Compositional Style of George Frederic Handel’s Keyboard Music Discussed |Research essay

George Frideric Handel is probably the first German composer that became famous all over the world. He only spent about twenty years of his life in Germany. He always considered England his homeland; he lived there 47 years and created most of his works there.

Composer first used the pseudonym Handel in Italy and afterwards always called himself George Frideric Handel, which is unusual, since the common spelling of the name is Frederic. Handel dreamt of becoming English, maybe that was the reason for changing name and taking pseudonym. Since Handel spent most of his life in London, we can say that he managed to become one.

In this paper, I would like to discuss the compositional style of George Frideric Handel’s keyboard music. And especially focus on the Chaconne with 21 variations in G major. But first, I would like to say few things on Handel’s life and works.

George Frideric Handel was born in the German town Halle in 1685. He studied for some time in the University of Halle and eventually moved to Hamburg in 1703. In Hamburg, Handel played violin in opera orchestra and also served as harpsichordist and composer. He stayed in Italy from 1706 until 1710; there he developed the Italian trend in his musical style. Appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, the future George I of England, he visitedLondon, where he composed the first London Italian opera Rinaldo, in 1710 and settled there two years later.

George Handel enjoyed the aristocratic style of environment he lived in and most of his activity he directed at composing Italian opera with varying success until 1740. He was the inventor of a new musical form that is English Oratorio. This form combined parts of Italian opera with more repeating chorus, relative economy of production and the satisfaction of an English and religious text, elements that appealed to English Protestant sensibilities.

In London, the composer won most recognition, he overshadowed the contemporaries and left a huge trace in the music history. He died in London in 1759, and was buried in Westminster Abbey in the presence of some 3000 mourners.

Handel’s oratorios split London’s music lovers into two camps. An increasingly prosperous middle class was on Handel’s side, whereas most of the aristocracy supported opera, because they did not want to let ordinary people take control of England’s musical life or of any other cultural or political circumstances. Since the Royal Academy had moved out of the King’s Theatre, George Handel took the place for the 1744 season. He composed two of his largest and greatest works, the musical drama Hercules and the oratorio Belshazzar. The season, however, seems to have gone so badly that Handel was forced to suspend some of the series.

Bernard Show once said in one of his interviews: “It was from George Handel that I learnt that style consists in force of assertion. If you can say a thing with stroke, unanswerably you have style. You may despise what you like, but you cannot contradict Handel.” In my opinion Shaw’s comment alludes to Handel as an independent and strong-willed person. Handel’s creative personality allowed him to assimilate what he wanted from whatever tradition he met, without awkwardness or incongruity. He knew how to make use of the new without abandoning the old. When after Handel’s settlement in London the idiom of Italian opera was transformed from a polyphonic to a homophonic style, Handel simply added the new method to his repertory. Homophony is a term to describe the clear distinction between melody and accompanimental harmony, as opposed to polyphony, in which several parts move independently.

Furthermore, George Handel often took compositions of other composers and transferred them to his own compositions. When asked why he borrowed material composed by Bonocini, Handel is said to have replied: “It’s much too good for him. He did not know what to do with it.”

George Handel lived in few countries and cultures of those countries naturally shaped his works. There are English, German and Italian elements widely presented and used in his compositions. An example for a characteristic German form is the chorale, an unaccompanied song for one voice. It left traces in the oratorios Handel composed in England, as for instance in the Messiah.

Handel was a cosmopolitan; he got to know many famous people in music and their musical tastes. His intuition helped him to understand what type of music people liked or disliked.

When the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck asked for Handel’s opinion of one of his operas, Handel is said to have remarked: “You have taken too much trouble over your opera. Here in England that is a mere waste of time. What the English like is something they can beat time to, something that hits them straight on the drum of the ear.” I think Handel’s comment is not meant as an insult to the English people but simply as a fact referring to the English taste of music in the 18th century. When Handel had realized that the English were not really fascinated by operas, he developed the oratorio as a new form.

Handel had been saying about contemporary English musical situation: “When I came hither first, I found, among the English, many good players and no composers; but now, they are all composers and no players.”

Comparing to English literature of the seventeenth century, English music had no good composers at all. The last big name in English music was Henry Purcell. He died in 1695 and after him no other composers can give a push to English music future. Naturally England took Handel as a great luck.

Life conditions in England were very good for Handel, he looked for a rich country that could afford to support his musical beginnings. England was the right country for him.

In the 17th century it had mainly been the lack of finance that precluded the introduction of the Italian model of opera in England. Music, however, played an important role in the drama and made extensive contributions to it, as in John Dryden’s King Arthur, with music by Henry Purcell. The close association of professional music-making with the court was marked by the regular composition of an ode, a poem traditionally sung for some special occasion like the New Year or royal birthdays.

By the beginning of the 18th century interest in Italian opera was growing. But first attempts to establish Italian opera in London were not successful since English composers were still specialised on other music like odes but had no knowledge of the Italian opera tradition. It was Handel who firmly introduced Italian opera when he came to England in 1710. During his stay in Italy three years before, the composer had learnt a lot about Italian music. The Italian years were decisive in Handel’s career, because he learnt about opera, oratorio and chamber cantata, as well as the principal instrumental forms, the concerto and the sonata. Moreover, he met all the leading practitioners: Scarlatti, Caldora, Corelli, Vivaldi and Albinoni. Handel arrived in Italy a gifted but crude composer and left it a polished and fully equipped artist. Only with the knowledge of his Italian years was Handel able to introduce Italian opera in London

To establish his operas in England, Handel needed a lot of will-power. As already mentioned in chapter three, Handel did not have the best opinion about England’s taste of music. However, the problem was not only the people but other circumstances as well, for instance the miserable conditions of London’s opera houses and the fear of going out at night since England’s capital was the centre of crime at that time. However, Handel did not give up and became the director of the Royal Academy, an enterprise that tried to establish Italian opera inLondon. Handel himself travelled to Italy and Germany to engage the best musicians in his opera house. Despite frequent setbacks, London became the operatic centre of Europe for some eight years. It was mostly Handel to whom the English people owed such musical achievements in the first half of the 18th century.

An oratorio is an extended musical setting of a sacred text made up of dramatic, narrative and contemplative elements. The English oratorio was Handel’s own creation and therefore contributed more than anything else to his lasting fame. It was a new form, only remotely connected with any of the continental varieties. Handel’s English oratorio is a three-act dramatic text based on a sacred subject. His most famous work is the Messiah,composed in 1741 and first performed in Covent Garden Theatre in 1743. Messiah and Israel in Egypt are the only oratorios whose words are exclusively taken from the Bible, and neither of them has a plot in the ordinary sense. The popularity of Messiah derives from its fusion of the traditions of Italian opera, English anthem and German passion.

Not only Handel’s musical talent and knowledge but also his sense of humour and his sharp tongue impressed the English. About the time Handel became blind, his surgeon Mr. Sharp asked him if he would be able to continue playing the organ in public for the performance of oratorios. Handel replied in the negative. Sharp recommended John Stanley, a blind composer and performer, as a person whose memory never failed; upon which Handel burst into a loud laugh, and said: “Mr. Sharp, have you never read the Sriptures? Do you not remember, if the blind lead the blind, they will both fall in the ditch?”

Composers like Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach were fascinated by Handel’s musical achievements. Bach is attributed with the following remark: “Handel is the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach.” Upon hearing the above statement, Mozart is said to have exclaimed: “Truly, I would say the same if I were permitted to put in a word.” And Beethoven once said: “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived …I would uncover my head and kneel down on his tomb.”

I would like to speak more now about Handel’s Chaconne with 21 variations in G major. A chaconne is number of variations over a ground. Another way of spelling it is Ciaconne, and it is a fiery and suggestive dance that came from Spain around Middle Ages and finally gave the name of the new musical form.

The G major Chaconne uses a popular Baroque variation form, consists of 62 variations on a simple repeated bass pattern. The keyboard theme, reminding violin opens up the piece. The two phrases make the main theme of the work; they create the expansiveness with the deep sound as you can hear. The sound is very smooth and creates a taffy, uninterrupted pattern. It is written upon repeated four-measure phrases and builds to a climax.

There are quite a few variations in the chaconne. Each variation contains eight measures and then is subdivided by four measures of differing phrases. Measure 17 begins the variations, measure 21 and then 22 are the same but measure 22 is embellished and measure 23 is embellished even more. Measure 24 starts the second variation, and the third in measure 37. Measure 37 begins in another key and is very intense and agitated. Once in a while the changes in the group of eight measures are divided into groups of four measures, changing douples to triples does this.

Measure forty-five begins and new variation theme number two. The middle one is played leggiero (lightly) and the last one is p un poco piu vivo (piano with a little speed). Another new variation number 3, theme starts at measure fifty-three. Four of the same general shape and the second 4 related, and we come upon the sospirando (sighing).

Music is all about tension and relaxation, this Hendel’s chaconne proves this. We finally reach largo, energetico – the same note is repeated several time, energy put in the note, makes the audience wanting for the change. There is F #’s going to G’s so it needs energy. The next measures at 77 are a bit of fluff, hardly played, but fluff.

Measures 85 and 88 present a transition, variation number 3, G major goes to g minor and E7 is diminished. The melody is eventually return back to the same tempo and key. In this tempo we can hear the theme, which was not around for while and in measure ninety-seven there is eight measure variation. Then come four measures of doubles and four measures of triples. There is another set of four measure doubles and four measure triples in measure 105.

The chain suspension has now arrived. A chain suspension is a consonance, alternating with a dissonance, while only one-note changes in the chord at a time. This one also happens to be a chromatic chain suspension. During this chain suspension the key moves back to g minor. Measures 123-126 are a transition on to a different variation number 5 in measures 127 and 134, and then 135 is another variation start in e-flat.

In measure 143 the theme returns in g major, variation 6, though it is slightly embellished. We find measure 159 similar to measure 24 and measure 167 similar to measure 33, and measure 171 similar to measure 77. The composer is brilliant in relating variation themes, he gives the piece a formalized structure.

At measure 175 we find a broken chain made of the chords that underlie the piece, variation 8. From 183 until 195 the chord structures built. At 187 a double stop is added on the bottom and at 191 more excitement is added by increasing from triples to sixteenth notes, all notes being double stops.
At measure 195 the theme is back in octaves an octave higher A cadenza is played and then the final chord in G major.

Overall I thought the piece was brilliant and variety of themes does not spoil the wholeness. Contrary the work is very well structured and complete. The soft sound makes you feel very relaxed and loud parts make feel intense. The piece has got everything that a good musical work should possess.

Bibliography and references:

  •  Blume, Friedrich (editor): Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1956.
  • Michels, Ulrich: dtv-Atlas Musik. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1998.
  • “Life of Handel: The Kelkel Edition” by James Cuthbert Hadden.
  • “George F. Handel: a Guide to Research” by Mary Ann Parker-Hale.
  • “Handel” by Percy M. Young.

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