which, with its succession of dances, bears a striking similarity to an orchestral suite. Other movements are distinctly trio sonata-like, for example, the Larghetto from Concerto No 7.
As was common practice at the time most musicians freely borrowed ideas from the works of other composers, and Handel was no exception. As part of his education in Halle, he had been encouraged to write music based on a theme by another composer, and he maintained this tradition for the remainder of his life. This is particularly evident in the amount of material that he borrowed from the important ‘Essercizi’ (1739) of Domenico Scarlatti, as well as the ‘Componimenti Musicali’ (1739) of Gottlieb Muffat. Handel also re-used music from his own works, the Ninth Concerto being, for the most part, a transcription of his Organ Concerto ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’. However, in these recycled movements he always made numerous alterations; a notable example in this concerto being the removal of the distinctive cuckoo effects of the original. The Eleventh Concerto in the Opus 6 set also exists as an organ concerto. Other sources of material include his opera Giulio Cesare, with the fourth movement of Concerto No 8 re-using material from the aria ‘Piangerò la forte mia’; also, the finale to Concerto No 4 borrows from the aria ‘E’si vaga’ from Imeneo, which Handel was in the process of composing at the same time. Furthermore, he re-used material from the overture to this particular opera in the fourth and fifth movements of Concerto No 9. Other interesting features include the walking bass to the Largo of Concerto No 4, a feature of his oratorio writing, and the chromatic subject of the fugue in Concerto No 6. Many individual movements have a certain buoyancy about them, with their energetic melodic lines, some of which are rather operatic in nature, that effortlessly float above the accompanying parts. As such, these concertos are a patchwork quilt of ideas; despite the numerous influences, all of these differing elements are successfully integrated into one harmonious whole.
Handel, despite the unprecedented popularity of his oratorios, composed a plethora of other works, a great many of which are of an undeniably high quality. It is perhaps in the Grand Concertos that Handel most clearly focused his many faculties into a genre that was particularly popular with his adopted countrymen, and, in doing so, catered for their musical tastes in a spectacular way. They are highly innovative in their design, and are, without doubt, a pinnacle of concerto grosso composition.
Simon D. I. Fleming © 2010