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HANDEL: Private Passions

Thursday April 8, 2021 @ 8:00 pm PDT - 9:00 pm PDT


My late and great harpsichord teacher Gustav Leonhardt hated Handel, and has stated so many times in print.  He claimed Handel was incapable of writing a fugue — how utterly wrong he was!  The great choral fugues in his Oratorios prove this, and in this program of his more ‘private’ music, you will hear two extraordinary keyboard fugues which I dished up for strings. The string trio sonata was also a form that inspired Handel to create some mini masterpieces throughout his life.  The Op. 2 No. 6 trio sonata is reportedly one of his earliest works written in his early 20s in Rome — what fabulous and colorful stuff … with great fugal writing!  The later trio Op. 5 No. 2 is full of great character pieces and could be a mini opera!  The trio sonata Op.5 No.4 is here given with an added viola part lovingly gleaned from other ‘orchestral’ versions of this music.
So enjoy Handel ‘at home’ in his passionate front room!
PAUL HALE, cello
JORY VINIKOUR, harpsichord

Harpsichord generously provided by Peter and Cynthia Hibbard.



Click Here for Music Performed


Trio Sonata Op. 2, No. 6 in G minor, HWV 391

Andante – Allegro

Fugue V in A minor, HWV 609 (transcription by R. Egarr)

Trio Sonata Op. 5, No. 2 in D major, HWV 397

Allegro – Adagio
Musette. Andante
Musette da capo
Gavotte. Allegro

Fugue IV in B minor, HWV 608 (transcription by R. Egarr)

Trio Sonata Op. 5, No. 4 in F major, HWV 399

A tempo ordinario – Allegro, non presto – Adagio
Gigue. Presto
Menuet. Allegro moderato

Click Here for Program Notes

Written by Scholar-in-Residence Bruce Lamott

Compared to his prolific output of operas and oratorios, Handel’s chamber music comprises only a small portion of his compositional oeuvre. He was a man of the theatre, both as a composer and impresario but unlike his contemporary J.S. Bach, pedagogue did not figure prominently in his resumé. Consequently he lacked the students and opportunities for whom such works were often created. Like Bach, however, fugue-writing was an essential part of his musical education. The works on this program predate the advent of the string quartet by thirty years, but Handel’s inclusion of viola parts in his later trio sonatas anticipates its eventual function of filling out harmonies previously supplied by the harpsichord’s right hand in the trio sonata texture of two solo parts with basso continuo (cello, harpsichord).

Trio Sonata in G Minor, Op. 2 No. 6

There is great uncertainty about the authenticity of some of the trio sonatas published as Handel’s Op. 2, though this one, composed c.1707, makes the cut on stylistic grounds through comparison with other works by the young composer. This sonata opens with an Andante that employs the whole Baroque toolbox of melancholy: a minor key, moderately slow tempo, moments of chromaticism, sighing appoggiaturas, wide descending leaps, and expressive suspensions. The parts enter separately as if in conversation and sync together only in a single measure near the end of the movement. The affect changes in the following Allegro, a confident fugue with a declamatory theme (subject) shared equally by all three parts (called “voices” in fugues). The subject reappears only occasionally as our attention is drawn to episodes of figuration.

Despite its related key of B-flat major, the Arioso returns to the affect of melancholy with precipitous downward leaps and dissonance-generating suspensions. The movement is lyrical, though not as vocally navigable as the title suggests. The second violin answers the firs in dialogue, not in fugal imitation, and both parts lead the listener into some unexpected harmonic territory.

“Gigue fugue” was a popular genre among organists from Buxtehude to Bach, propelled by continuous eighth-notes of 6/8 characteristic of the Italian giga (more familiar perhaps from the jig known as “The Irish Washerwoman”). In this fugue, the upper parts freeze in long suspensions when the subject goes to the cello, but the equality of fugal texture gives way to solo figuration in the violins before the climactic ending.

Fugues in A Minor (V) and B Minor (IV)

It’s a paradox that so many fugues—a compositional genre dependent on interwoven melodic lines—should be written for an instrument least capable of revealing their intricacies: the harpsichord. In the immortal words (on the record) of Richard Egarr, it is an instrument which is “only capable of going ping.” Even in the hands of the most carefully articulating player, the individual identity of the fugal lines is lost in its uniformity of timbre. However, a transcription of these voices into separate instrumental parts allows the listener to enter into the fugal texture and appreciate their interplay in a way that no keyboard–even the organ–can. Egarr’s transcription of these keyboard fugues for string quartet follows in a long tradition, most notably Mozart’s transcriptions of fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier for string quartet.

Though fugal writing originated in vocal part-writing, the melody (subject) of the A minor fugue is decidedly un-vocal: from the first note it drops a seventh (one note shy of an octave) then leaps up an octave, only to drop precipitously by another seventh. The tortured chromaticism that follows creates harmonic instability that continues over the sustained note (pedal point) in the cello that signals the ending.

The subject of the B minor fugue is less arduous and contains three ideas on three different rhythmic planes that Handel will develop in the course of the piece: 1) the descending fifth (sol-do) that slowly opens the subject with a half and quarter note; 2) a faster four-note pattern that starts with two repeated eighth notes; and 3) a corta (long-short-short) figure derived from the subject that enlivens the texture with sixteenth notes.

Trio Sonata in D Major, Op. 5 No. 2

In contrast to the dubious lineage of works compiled long after their composition and published as Op. 2 as late as 1730, in 1738 Handel collaborated with his publisher Walsh in preparation of the trio sonatas published as Op. 5. They are mostly his reworking of anthems written for the court of the Duke of Chandos and theatrical works from the mid-1730s. Their origins as orchestral works is reflected by the addition of viola parts to the trio sonata texture.

The preponderance of French court dances in this sonata give it the character of an instrumental suite. It opens with the customary dotted rhythms of the French overture followed by a fully worked-out fugue. The musette—a bucolic indoor bagpipe—is imitated by the drone of the cello while the upper parts play a folksong-without-words. Its naivete is countered by a rather grandiose Allegro middle section in D minor in which the violins play together in harmony with flourishes and snappy Lombard (short-long) rhythms, This frames a peculiar pianissimo passage for the violins without the continuo. The repeat of the “musette da capo” heightens this contrast all the more.

The first two movements were derived from the first Chandos anthem and the second two from the ballet music for the opera Ariodante. The Marche and Gavotte, which seem to be the product of necessity rather than inspiration, were newly composed. If Handel only had a phone, he might have phoned them in.

Trio Sonata, Op. 5 No. 4 in G Major

This sonata begins with two overtures: the first, from Handel’s oratorio Athalia; the second, from the festive serenata Il Parnasso in Festa. The first movement is cast in the simple binary (AABB) form of Baroque dances, with the two violins swapping phrases in a continuous line of passagework interrupted by a terse refrain. The second is in the style of the “French overture,” with its characteristic dotted rhythms and flourishes in tempo ordinario—a term Handel often uses for a moderate tempo, neither fast nor slow. The linked Allegro quickly abandons the conventional fugal texture for an exchange of parts with playful and unexpected starts and stops.

The Passacaille, from the Act IV ballet in the opera Radamisto, is the centerpiece of the work, a French variation form based on a repeated 8-bar phrase in the bass. While in the previous two movements Handel treats the two violin soloistically, here they become more “orchestral,” playing together in harmony with the cello. The cello also shares more of the melodic material in this movement than in the others.

In contrast to the purely Italianate giga that ends the G minor sonata, this sonata begins with the lilting sautillant (jumping) figures characteristic of the French gigue. Reflecting his German penchant for stylistic cosmopolitanism, each half ends with a return to the continuous motion of the Italian style.

Pifa (from Messiah)
Other than the overture, this is the only purely instrumental piece in Handel’s celebrated Messiah. It, too, functions as an overture, introducing the musical tableau that begins with the recitative “There were shepherds abiding in the fields” and ends with the chorus “Glory to God in the Highest.” Handel derives the title from the bagpipe-playing shepherds known as pifferari, who came from southern Italy to play in the streets of Rome during Advent. The gentle rocking rhythm of the pastorale over the sustained drone of the cello and bass evokes the imagery known in visual art as The Adoration of the Shepherds.

Click Here for Glossary

Compiled by Scholar-in-Residence Bruce Lamott

anthem. a large sacred work for chorus and soloists developed in the Church of England in the sixteenth century. Handel wrote anthems for the Duke of Chandos at Cannons when he first came to England.

arioso. a passage in solo vocal music in which the free speech-rhythm of a recitative becomes a lyrical melody subject to tempo and pulse. Arioso is also used in the Baroque period to denote an abbreviated aria-like movement that lacks the formal conventions of the aria.

fugue. a composition in which a theme (called the subject) is imitated by other parts (voices) which enter individually and interwoven into a texture called contrapuntal or polyphonic. Fugue refers to a formally organized work which systematically introduces and re-introduces this subject in different voices and keys. Musical passages that begin with such imitation but do not follow through with the systematic treatment are called fugal.

soloistic. musical lines that highlight the virtuosity or personal expression of an individual instrumentalist, specifically written to display the techniques of that instrument.

subject. the theme introduced at the beginning of a fugue. The use of the term subject rather than theme reflects the historical reputation of the form as a learned and intellectual procedure subject to the disciplined study of counterpoint.

trio sonata. the commonest form of Baroque chamber music, usually written for two treble instruments in the same range (violins, flutes, oboes, or combinations thereof) and basso continuo, an amalgam of a melodic bass line (cello, viola da gamba, bassoon) played together with its attendant harmonies played by the harpsichord or organ.

transcription. the adaptation of a musical work from one instrumentation to another. Handel, for example, transcribed previous works that he composed for orchestra into the trio sonatas on this program.

Listen to the audio program notes below.

Watch “Notes from the Music Director” below.


Thursday April 8, 2021
8:00 pm PDT - 9:00 pm PDT
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