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The primary source for this Sonata is the printed text in the spurious edition PIECES a un & Deux Clavecins COMPOSEES Par Mr HENDEL/ A AMSTERDAM / Chez Jeanne Roger, c.1720. It was engraved by Walsh in London but published by Roger. The piece is printed on four staves, without indication of which manual is the lower or upper. It is possible that it was intended for two harpsichords or indeed an instrument with two manuals of equal strength of sound, but different tones. Two-manual harpsichords seem to have been rare in Italy at this time, and it is possible that one of Handel’s patrons acquired one and asked him to compose for it and therefore Handel concluded with a display of virtuosity.
It is also possible that Handel might have played or improvised on this theme and that variations were subsequently worked up for the competition between him and Scarlatti described in Mainwaring’s Memoirs. Mainwairing’s anecdote relates that Handel and Scarlatti entered a musical contest with each other at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni, and that, despite a common consensus that they shared the palms on the harpsichord, Scarlatti generously acknowledged the Saxon’s superiority on the organ.
Handel’s mastery of the organ that brought him attention in Rome: a contemporary diarist Francesco Valesio wrote on 14 January 1707 that “There is lately arrived in this city a Saxon who is a most excellent player upon the harpsichord and composer of music and who today made great pomp of his virtue in playing upon the organ in the church of San Giovanni to the amazement of all.” Reputed to be the largest and most magnificent organ in Rome the instrument survives to this day.
It is not known what music Handel would have performed on either of those two historic occasions. No body of organ music by Handel—apart from the concertos composed later in England—survives in a recognisable form. If the competition with Scarlatti took place, it is possible that pieces were improvised and that Handel constructed those probable improvisations upon his own compositions using themes from sinfonias, overtures, arias or indeed themes from other composers rather than performing his keyboard works.
This Sonata, which is a fantasia, is later altered and reincarnated in the character Armida’s famous dramatic coloratura aria Vo’ far guerra, from Act II of his later opera Rinaldo (HWV7a) of 1711. This aria famously included a harpsichord obbligato part which offers an idea of what Handel would play and improvise during performances. In the third edition of the opera in June 1711, Walsh published ‘The Harpsicord Peice perform’d (sic)…perform’d by Mr Handel’ and the Sonata is an elaboration of this into a virtuoso solo piece. Showing the popularity of this work and inspiration, William Babell also wrote a virtuosic fantasy based on Vo’ far guerra.
from notes by Bridget Cunningham © 2015