Harpsichord Notes

June 30, 2018

A glimpse into actual eighteenth-century performance practices

Early in April I received a copy of Beverly Jerold’s fascinating article on performance standards in Handel’s London. The American musicologist, a longtime friend and consultant, brought to mind the cogent remark from Gustav Leonhardt: “we would almost certainly be surprised by a truly Baroque performance!”

In mid-May, having just returned from a 2,000-mile roundtrip automobile journey to perform in the Aliénor Retrospective that was the final event for Historical Keyboard Society of North America’s 2018 meeting at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I arrived home on May 14­—one day before the mid-month deadline for submitting a July column. A late-night email to Ms. Jerold resulted in her giving permission to reprint this article, originally published in Handel News, #71 (January 2018), the newsletter of the Friends of the London Handel Festival.

Should Jerold’s article lead to a desire for more Handelian essays, an annual subscription to the newsletter is available for £20 (£15 for retired folk). Payment should be made payable to Friends of the London Handel Festival and sent to the society’s treasurer: Leslie Porter, 25 Park View Road, Southall, Middlesex UBI 3HJ, United Kingdom. Our thanks to newsletter editor Tony Watts and to the author for allowing this reprint of her thought-provoking essay.


Reichardt’s Review of Handel Concerts in London

by Beverly Jerold


If we could travel back to the age of Bach and Handel to hear how music was performed, we would often be disappointed. Technology is unnecessary for music composition, but it can greatly enhance performance. For example, early sources reveal that many musicians are not born with the ability to sing or play pleasingly in tune. In contrast, the music we hear every day provides automatic ear training and many other benefits. Since we cannot imagine a world that had never experienced our concepts of refined tone quality, consistently good intonation, and rhythmic accuracy, our reading of early sources may be colored by modern assumptions. Some of these are called into question by the Berlin court Kapellmeister Johann Friedrich Reichardt’s report of two Handel concerts he heard in London in 1785.1

The first was Samson at the Drury Lane Theater, whose entrance was in a dirty alley and down some steps, as in a beer hall. In the foremost loge, almost on the stage of this small, plain theater, were King George III and the Queen. Some disorderly young chaps settled themselves very close to the king’s loge, making an unruly disturbance during the performance—mostly mockery of the singers—such as Reichardt had never heard at the worst German theater. One of them took loud delight in the stiff enunciation of the singers, who made a point of thrusting out each syllable extremely firmly and distinctly. Particularly in the recitatives, Mr. Reinhold attacked the difficult words with such pedantic preparation, executing each single consonant so elaborately that one would often have had time to look up the word in a dictionary.

“But what I wouldn’t have given for a better musical performance,” declares Reichardt.
“The singing was often downright poor. In comparison, the instrumental music was much better, at least the string instruments. The blown instruments were often intolerably out of tune.” As first violinist, Mr. Richards led the orchestra just passably. Because of the many participants, the choruses made more effect than they usually do in Germany, but were nevertheless disappointing: “Often the choral singing was filled with screaming from the most wretched voices. Miss George and Miss Philips, the principal female soloists, were very mediocre indeed, frequently singing heartily out of tune, while Messrs. Quest, Norris, and Reinhold were deplorable, and often bellowed like lions.” Reichardt’s observations are confirmed by Charles Burney’s letter of 1771 to Montagu North in which he complains that English “singing must be so barbarous as to ruin the best Compositions of our own or of any Country on the Globe” until they have music schools and better salaries.2

After the first part of Samson, a little girl played a modish concerto on the fortepiano. Reichardt’s footnote quoting The Morning Post for March 12 suggests that the composer often took the blame for a wretched performance:  


At the Oratorio yesterday evening Miss Parke . . . performed a concerto on the Piano Forte. . . . her execution was such that a veteran in the profession might not be ashamed to imitate. This . . . was a sufficient compensation for three tedious Acts of Handel’s worst Composition. 

Standards varied dramatically between this program for the general public, even though it included royalty, and one exclusively for the upper class. On March 12, Reichardt heard the Concert of Ancient Music, limited to music more than twenty-five years old, and sponsored by a society of 300 subscribers from the court and highest nobility. Since even the most respected musician could not be admitted, the famed German soprano Gertrud Elisabeth Mara had to use all her influence to enable Reichardt to hear some of Handel’s music that was completely to his liking.

This concert’s hall, an oblong of more pleasing form and appropriate height than the Drury Lane Theater, was just large enough to accommodate an orchestra of very considerable size and the subscribers. Seating on the floor began in the middle of the hall, leaving a substantial space between the first row and the orchestra, leading the frequent-traveler Reichardt to comment about conventional orchestral volume level:


I very much like having the instruments at a distance, for when they are close, particularly the string instruments whose every separate, strong stroke is always a powerful shock, it makes an extremely adverse, and often painful, long-lasting impression on my nerves.3

Mad. Mara and Samuel Harrison were the principal soloists; Wilhelm Cramer, the concertmaster; and Mr. Bath, the organist. The orchestra was large and the chorus adequately strong. In the chorus from Handel’s Saul, “How excellent thy Name, O Lord!,” Reichardt found more good voices than in the program the day before, particularly since several Royal Chapel choirboys, some with very beautiful voices, participated. But for the most part, the lower voices were the same, and again just as harsh and screaming.

Reichardt was pleased that Handel’s second Concerto Grosso, which is so different from their present instrumental music, was performed well and strongly with its own character. In his youth, this work’s simple, harmonically compact music had made a strong impression. Today, he therefore expected nothing more than what it really is, so he readily found it pleasurable. But it will be a disappointment to those who think that the title “Concerto” promises a display of the principal player’s skill with difficult passages. The principal parts do not have as many difficult passages to execute as each part in the easiest new Haydn symphony: “We can regard them as a document showing the character of instrumental music at that time. From this we can judge the great progress instrumental music has made in the last thirty years.” Yet this type of instrumental music presents its own very great difficulty for execution:


something that . . . should be the foundation of everything else. Good intonation and larger tone. Music affects the listener only when it is completely in tune and strong. When performed with correct intonation and large tone from all the instruments, this concerto’s melodic clarity and rich harmony has to make a far stronger effect on the listener than the greatest technical difficulties. . . . Whoever knows the enormous difficulty of achieving this will not be surprised that I found both of these qualities today only with Mr. Cramer, who played the principal part. Yet no single measure offered him the opportunity to show his superior skills that are so admired in Germany.4

Since Reichardt’s 1776 manual for professional ripienists (Ueber die Pflichten . . .)
prescribes exercises that are mastered today by young children, string technique, even at that time, was extremely low by our standards.

Hearing Mad. Mara (for the first time since she left Berlin) in a scene from Giulio Cesare, Reichardt found that grandeur and fullness of tone had been added to her qualities of strength, clarity, intonation, and flexibility. “How she sang the great, noble scene from Handel! It was evident that Handel’s heroic style had influenced the spirit and even the voice of this exemplary artist.” And in Handel’s “Affani del pensier un sol momento” from Ottone, he was profoundly moved, for she conveyed the text as from the soul. After intermission, Mr. Harrison sang “Parmi che giunta in porto” from Radamisto:


With a tenor voice that is not strong but nevertheless very pleasing, he sang this Cantabile completely in accord with the old style in which it is composed: that is, without any additions of his own, thereby giving the audience and me great pleasure. Mr. Harrison performed even the very simple figures . . . exactly as they appear in Handel’s work, and sought to give the piece its due only through fine tone quality and precise, clear execution. And that is very praiseworthy. Melodies and finished compositions like Handel’s arias tolerate no alterations anywhere. His melodies have such a finely chosen meaningful, expressive succession of notes that almost anything put between them is certainly unsuitable or at least weakening for the word being sung. The construction of his basses and harmonic accompaniment is such that no singer can easily change three notes without creating a harmonic error. All of Handel’s melodies . . . can produce the desired effect on the present listener only when we want their effect to be the one heard. All new trimmings remove from the listener the impression that the venerable old style gives him and in which alone he can enjoy such music.5


Then Reichardt describes the contrasting style of composition heard in Mara’s performance of Johann Adolf Hasse’s “Padre perdona oh pene!:”


Hasse’s style presumes an inventive singer, and whole sections, intentionally sketched out only in outline, are expected to be embellished by the singer. At that time in Italy, the new, more opulent singing style arose hand in hand with the luxuriant dramatic style in composition. Hasse availed himself of this all the more since his wife, Signora Faustina Bordoni, was one of the principal female singers in the new lavish style. Just as the old bachelor Handel worked only for his art and himself, so did Hasse work for his wife and similar singers.

Nevertheless, Hasse did not approve of extravagant additions, as seen in his letter to Giammaria Ortes6 (a sample of Faustina’s own embellishment is modest). While most major composers followed Handel’s practice of leaving little, if anything, to the singer’s discretion, secondary, mostly Italian composers catered to Italian singers’ desire for a skeletal melodic line to decorate.

To close the concert, Mara sang a recitative and aria from Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, followed by a full chorus from the same. According to Reichardt’s text, this concert’s success was owed to the soloists Mara and Harrison, a much better physical space, and Cramer’s orchestral leadership. Cramer was clearly exceptional—with no metronome training available, many leaders were afflicted with the same rhythmic instability as their players.


How did Handel view singers’ additions? Consider John Hawkins: “In his comparison of the merits of a composer and those of a singer, he estimated the latter at a very low rate.”7 Handel would not have tolerated the harmonic errors that characterized most singers’ own embellishment. But where did they add the embellishment that Burney mentions in his General History of Music? The answer lies in his account of Handel’s “Rival ti sono” from Faramondo, written for the castrato Caffarelli: “In the course of the song, he is left ad libitum several times, a compliment which Handel never paid to an ordinary singer.” Here, and in other Burney citations, Handel did not permit routine alteration, but restricted it to places left bare for this purpose, such as very brief Adagios or the close of a section. Perhaps this kept peace with Italian singers while protecting his work. Compare any of his conventional arias with a truly skeletal Larghetto he wrote for Caffarelli in Faramondo. According to Burney, “Si tornerò” is “a fine out-line for a great singer.”8 Here, the singer is expected to add notes, but nearly all of Handel’s other arias are fully embellished, except for occasional measures. Our belief that a da capo should have additional embellishment derives solely from Pier Francesco Tosi, a castrato who wrote when skeletal composition was fashionable in Italy. There is no reason to apply his advice to arias that the composer embellished adequately.

In sum, Reichardt’s account reveals standards and aesthetic values different from our own. If we had never known such things as recording technology, the metronome, period instruments that play up to modern standards, and high-level conservatory/general education, there would be no musicians with today’s advanced technique. From Reichardt’s text and his definition of Handel’s style as “heroic,” it is apparent that tempi and embellishment were restrained, and that full-bodied tone was desirable.


1. [Johann Friedrich Reichardt], “Briefe aus London,” Studien für Tonkünstler und Musikfreunde, ed. F. A. Kunzen and J. F. Reichardt (Berlin, 1792/93), Musikalisches Wochenblatt (MW) portion, 130ff., 137ff., 147f., 171f. According to Walter Salmen, Johann Friedrich Reichardt (Freiburg and Zürich: Atlantis, 1963), 57ff., Reichardt attended these London concerts in 1785.

2. The Letters of Dr. Charles Burney, ed. Alvaro Ribeiro (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), 1:96.

3. Reichardt, MW, 137: “Diese Entfernung der Instrumente that für mich eine sehr angenehme Wirkung: denn ihre Nähe, besonders die der Saiteninstrumente, deren jeder einzelner starker Strich immer eine gewaltsame Erschütterung ist, macht auf meine Nerven einen höchst widrigen oft schmerzhaften und lange fortdauernden Eindruck.”

4. Reichardt, MW, 138f.

5. Reichardt, MW, 171: “Solche Melodieen und ganze Zusammensetzungen, wie Händels Arien sind, vertragen durchaus keine Änderungen.”

6. See Beverly Jerold, “How Composers Viewed Performers’ Additions,” Early Music 36/1 (Feb. 2008): 95-109.

7. John Hawkins, A general history of the science and practice of music, (London, 1853; rpt. New York [1963]), 870.

8. Charles Burney, A General History of Music, from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (1789), ed. Frank Mercer (New York: Harcourt, Brace, [1935]), 2:819-20.


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