Georg Frederick Handel's organ concertos are among those works which, despite their widespread popularity, have remained in some respects unknown: for one thing they have often been misunderstood by audiences from Handel's time right down to the present day, and for another, in the absence of critical study of the original sources, some of them have come down to us in considerably corrupted.

The Hamburg musical writer Johann Mattheson described Handel as the greatest organist of his time, comparable only with Johann Sebastian Bach. It is, therefore, all the more surprising that Handel was 49 before he wrote his first major works for organ, that no organ fugues, chorale preludes or other organ music in any of the traditional forms can be found among his works, and that his complete oeuvre of organ music consists of concertos which look at first sight as though they had been intended for the harpsichord.

The reasons for this state of affairs are to be found in Handel's dependence on the Italian secular style, in the prevalence in England of organs without pedals and possessing few mixture stops, an in the fact that it was not until he gave his first concert performances of oratorios around 1735 that Handel felt the need of instrumental interludes, in which he could demonstrate his mastery of the organ - which was already required as a continuo instrument in the oratorio. The derivation of the organ concerto from the concerto grosso is demonstrated most clearly in the Concerto Op. 4 No. 3, the original version of which is dominated by a principal violin and principal cello, organ solo passages being restricted to the second movement. In a later arrangement Handel omitted the string concertino, and assigned a more prominent role to the organ.

Apart from a few exceptions Handel's organ concertos are chamber music, to be played on a positive organ which does not hamper the exercise of virtuosity in the playing of the solo part and the plastic shaping of the melodies, using registration generally restricted in solo passages to open and gedackt 8 ft. and 4 ft., and accompanied by an orchestra small enough to ensure that the tone of this chamber instrument will not be overwhelmed. Performances in churches, with the solo part played on a large organ, combined with a "spiritual misunderstanding" of these primarily secular concertos, have led to the erroneous public image of them as being sternly northern-Protestant in character, whereas in fact southern-classical serenity is most in evidence, provided that Handel's original intentions are observed. The impact which this music made on his contemporaries is summed up in the following poetic effusion:

When lo! the mighty man essay'd
The organ's heavenly breathing sound,
Things that inanimate were made,
Strait mov'd, and as inform'd were found.
Thus ORPHEUS, when the numbers flow'd,
Sweetly descanting from his lyre,
Mountains and hills confess'd the God,
Nature look'd up, and did admire.

(Grubstreet Journal No. 28) of May 8th, 1735)

The powerful Impression created by Handel's personality on such occasions is well illustrated by this musically significant account of another contemporary, the musical historian Sir John Hawkins:

"A fine and delicate touch, a volant finger, and a ready delivery of passages the most difficult, are the praise of inferior artists: they were not noticed in Handel, whose excellencies were of a far superior kind; and his amazing command of the instrument, the fullness of his harmony, the grandeur and dignity of his style, the copiousness of his imagination, and the fertility of his invention were qualities that absorbed every inferior attainment. When he gave a concerto, his method in general was to introduce it with a voluntary movement on the diapasons, which stole on the ear in a slow and solemn progression; the harmony close wrought, and as full as could possibly be expressed; the passages concatenated with stupendous art, the whole at the same time being perfectly intelligible, and carrying the appearance of great simplicity. This kind of prelude was succeeded by the concerto itself, which he executed with a degree of spirit and firmness that no one ever pretended to equal."

( John Hawkins: General History of the Science and Practice of Music. London 1776. Bd.V. S. 415)

Handel had composed his first organ concertos in 1735 (Op. 4 Nos. 2-4), one of them (No.4) for the new arrangement of his Oratorio "Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno", first performed at Rome in 1708, to which he had added several choruses. He joined the fugal final chorus on the word "Alleluia" directly on to the last movement of the Organ Concerto, which is based on the same theme as the chorus.

Two years later Handel wrote the three concertos for "Alexander's Feast": the Harp Concerto (Op. 4 No. 6) for the first part of the Ode relating to the world of antiquity, the Concerto Grosso in C major as an Entr'acte, and an Organ Concerto (Op. 4 No. 1) for the conclusion, devoted to St. Cecilia. Significantly enough this last section of the work, very short in Dryden's original poem, was extended by Newburgh Hamilton for Handel's setting. From the end of the 17th century onward the patron saint of music was greatly honored in England, as her feast day, the 22nd November, offered a rare opportunity for the general public, who loved celebrations but were denied most public entertainments by the Puritan faction, to attend concerts against which no objections could be raised. It seems not impossible that the old misconception of an organ-playing St. Cecilia increased the public enthusiasm which prompted Handel to go on writing organ concertos.

During the following years the image of Handel seated at the organ so impressed itself on the minds of the public that in a caricature aimed at his well-known weakness for bodily pleasures the artist-clearly relishing the contrast-depicted him with the face of a pig, seated at the organ.

Although Handel often played the same concerto during performances of different oratorios, and although he sometimes assembled movements from various works into new combinations (presumably it was to make this possible that he restricted himself to a few tonalities in his organ works), certain concertos became firmly associated with particular oratorios in the minds of the public. It is clear that Handel did not possess conducting scores of his instrumental compositions written out by copyists, like those of his vocal works which have come down to us. Aids to memory jotted down by the composer in pencil suggest that he both played and directed his organ concertos from the manuscript scores. Some sections of the solo parts he improvised "ad libitum". These sections were never written down, not even when John Walsh published the first batch of organ concertos in 1738. This fact, coupled with the inaccuracy of the publication in general, suggests that Handel wrote his concertos primarily for his own use.

Walsh had considerable difficulty in assembling six works to make up each group for publication, as was the custom at that time. For the first group Handel arranged-probably at the publisher's request-his Flute Sonata in F major, Op. 1 No. 11, in a manner strikingly different from his normal procedure when arranging his own works or those of other composers, as practised in other organ concertos. He had his copyist write out the solo (flute) part and the bass line to form the organ part, he himself merely filling in the staves left open for the orchestral instruments. Part of this jointly written "manuscript" is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

For the second publication, to which no opus number was assigned, Walsh seems to have tried in vain to obtain Handel's collaboration. Handel had written two new organ concertos, but shortly after their composition, his interest having reverted to the concerto grosso, he had transformed them into orchestral concertos. (The fact that the organ concertos are not arrangements, as is often supposed, is proved by the date of their composition.) Walsh made up the second group with four mediocre arrangements of concerti grossi for harpsichord.

The third group appeared in print after the composer's death. This circumstance leads one to suppose that once again Walsh had to resort to a certain amount of manipulation in order to assemble the required six concertos. There is indeed no definite proof that the three movements of the Concerto Op. 7 No. 4, the original manuscripts of which are dispersed and in part lost, actually belong together. In the contemporary manuscript belonging to the Egerton collection (British Museum) this concerto consists of only one movement.

Unfortunately, new editions of the concertos have often been based on those unreliable foundations. It is certainly not clear why, when there are discrepancies between the manuscript and the printed version, the latter should be held to be more acceptable. The following should be borne in mind:

Op. 4 No. 3 was never performed in its later version, based on Handel's pencilled amendments in his manuscript.

Op. 4 No. 4 has seldom been heard in the long unpublished original version with an Alleluia Chorus as second part of the last movement. After the composers's death it was first performed at the Crystal Palace, London, during the Handel Festival of 1903;

Op. 7 No. 1 is rarely heard in its authentic form with a fugue as second movement (an arrangement of the second movement of the Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 11). Handel's sketches were incomprehensible to the publisher, but not, however, to his friend and copyist John Christopher Smith;

Op. 7 No. 3 and No. 5 are regularly published and performed in versions including dance movements, which the publisher added to them from other works by Handel.

The extraordinary effectiveness of the concertos, to which numerous contemporary accounts bear witness, must have been enhanced by the fact that the audience knew they were present at what was to some extent the actual creation of a new work. It was not laziness which caused Handel merely to sketch some sections of the solo parts: in this way the ideal realization of the basic ideas remained his own prerogative, which lapsed with his death. Nevertheless careful study of the musical text which has come down to us enables us to arrive at certain conclusions concerning Handel's art of improvisation:

In typical concerto movements the indication "ad libitum" always appears in the last, often fairly short solo episode. This improvisation fulfils the same function as the cadenza in later concertos. It should in performance be at least long enough to make the last episode as long as each of the others, while it should exceed them in virtuosity.

An improvised solo often takes the place of the slow movement. In the first concertos Of Op. 4 improvisations of this kind are written out. We know from these examples that Handel gave such movements the character of a free prelude or fantasy. There are certain movements of this type in his suites, and these help us out of the difficulty of having to improvise in the style of Handel.

Other "ad libitum" indications can refer neither to a solo cadenza nor to an improvised Adagio. In such cases the melodic line, of which often only the most essential notes are written, is to be decorated ad libitum".

The marking "senza Cembalo" in the second movement of the Concerto Op. 4 No. 4 indicates that it was not normally the organ but a harpsichord which did duty as continuo instrument. However, in the Harp Concerto Op. 4 No. 6, the solo instrument stands out better against organ continuo (an organ part dating from Handel's time exists in the Aylesford collection), and the first movement of the Concerto Op. 7 No. 4, was composed for solo organ and accompanying organ, although it was published in a simplified form.

Based on notes by Hans-Dieter Clausen

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