Last HSO Performance: HSO Premiere
Instrumentation: harpsichord, strings,
Between 1738 and 1740, when his success with Italian opera in London was beginning to wane, Handel turned his attention to English-language oratorio and produced a series of concertos that could be used either as intermission features or for independent performance. The Organ Concertos, Op. 4 (1738) and Op. 7 (1740), were intended specifically for his own performance between the parts of his oratorios. The Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 of September-October 1739 could serve a similar function (they did so during Handel’s oratorio series later that season) or they could be played by anyone who acquired the music. Handel, in fact, made the Op. 6 Concerti Grossi available for general purchase by subscription, the only of his instrumental compositions to be so published. The works became popular so quickly that Walsh, Handel’s publisher, reported the following April, “[They] are now played in most public places with the greatest applause.”
Handel wrote the twelve Concertos of his Op. 6 with astonishing speed — September 29 to October 30, 1739 — most of them apparently completed in a single day. These wondrous pieces, coming some twenty years after Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, the only other orchestral music from the Baroque era of comparable stature, were old-fashioned for their day. They used the concerto grosso form — utilizing a small group of soloists rather than an individual player — that had been developed in Italy during the last half of the 17th century and been perfected by Arcangelo Corelli with his Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, published in Rome in 1714. Handel’s entourage of soloists comprises two violins and a cello which compete/collaborate (the term “concerto” means both simultaneously) with a string orchestra bolstered by harpsichord. The movements, four to six in number, generally alternate in tempo between slow and fast, with some imitative writing spicing the quick sections. Handel’s strength, however, was melody, and these Concertos are less densely packed with complex counterpoint than are the Brandenburgs. In expression, though, they are in no way inferior to Bach’s masterpieces because of Handel’s unfailing thematic invention, sense of tonal balance, harmonic ingenuity and invigorating rhythms. Of the Op. 6 Concerti Grossi, Percy M. Young wrote, “In these works it is tempting to see the peaks of Handel’s creative genius. Elsewhere the flame of inspiration may leap momentarily higher, but nowhere else has the consistency of imaginative thought so triumphal a progress.”
The Concerto for Brass Quintet and Orchestra is an arrangement of Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F major, Op. 6, No. 9 by Gerard Schwarz, who began his career as Principal Trumpet of the New York Philharmonic from 1972 to 1977. Schwarz had begun conducting even before he left the Philharmonic, and he thereafter served as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, New York Chamber Orchestra, Mostly Mozart Festival in New York, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and, most notably, the Seattle Symphony, where, during his 26-year tenure, he established it among the country’s leading orchestras, becoming especially noted for his performances and recordings of 20th-century American composers. Schwarz is also a gifted composer and arranger who has written for orchestra, concert band, chamber ensembles and voice. He created the Concerto for Brass Quintet for an appearance of the Canadian Brass with the Mostly Mozart Festival during his tenure there. His arrangement includes three movements of Handel’s Op. 6, No. 9: an movement full of bounding, high spirits; a Larghetto of touching pathos; and an exuberant Allegro in fugal style.
©2023 Dr. Richard E. Rodda