Handel with care
As I write this column we are barely past the Feast of the Epiphany and are settling in for a bit of “wintery mix” that will bring sub-freezing temperatures plus the threat of snow to much of northern Texas. Blessedly, I am still basking in the warm memory of my most recent participation as continuo harpsichordist for a performance of George Frideric Handel’s greatest hit, his oratorio Messiah (Part I and the Hallelujah Chorus), presented on December 24 as the Sunday morning service at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas.
Like most colleagues who own a harpsichord, I have had a career-long association with Handel’s masterpiece beginning during student days and continuing through many collaborations with professional ensembles such as the Dallas and Shreveport symphonies and multiple church choirs (my own as conductor from the keyboard, and others as keyboardist only). Like other particular holiday favorites (The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol come to mind), Messiah can suffer from over-exposure. At this point in my life I am not certain that I would accept another engagement to perform the entire oratorio, but for this, a repeat booking to assist with Part I at Lovers Lane Church after having performed in a separate subsequent Good Friday presentation of Parts II and III during an appropriate liturgical season, I have come to admire the good taste of music director Jimmy Emery and the sensitive collaboration of his clergy. Music IS the sermon for these services: a pastoral welcome follows the organ prelude; the instrumental “Pifa” serves as an offertory, and a benediction before the organ postlude completes the spoken word segments for the service, thus allowing the powerful biblical texts and Handel’s beloved music to serve as the message.
For the 2017 presentation we had a complement of single strings, winds, trumpet, and tympani plus the collaboration of organist Sheryl Sebo at the classic Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, moved from the original church for installation as the chancel instrument for the magnificent primary edifice for worship, no longer situated on the eponymous Lane, but now gracing the northeastern corner of Northwest Highway and Inwood Road in north Dallas. Due to his scheduling error the cellist did not arrive for the Saturday morning rehearsal, but a versatile bassist did noble service, and the continuo players gathered for an extra half hour of checking cues on Sunday morning, so all fit together seamlessly.
A few performance suggestions achieved from experience
I admire those among us who are proficient readers of figured bass, but for my own security I prefer to play from a realized score, and the published version that I use is a 1998 spiral-bound volume from Oxford University Press, edited by Clifford Bartlett (with continuo realization by Timothy Morris). This 167-page score contains all of the various transpositions and alternatively voiced arias as well as the rehearsal letters indicated in the Watkins Shaw vocal score published by Novello. (A practical hint: keep a stash of large paper clips close at hand, and ask the conductor for a list of the options that have been selected for performance prior to rehearsals.)
Of course, the presence of a printed realization does not require that every printed note must be played! For dynamic or expressive reasons one may wish to omit, or add, notes. A few of my favorite examples: in “O Thou that tellest Good Tidings to Zion” (#9) try adding some upward scale figures to illustrate “get thee up into the high mountains.” Delay the harpsichord entrance at the beginning of #10, “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,” then join the bass line at letter A: “. . . But the Lord shall arise . . .” Or, for the recitative #19, “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened,” insert a bit of irresistible fun by adding some jolly arpeggiated upward sixteenth-notes to portray that lame man who is “leaping as an hart!”
Recommended books: Handel and Messiah
1) For an eminently readable biography of the composer, Christopher Hogwood’s tercentenary offering Handel (Thames and Hudson, London, 1984, USA 1985; ISBN 0-500-01355-1) is a winner with one hundred well-chosen illustrations (ten in color), a full chapter on the oratorios, and a complete chronological table of events in the composer’s long life.
2) Richard Luckett, the Pepys Librarian at Magdalene College, Cambridge UK, is the author of Handel’s Messiah: A Celebration (Victor Gollanz, Ltd, 1992; ISBN 0-575-05286-4), comprising ten cogent chapters that describe the background and history of the work’s creation, its varied performance styles through the years, and the changing tastes that have developed through the influence of the twentieth-century early music revival.
3) First Nights: Five Musical Premieres (Yale University Press, 2000; ISBN 0-300-07774-2) is James Forrest Kelly’s compendium of eventful happenings at the first public hearing of a major work by the composers Monteverdi, Beethoven, Berlioz, Stravinsky, and, as the subject of the book’s second chapter, Handel’s Messiah. Of particular interest is a discussion of recommended recordings of Handel’s oratorio (pages 342–344) as conducted by George Solti, Trevor Pinnock, William Christie, and Nicholas McGegan. The latter chose to record all the variant surviving material from Handel’s several versions of Messiah, thus providing the listener with the materials for constructing a unique performance of the oratorio to suit one’s individual interest and preferences.
A memorable venue: Handel’s house
Among my fondest memories of meaningful recitals, only a precious few hold the same rank as the thrill of performing an eighteenth-century keyboard transcription of the “Overture” to Messiah during one of my two concerts in Handel’s London lodging located at 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, known since 2001 as “The Handel House Museum.” A lovely two-manual harpsichord by Bruce Kennedy provides the player with an exceptional partner in this intimate space. Most wonderful, however, is the sense of awe that is induced by the thought that in these very rooms the great composer conceived his immortal music.
I did not wish to mention these events without hastening to mention the names of some other colleagues who have had the same opportunity. For this information I appealed to Jane Clark, a wonderful British friend and authority on Couperin and Scarlatti, as well as a superb performer of her late husband Stephen Dodgson’s keyboard music, with a request for a list of players from the United States who have presented concerts. Neither Jane nor I can vouch for its completeness (so I suggest that readers who have names to add should contact me so that I may add them in a future Harpsichord Notes column). In alphabetical order: Ruta Bloomfield, Elaine Funaro, Mark Kroll, Sonia Lee, Joyce Lindorff, Charlotte Mattax, Rebecca Pechefsky, Linton Powell, Michael Tsalka, and Kenneth Weiss—distinguished company, indeed!
Jane also noted that she was discouraging future performances of Handel’s great (but lengthy) Chaconne in G Major! (So, colleagues, be forewarned!)
Handel for harpsichord: a few suggestions
In the days before ubiquitous recording media existed, orchestral works were transcribed for home performances at the various available keyboards. Sixty Handel overtures from oratorios and operas are available in a volume of keyboard arrangements published by John Walsh (the younger) during the years 1708 to 1750. Dover Publications reprinted the entire collection in one volume in 1993. This facsimile of the “top sixty” begins at A (Acis and Galatea). [Aside: my first commercial recording was as a singer in the “Oberlin” chorus for Bernhard Paumgartner’s production of this opera at the Salzburger Landestheater in 1959, issued on a Columbia record in the United States.] The Dover volume includes both Messiah and Water Musick [sic], and concludes with Xerxes! This compendium should provide enough variety for a few decades of Handel House harpsichordists! If the occasional C clefs and idiosyncratic notational features of the facsimile edition are not to one’s liking, Novello issued Twenty Overtures In Authentic Keyboard Arrangements, edited by Terence Best (3 volumes, 1985) employing modern musical notation and printing.
Handel’s Eight Great Suites comprise typical eighteenth-century dance movements, several of which deserve to rank along with the best of such sets from the period. [Aside: in the early 1960s I nearly caused a riot in Eugene Selhorst’s graduate music literature seminar at the Eastman School of Music when I questioned the comment from a pianist who said that Handel was “not a first-rate composer for keyboard” by asking her if she had ever played any of them? She had not. A pity! My own favorites include the suites in E major (“Harmonious Blacksmith”), D minor (which culminates in a Presto movement also used to conclude the overture for the opera Il Pastor Fido), and the noble F minor. But the others are worthwhile too: multi-movement works in A major, F major, E minor, F-sharp minor, and G minor: all worthwhile and interesting music.
Finally, you might just “throw in the towel” and create your own transcription of Percy Grainger’s “clog dance” Handel in the Strand (composed for piano and strings in 1911–1912, and, as he noted in a later edition for keyboard, “dished up for piano solo,” March 25, 1930, in Denton, Texas!!). What merriment it must have brought to Dallas’s “neighbor to the north,” now home to the impressive University of North Texas School of Music.
And I’ll wager that, if the weather was as cold then as it is right now, Percy Grainger’s hot pianism could have turned most of the frozen precipitation into a dazzling dancing delight!