Sunday, February 7, 2021

Handel - Organ Concerto In G Minor Opus 4, No. 1 HWV 298

Handel's fame during his life was based on his abilities as a performer as well as his success as a composer.  There is the legend of his participating in a contest with Domenico Scarlatti for bragging rights concerning their performing abilities. Tradition has it that while Scarlatti was chosen as the winner on the harpsichord, Handel was chosen as having even greater abilities on the organ. Scarlatti himself is thought to have said that Handel was the first person that ever showed him the potential of the organ.

Be that truth or fiction, Handel was definitely a virtuoso on the organ, which Handel decided to use to his advantage.  Opera in 18th century London was the rock concert of its day. With audiences dividing into different camps for different composers and singers,  opera companies would vie for the most popular singers to ensure that the box office would sell out. Handel's direct competition at the time was a rival opera company that had just hired the famous castrato singer Farinelli, who was setting the London opera scene on its ear. Handel himself tried to secure Farinelli's services for his opera company, but when he couldn't meet his price, Farinelli's singing lured so many people away from Handel's operas that it threatened to bankrupt him.

Handel first played the G minor organ concerto in a performance of his choral work Alexander's Feast in 1736. It was shortly after this in 1737 that Handel suffered a stroke that temporarily cost him the use of his right hand and arm. He was recovering from this until May of the same year when he had a relapse. All of the symptoms vanished after he took the waters at the spa town of Aachen in Germany.

The concerto begins with a slow, stately movement that has two main themes that are developed freely with the organ answering the orchestra in decorated replies. There follows an allegro movement that continues the decorative organ responses to the orchestra with different themes. The short adagio leads to a minuet and two variations.

The Handel organ concertos are a milestone in the development of the keyboard concertos of the Classic and Romantic ages.  While there are many examples of concertos for violin and other instruments before Handel and Bach's time, it is Handel and Bach that set the stage for the concerto for solo keyboard and orchestra that gave Mozart and Beethoven notoriety as virtuoso performers.

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