HANDEL – Domestic Opera

George Frideric Handel triumphantly entered the stormy waters of Italian opera in London in 1711. Italian opera had been a feature of London musical life since 1705. Competing with opera sung in English and with spoken plays for the attention of the public, it proved difficult for impresarios and theatre managers to make a commercial success of it. Part of the difficulty was quality: more was spent on the singers, mostly imported from Italy, than on the composers and arrangers who struggled with libretti and scores cobbled together from a variety of sources. Handel was the first to compose an opera in Italian for the London stage, and his first offering, Rinaldo in 1711, was a stunning success. Part of the impression it made came from Handel’s own performance at the harpsichord: Armida’s aria, Vo far guerra, featured improvised solo interludes which Handel played in bravura fashion.

In the eighteenth century, the only way to enjoy opera out of season was to perform it in a reduced format. There are countless versions of the most memorable operatic moments to be uncovered in contemporary manuscripts and prints. These range from orchestral editions of the overtures, to chamber settings of instrumental and vocal music, to solo keyboard transcriptions. The market for these arrangements was significant. The Walsh publishing house eventually put out 11 volumes of keyboard transcriptions of Handel’s work alone and these volumes went through multiple printings, from the first set of 1726 to the last in 1758. The pieces in them were in steady use well into the nineteenth century.

The quality of the arrangements was far from consistent. Indeed, many of them are the work of hacks, clumsy and ill-suited for keyboard. Of the better transcriptions, many were done by the versatile William Babell (c.1690-1723), harpsichordist, organist, violinist, composer, and arranger. He published several books of harpsichord pieces or ‘Lessons’ which consist mainly of arrangements of popular airs and overtures mixed with a few original compositions. The largest collection was the Suits [sic] of the Most Celebrated Lessons, published in 1717. It is organized into four suites or ‘Sets’. Each set begins with a prelude composed by Babell. The pieces in the First Set are all taken from Rinaldo and include two of its most celebrated selections, the Overture and the aria, Lascia ch’io pianga. These keyboard arrangements fit the hand particularly well. They are full of ornaments, rich textures and virtuoso passagework. Some of the figuration is common to several of the pieces and provides a glimpse of Babell’s personal performance style. The embellishments that grace Lascia ch’io pianga are especially elaborate and provide us with a good example of how far contemporary performers could depart from the score. The pieces in the Second Set include arias from other successful productions, including an adaptation made by Nicola Haym of Giovanni Polani’s Creso (1714), Francesco Gasparini’s Antiochus (1711), and Handel’s Il Pastor Fido (1712).

The final piece on this CD comes from the Fourth Set, and is a particularly flamboyant setting of Vo far guerra. It is an extraordinary arrangement. The solo harpsichord sections take on a life of their own and completely outweigh the other parts of the aria. Charles Burney must have heard Babell play this or a similar version:

“[Mr Babel] acquired great celebrity by wire-drawing the favourite songs of the opera of Rinaldo, and others of the same period, into showy and brilliant lessons, which by mere rapidity of finger in playing single sounds, without the assistance of taste, expression, harmony or modulation, enabled the performer to astonish ignorance, and acquire the reputation of a great player at a small expence … Mr Babel … at once gratifies idleness and vanity.”

But Burney’s contemporary, John Hawkins, noted that Babell’s arrangements ‘succeeded so well … as to make … a book of lessons which few could play but himself, and which has long been deservedly celebrated’. The final extended cadenza makes me wonder whether J.S. Bach might not have received a copy of Vo far guerra from his son, Johann Christian. Perhaps the elaborate cadenza to the fifth Brandenburg concerto is Bach’s demonstration of a brilliant lesson—but with the assistance of taste, expression, and harmony.

Handel himself undertook keyboard transcriptions of some of his works. A few of these arrangements appeared in the Walsh editions while others are preserved in manuscripts. Terence Best has published an edition of 20 opera overtures in arrangements likely prepared by Handel. Two of these, from Radamisto and Semele, are heard here. They are perhaps more reserved than Babell’s, with fewer runs and thinner chords, but the voice leading is cleaner and there are fewer awkward turns of harmony.

The overture to Il Pastor Fido (1712) enjoyed a long life in a variety of versions for keyboard, both in print and in manuscript. True to the spirit of eighteenth-century transcriptions, the version heard here is assembled from a number of different arrangements. The opening movement combines a version preserved in several manuscripts that is plausibly by Handel himself with a version published as a variant in the Händel-Gesellschaft by Chrysander. This version comes from a copy of the Walsh edition with additional notes which, according to a remark left by its eighteenth-century owner, were intended to show “how Handel … rendered the playing of them.” While it is an open question whether the ornaments and embellishments found in this copy derive directly from Handel, they certainly suggest the kinds of embellishments added by contemporary performers. The three middle movements are taken primarily from the fourth collection published by Walsh in 1730. The second and fourth movements share traits with Babell’s arrangement of the Rinaldo overture found in the same collection. I have made a few changes to the second movement based on one of the manuscript versions. The final Allegro also combines readings from a manuscript version and the Walsh print.

The three instruments used for this recording are particularly well suited to the music heard here. All were built in London during the eighteenth-century and they might well have played these pieces when they were new. They form part of the Benton Fletcher Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments at Fenton House in London. This collection, largely assembled by Major George Henry Benton Fletcher during the first decades of the twentieth century, currently includes 19 keyboard instruments, of which all but 5 were built in England. Fletcher believed strongly in the value of hearing early music on period instruments. From the beginning his collection was intended to showcase English keyboard instruments in playing condition in an appropriate setting. Fenton House, where the collection is housed today, is a magnificent home built in the late seventeenth century and maintained by the National Trust. The collection is available to students and scholars of early keyboard instruments and is featured in concerts, master-classes and competitions. The current Keeper of the collection, Mimi S. Waitzman, has written a sumptuous book which describes the instruments in detail (Early Keyboard Instruments: The Benton Fletcher Collection at Fenton House. London: National Trust, 2003).

The oldest of the instruments heard here was built by Jacob Kirckman in 1751. The Kirckman family was one of two firms which dominated the production of harpsichords in London during the eighteenth century. Jacob Kirckman, the founder, was born in Alsace in 1710 and moved to London in his early twenties to work with Hermann Tabel, a scion of the famous Couchet workshop in Antwerp. The Kirckman shop produced a prodigious number of instruments, with over 150 surviving today. The instrument heard here is one of the earliest remaining instruments by Jacob Kirckman and mechanically the simplest. It has only one keyboard and two sets of eight-foot strings, both operated by manual stop levers.

The other dominant harpsichord-building firm in eighteenth-century London was established by Burkat Shudi, who came from Switzerland in 1718, also to work with Hermann Tabel. He established his own workshop in 1729. A single-manual Shudi harpsichord built in 1761 is used for the Second Set of pieces set by Babell. It was owned by pianist Fanny Davies (1861-1934), a pupil of Clara Schumann. Like Benton Fletcher, she was interested in early keyboard music and performed much of it on period instruments more than 50 years before the modern Early Music revival. It has one 4-foot and two 8-foot registers, and features a distinctive English innovation, a pedal-operated ‘machine stop’. When the machine stop is engaged, pressing on the pedal allows for an instantaneous change of registration and subsequent contrast in timbre. When the pedal is in the raised position, all three registers sound (8, 8, 4); when the pedal is depressed, only one of the 8-foot registers remains. This permits the echo effects heard, for example, in track 15.

Burkat Shudi brought the Scottish cabinet maker, John Broadwood, into the firm in 1761. As Shudi & Broadwood (later, simply Broadwood), they sent instruments to clients throughout Europe, including Frederick the Great, the Empress Maria Theresa, and Joseph Haydn. The 1770 harpsichord used for the First Set of Babell, the Pastor Fido transcriptions, and the setting of Vo far guerra is representative of late eighteenth-century harpsichords with features intended to rival the newly emergent piano. It has two manuals, two sets of 8-foot strings and a set of 4-foot strings, and several sets of jacks. One set, the so-called ‘lute’ stop, plucks near the origin of the string and produces a very nasal sound. Another set of jacks, fitted with leather plectra, is called the ‘harp’ or ‘buff’ stop. Its sound is quiet and a little muffled, ideally suited to soft passages. The Largo movement from Il Pastor Fido (track 9) features a bass line played in octaves on this stop. On an instrument with quill or plastic plectra, the bass line overpowers the melody, but here the effect is gentle and orchestral. It sounds much like a cello and a double-bass accompanying the melody. There is also a set of jacks with the usual quill plectra. The instrument features a ‘Venetian swell’, an inner lid with a set of louvered panels which create crescendo and decrescendo effect as they open and close. That feature is not heard on this recording. Like the 1762 instrument, a pedal operates the machine stop, allowing the player to change instantly from a full to a reduced registration.

Hearing these transcriptions played on contemporary instruments allows us to share for a brief moment in the vibrant artistic life that flourished in London during the eighteenth century.

Hank Knox, Montreal, 2008