Grand concertos, grand venues

Posted on: 24 February 2021, by :

The fashion for concertos in the Corellian tradition, reaching its height with the publications of Geminiani in the 1730s, was not something that Handel could ignore, for it challenged the prospects in London of his own public performances. It led to the publication, in April 1740, of his twelve ‘Grand Concertos’ (an anglicized form of concerti grossi), Op. 6. Outwardly they conform to the Corelli-Geminiani type—clearly, he and his publisher were aware of the commercial need to design and market them that way—but contain a rich diversity of movements coloured by Handel’s unique gift for impeccably beautiful harmony. Most have a few solos for two violins and sometimes for a cello too, but the great merit of these works is that they involve the whole ensemble in music that is as much fun to play as it is good to witness.

Many will find the highlight of No. 7 to be its final movement, the English-style hornpipe: an amazing tour de force of infectious rhythm (it begins at 10:30 minutes in the first video, and at 11:15 minutes in the second). Impressive too are the fugue on a subject that repeats the same pitch for 14 notes (its model was the fugue on ‘Et in saecula saeculorum, Amen’ (here) in Handel’s Dixit Dominus of 1707) and the special kind of sarabande (the third movement, in G minor), with constant quaver motion, like the one in the keyboard suite in E minor published in 1733 (here).

Handel had composed all twelve concertos in an astonishing burst of activity in October 1739 (he averaged 2.5 days per concerto), in preparation for the theatre season that opened in November. He gave their first performances that winter, before their publication, as entertainment during the intervals of his large-scale vocal works. This was a value-adding technique he had developed since the mid 1730s by featuring himself as the soloist in half-improvised organ concertos. The twin tactic—of providing concertos for his own events and publishing them for others to consume—helped to keep his reputation high in London’s increasingly competitive concert-giving scene.

* *  This is the third post in consorts unchained: a series on the heyday of the concerto. * *

For today I’ve singled out two fine performances of Handel’s concerto Op. 6 No. 7 in B flat, HWV 325, which has no solos at all in any of its movements. Or, to put it another way: all the players function throughout as soloists, whether the ensemble is minimal (as in the first video) or large (in the second). The work has five movements: LargoAllegro (a fugue) – Largo e piano – Andante – Hornpipe.

Op. 6 No. 7 (HWV 325) played by members of Pegasus Early Music in a concert from Rochester NY in 2017.

Op. 6 No. 7 (HWV 325) played by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, lead by Daniel Bard, in a concert in 2018(?).

Handel’s music, especially instrumental pieces, was regularly played at London’s newest fashionable venues: the pleasure gardens at Marylebone and across the river at Vauxhall, where in 1738 he was immortalized with the marble statue by Roubiliac. The list of the subscribers for his Grand Concertos includes most of the London and provincial concert-giving organizations and charitable music societies. While almost all purchased one set of parts (sufficient for a small ensemble), Jonathan Tyers, the manager of Vauxhall Gardens, bought three. From this we might infer that the band playing in the open air at Vauxhall was comparable to the size of the ensemble in the second video above.