Fugue No 5
in A minor proves to be perilous, and also magnificent. The key was traditionally prone to melancholia, a quality preserved in Mozart’s wondrous A minor Rondo. This fugue is still in common time, but Handel, for the first time in the cycle, gives it a tempo directive (Largo), which may indicate that its outlandish subject – with falling major seventh, falling diminished seventh, and declining chromatics – should be accorded physical weight and moral gravitas; only thus will we survive the desperate chromatics which threaten to engulf us. If A major is a key of youth and jollity, this A minor is indeed its opposite, a key through which Handel precariously navigates by way of an imperturbable pulse and a defined tonal frame into which the chromatics (just) fit. This fugue subject bears a significant resemblance to that of the ‘And with his stripes’ fugue from Messiah
. Handel is unlikely to be equating himself, or even mankind as a whole, with Christ, but is rather making a comment on the slings and arrows of a fortune unarguably outrageous.
from notes by Wilfrid Mellers © 1995