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Organ concertos, Op. 4 (Handel)

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Organ concertos, Op. 4 (Handel)

George Frideric Handel, 1733, by Balthasar Denner

The Handel organ concertos Op 4, London between 1735 and 1736 and published in 1738 by the printing company of John Walsh. Written as interludes in performances of oratorios in Covent Garden, they were the first works of their kind for this combination of instruments and served as a model for later composers.



Joseph Goupy, 1754: Caricature of Handel playing a chamber organ.

One may say that Händel, in particular, is not easily surpassed by anyone in organ playing, unless it be by Bach in Leipzig.

J. Mattheson, Der Vollkommene Capellmeister, 1739

Handel's six organ concertos were published in 1738 by John Walsh as the composer's Opus 4. The four concertos HWV 290-293 had been written to be played in the intervals of performances of his oratorios Esther, Deborah and Athalia in March and April 1735 in the newly opened theatre of John Rich in Covent Garden; the other two concertos HWV 289 and 294 served the same purpose in February and March of the following year for performances at the same venue of Alexander's Feast HWV 75, Handel's setting of John Dryden's ode.

The performances of Esther and Deborah were revivals, while Athalia was a reworking for its first London performance of a work first heard in Oxford in the summer of 1733. The violinist [1]

Handel's prowess as an organist had already been demonstrated in Mozart and Beethoven, who like Handel achieved fame in their lifetimes as composers and performers of their own concertos.[2]

In the chamber music.[3]

The precise reasons why Handel introduced this new musical form, the concerto for Cummings (2007). He concludes that Handel, faced by financial difficulties in mounting Italian opera, exacerbated by a newly established opera company in fierce competition for an audience, decided to showcase himself as a virtuoso composer-performer, thus providing a rival attraction to the celebrated castrato Farinelli, the glittering star of his competitors.

Handel's chamber organs

Interior of theatre at Covent Garden in 1808 with Handel's organ on the stage
Chamber organ in St James' Church, Great Packington, originally built by Thomas Parker and Richard Bridge to specifications by Handel from 1749 for the country home of Charles Jennens at Gopsall[4]

Handel had begun to introduce the chamber organ into his oratorios in 1732 in order to reinforce the voices in the chorus.[5] The oratorios John Snetzler, the leading organbuilder in London.

When Handel moved his company from the King's Theatre to the newly built theatre in Covent Garden, in autumn 1734, organs appeared explicitly for the first time in his operas. The danced prologue Terpischore HWV 8b performed there contains sumptuous scoring for alto recorders, violins, violas and pizzicato cellos with the bass and treble lines doubled by organs; Handel marked the score, "Les orgues doucement, e la Teorbe".

In March 1735 the London Daily Post and General Advertiser announced that Handel had decided to incorporate in later performances of Deborah "a large new Organ, which is remarkable for the Variety of Curious Stops, being a new Invention, and a great Improvement of that Instrument." Although the maker of that instrument or its successors remains unknown, the dynamic markings in the detailed organ parts for [6]

Rivalry between companies

Caricature of the singers Senesino, Francesca Cuzzoni and Gaetano Berenstadt (l. to r.) in Handel's opera Flavio, 1723
William Hogarth, 1732: Choral rehearsal for the oratorio Judith by Willem de Fesch

In the 1730s London theatre audiences were constantly clamouring for novelty and displays of virtuosity on the musical stage. Handel's Italian opera company had to compete with the full range of spoken drama as well as popular musical entertainment, including English ballad operas such as the highly successful Beggar's Opera and the pantomimes and burlesques produced by John Rich. Between 1732 and 1733 the composer Thomas Arne with his son and John Frederick Lampe briefly ran an English opera company devoted to full-length operas in the english language. Of these entertainments, Italian opera demanded the highest expenditure and posed the highest risks.

Between 1733 and 1737 these financial difficulties were brought to a head by the establishment of a new rival Italian opera company, the Frederick, Prince of Wales, an open sign of deep-seated disagreements within the royal family.

It was during the second season of rivalry in 1734-1735, when competition between the two companies had become fiercest, that Handel first introduced his organ concertos. By that stage the Opera of the Nobility had assembled a star-studded cast which now additionally included the castrato Farinelli and the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. Performances of Hasse's Venetian opera Artaserse played to packed houses and Farinelli became the toast of the town. Later in the season they even revived one of Handel's own operas Ottone, albeit in a heavily bowdlerised form, again with Farinelli as a guaranteed audience drawer. Artaserse and other operas including Porpora's new opera Polifemo, a precursor of Handel's pastoral masque Acis and Galatea, vied for the audience of Handel's three new works – the operas Ariodante and Alcina, part of the trilogy based on Ariosto's romantic epic Orlando Furioso, and the oratorio Athalia.[7]

Residency at Covent Garden

William Hogarth: "Rich's Glory", the first theatre in Covent Garden built in 1732 by John Rich

Handel's opera company was obliged to leave the King's Theatre after the 1733-1734 season, because of a lack of support from former directors of the Royal Academy of Music. In July 1734 his company took up residency in the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, opened two years previously by John Rich. Handel was engaged to give two performances every week, usually on Wednesday and Saturday, during the season. During the first season 1734-1735 there were three important features of the company's artistic activities:

  • a commitment to perform only music by Handel to satisfy his supporters rather than the fickle public who demanded pasticci of the latest Italian composers;
  • full use of the resident chorus and dance company in Covent Garden, including the dancer Marie Sallé from the Paris Opera;
  • an extended 6 week season of biblical oratorios building on the success of previous seasons.

All performances of the first season were advertised in the local newspapers as "By His Majesty's Command" or "By Her Majesty's Command" when the King was absent. The King and Queen attended a large number of performances, essentially snubbing the Opera of the Nobility supported by their son. In November and December 1734, Handel presented various opera revivals and a newly composed opera-ballet Terpsichore. However the combination of dance and

Handel fared better with his new opera Alcina which had an extended run, again with royal approval and attendance. There was, however, public disapproval of Marie Sallé's performance en travesti as Cupid in the ballet sections.[8]

The Farinelli phenomenon

Engraving of Farinelli, after Amigoni 1735
William Hogarth, Plate 2 of A Rake's Progress. Detail. 1735. The scrap of paper shows Farinelli on a raised dais, behind a burning altar. Women offer up their hearts under a banner bearing the legend. One God, One Farinelli.[9]

Farinelli's impact on London opera-goers was without precedent: his singing gave rise to wild adulation verging on hysteria. Horace Walpole recorded that Lady Rich (1692–1773) expressed her rapture in 1735 with the words, "One God, One Farinelli." [9]

Handel had unsuccessfully attempted to hire Farinelli for his own company during a visit to Venice in 1729, so impressed was he by his brilliant castrato voice. In London Farinelli continued to pull the crowds to the Opera of the Nobility, despite Handel's insertions in his operas of dance interludes by Marie Sallé, the leader of the resident dance troupe at Covent Garden.

In early 1735 the first performances of ritornello of the first movement is a borrowing from Act 1 of Alcina. It featured in the April performances of Athalia at Covent Garden. The other concertos were first heard in March, HWV 290 and 291 in Esther and HWV 293 in Deborah.[10]

Alexander's Feast

I was nearly an hour with Handel yesterday ... he is in no danger upon the whole but I fear or am rather too certain that he will lose a great part of his execution so as to prevent his ever playing any more concertos on the organ.

Lord Shaftesbury, personal friend of Handel, 1737
Roubiliac: Sculpture of Handel for Vauxhall Gardens. 1738, Victoria and Albert Museum. Under Handel's left arm is a leather bound copy of Alexander's Feast.[11][12]

Handel completed stroke, or rheumatic palsy, resulting in temporary paralysis in his right hand and arm. After brief signs of a recovery, he had a relapse in May, with an accompanying deterioration in his mental capacities. In Autumn 1737 the fatigued Handel reluctantly followed the advice of his physicians and went to take the cure in the spa town of Aix-la-Chapelle. All the symptoms of his "disorder" soon vanished, although there were to be recurrences of the condition in 1743 and 1745.[13]

Alexander's Feast was performed 25 times in Handel's lifetime and was printed in 1738 by John Walsh. It was subsequently revised in 1739, 1742 and 1751, with the suppression of the two concertos Op.4. For the final performances in 1753, Handel could not himself perform because of his failing eyesight. The Countess of Shaftesbury relates that she saw "the great though unhappy Handel, dejected, wan and dark, sitting by, not playing the harpsichord."[14]


HWV Opus Key Composed Premiere Published Movements Notes
289 Op.4 No.1 G minor /
G major
1736-00-001735–1736 1736-02-1919 February 1736 1738-00-001738 Larghetto, e staccato - Allegro -Adagio - Andante First performed with "Alexander's Feast" (HWV 75)
290 Op.4 No.2 B flat major 1735-00-001735 1735-03-055 March 1735 1738-00-001738 A tempo ordinario, e staccato - Allegro - Adagio, e staccato - Allegro, ma non presto First performed with the oratorio "Esther" (HWV 50b)
291 Op.4 No.3 G minor 1735-00-001735 1735-03-055 March 1735 1738-00-001738 Adagio - Allegro - Adagio -Allegro Variant versions of last movement. First performed with the oratorio "Esther" (HWV 50b)
292 Op.4 No.4 F major 1735-03-0025 March 1735 1735-04-011 April 1735 1738-00-001738 Allegro - Andante - Adagio - Allegro Originally concluded with 'Alleluja' chorus (HG 20, p. 161), short instrumental ending probably written by Handel for Walsh publication. First performed with "Athalia" (HWV 52)
293 Op.4 No.5 F major 1736-00-00 1735 1735-03-26 26 March 1735 1738-00-001738 Larghetto - Allegro - Alla Siciliana - Presto Performed with revival of "Deborah" (HWV 51).
294 Op.4 No.6 B flat major 1736-00-001736 1736-02-1919 February 1736 1738-00-001738 Andante allegro - Larghetto -Allegro moderato First performed with "Alexander's Feast" (HWV 75). Originally composed for the harp, but later arranged for the organ


  • HWV 289: The last movement is a minuet and variations expanded from the Trio Sonata in F, Op.5, No.6
  • HWV 290: The first movement is an expanded version of the symphonia from the Motet Silete Venti for soprano. The first allegro uses material from the Trio Sonata Op.2, No.4.
  • HWV 291: This uses material from the Trio Sonata Op.2, No.6, the Recorder Sonata Op.1, No.2 and an early oboe concerto. The introductory bars of the first movement use material from the Concerto Grosso Op.3, No.3.
  • HWV 292: A large part of the first movement is derived from the introduction to the second version of the chorus Questo è il cielo from Act I of Alcina
  • HWV 293: This is a close transcription of the Recorder Sonata Op.1, No.11.
  • HWV 294: This has no borrowings.[15][16]


Title page of Walsh's arrangement of Op.4 No.2 HWV 290

Concertos for biblical oratorios (1735)

  • HWV 290 This concerto in B flat recalls the style of Handel's first compositions in England. However, despite the seemingly conventional semiquaver figurations for organ, Handel's maturity and inventiveness are apparent in the unexpected rhythmic subtleties and suspensions of the ritornellos. As Basil Lam has commented, these are the musical counterpart of the unexpected overrunning of the beat in the couplets of the poet John Dryden, Handel's contemporary. Similarities did not end there: both reacted similarly to criticism. Handel is quoted as saying at Vauxhall Gardens, "You are right sir, it is very poor stuff; I thought so when I wrote it"; while Dryden remarked of some of his lines from a play, "I knew they were bad enough to please, even when I wrote them."[15]
  • HWV 291 The solo violin and violoncello parts in the first movement are partly adaptations of the solo parts in the original trio sonata on which this concerto in G minor is based.[15]
  • HWV 292 This concerto in F is essentially in three movements, like Bach's concertos for solo instruments: the short adagio in D minor serves as a link between the second movement and the fugal finale. The andante is delicately scored for pianissimo strings senza cembalo (without harpsichord) with three stops on the organ – open diapason, stopped diapason and flute – another indication that these concertos were intimate chamber works.[15]
  • HWV 293 This is a faithful transcription of the recorder sonata, Op. 1, No. 11, very reminiscent of the style of Arcangelo Corelli.[15]

Concertos for 'Alexander's Feast' (1736)

Watercolour by John Sanders, 1773. The Foundling Hospital Chapel looking west, showing the organ, built by Thomas Parker, donated by Handel in 1749.
  • HWV 289 This concerto in G minor and major is a chamber work of "flawless lucidity and grace".[17] The opening stately larghetto in G minor has two different ritornello themes for organ and strings marked minuet in G major with two variations. The echo responses of the upper strings are marked piano or pianissimo and the organ is sometimes accompanied only by a continuo.
  • HWV 294 This concerto in B flat major was originally written for the Welsh harpist William Powell for performance in [18]


The concertos were first published in 1738 by Harmonia Mundi, HMU 807446, 2008. (Midem awards winner, concerto section, 2008.[19])

See also


  1. ^ Handel 1981, p. vii
  2. ^ Abraham 1954, p. 223
  3. ^ Abraham 1954, pp. 225–226
  4. ^ George Frideric Handel's 1749 Letter to Charles Jennens, Notes by William Gudger, Moldehauer Collection, Library of Congress
  5. ^ Burrows 1997, p. 227
  6. ^ Cummings 2007, pp. 2–6
  7. ^ Cummings 2007, pp. 6–11
  8. ^ Cummings 2007, pp. 11–21
  9. ^ a b Heartz 2004
  10. ^ Cummings 2007, pp. 21–22
  11. ^ Roubiliac's Handel, description at Victoria and Albert Museum.
  12. ^ Aspden 2002
  13. ^ Van Til 2007
  14. ^ Burrows 1982
  15. ^ a b c d e Abraham 1954
  16. ^ Sadie 1972
  17. ^ Abraham 1954, p. 226
  18. ^ Abraham 1954, p. 229
  19. ^ Midem awards 2008


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