Tag Archives: Handel

Importance or Import? Handel’s Violin Sonatas

This is not the album I’m discussing below, but I’d recommend clicking “Play” anyway and enjoying the music as you read:

Trust me on this one, and thank you for reading.

This was one of the first classical recordings I ever purchased:


After years of awareness that many of my jazz heroes listened to symphonies, sonatas and operas, and after finally getting over my teenaged prejudice against un-improvised music, I was ready to appreciate the stuff.  Like it or not, classical music is an influential art form, and it was good enough for Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong. It was time for me to get with the program.

I already had some experience with Bach and Vivaldi (whose music stills resounds with me as the most uninhibited and “jazz-like” in the entire tradition), but I was ready to try other avenues. The new releases wall in the classical section at Tower Records in the East Village seemed like a logical place to start, and almost immediately became a really inundating experience (I’d kill to be overwhelmed in a record store now, but that’s a whole other issue).

Then I found this disc. There was something refined yet earnest about the cover: two guys (with fancy foreign names to boot!) playing some rather dignified-looking instruments on a simple grey background. They were artists, there to make music, no frills or flashy imagery needed. “Violin sonatas” also sounded pretty substantial.  I knew the name “Handel” but didn’t know who he was. With that type of subconscious star power, Handel must be a serious composer. The music itself was probably some crucial piece of Western art, the stuff that listeners and performers like Hawk and Satch were well aware of, and here was another traversal of this time-tested music. An important looking and important sounding album means important music, right?

Hank Mobley - Hank Mobley and His All StarsYet when I got home and popped this rarefied sucker into my stereo, it bowled me over for the same reasons as a lot of music I loved but which never made it into the history books. The melodies were set in that elegant but emotive style I would come to associate with Handel, a holdover from the operatic career I would also come to learn was his main historical claim to fame. Yet simply as a series of notes succeeding one another, it was all touching, catchy and simply beautiful. The timbre of Hiro Kurosaki’s violin and William Christie’s harpsichord were very different from the saxophones, trumpets and rhythm sections I was used to. Somehow the purity and sincerity of their sound got me hooked immediately. The really big deal was how Kurosaki moved on his eighteenth century axe: quickly, incisively and in the end just like any skilled, sincere musician strutting his stuff. Pity that Lester Young and Hank Mobley never got hear it!

Perhaps most incredible was that even with my very modest musical training, I didn’t get the sense that Handel was doing anything that would make impress a musicologist. He was laying down some great melodies and exciting moments over flowing harmonic progressions. Yet there was none of the dense counterpoint I already recognized from Bach’s music, or juicy harmonic turns of phrase that already kept me coming back to Mozart. I did like how Handel alternated fast and slow movements, like he was a bandleader or DJ switching between fast and slow numbers. That turned out to be just a formal convention. The harpsichord filled out harmonic textures with a rich but transparent sound, and offered some bumping bass lines, but it was strictly accompaniment; no keyboard solos or intricate dialogs with the violin anywhere. This was just lead and accompaniment, but it was amazing. It was good music, to me.

The liner notes focused on the history of the music, such as which themes were recycled from earlier works or reused in later pieces. They also revealed that this album included a few imposter sonatas that made it into editions published under Handel’s name. Just to confuse matters further, I actually liked those too!

Young Handel

Handel (YOUNG Handel).

Determined to get to the bottom of things, I kept digging. Internet research only clarified just how messed up the authenticity and publication history of this music was. Critics didn’t seem too interested in these works, and by extension neither did performers. When Google did mention Handel’s sonatas, it was mostly descriptions of their “unique lyric character” and “strong rhythmic motives.” No one described any surprising compositional craft beneath the surface, or intricacies that my untrained ears were missing out on. Handel’s violin sonatas seemed liked “good music” to me but didn’t seem like important music to others.

Over the years I’ve kept up my research, poring over liner notes from new releases and reading reviews. I’ve read a lot about these sonatas’ performance practice as well as their publication history. I still discover nuances to listen for. So far no one has unearthed anything earth shattering about Handel’s violin sonatas. It might be out there, buried in some dissertation I’m too lazy to pore through JSTOR to find. The truth is I no longer care. At this point if I discovered that Handel was the first composer to use a particular chord or require some unusual tuning for the violin, it really wouldn’t add anything to these works, for me.

More importantly, I’ve continued listening to these works, and even with new releases of them, kept coming back to this album. Kurosaki and Christie truly are a dynamic duo: elegant but never stuffy, supple, perfectly balanced, with lyrical slow movements and athletic fast ones. I don’t have any favorites sonatas or movements to pick out, though I understand why the D major sonata is considered Handel’s finest in the genre, and a copy of the Italianate, three-movement anomaly in this set is definitely already waiting for me on that desert island. The whole disc is there. It really is just good music.

Unfortunately it’s good music with a spotty presence on YouTube, hence the suggestion to listen to the different but nonetheless spectacular complete version that I hope you’ve been enjoying as you read.  

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Concert Review: Water Music, Lots of It

An entire concert of music about rivers could easily over-indulge in imagery, if not gimmickry.  Fortunately Boston Landmarks Orchestra knows how to deliver a cliche-free program.  Natural and musical beauty mingled along the Charles on Wednesday, and I had the privilege to experience it all.  You can find my coverage in The Boston Musical Intelligencer here.  Enjoy, have a nice weekend and get out there and enjoy the season!

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An Orchestrated Double Entendre

Musicologist Daniel Heartz advises that the “wooden” music Vivaldi wrote for the words of the first act duet in La Fida Ninfa (translated from Italian below) never seems to “soar”:

Girl: Tell me, shepherd…
Boy: Nymph, speak to me…
Girl: If I give you my heart,
Boy: If love binds me,
Both: What will I gain for my suffering?

The lyrics aren’t very riveting on paper, but they’re designed as a springboard to a musical depiction of two young lovers’ uncertainty.  Vivaldi casts the scene as an upbeat call and response in a jolly major key, with his signature harmonies bouncing back and forth:

Vivaldi’s setting is bright, rhythmic and seemingly oblivious to the insecurity packed into the word “penar” (“suffering” or “torments”).

Yet while the librettist‘s words are limited to hesitation, the composer’s music conveys the joy that await this couple, maybe what they’re already anticipating (assume that even the powdered wigs and church-every-Sunday crowd of Vivaldi’s day understood that “love” wasn’t just a matter of looking into each others’ eyes or holding hands).  The composer isn’t missing an opportunity, he’s letting it “soar” to a much more nuanced, optimistic place.  The modern listener in turn experiences irony, fear of commitment and sexual tension from a bygone age, and Matthew Weiner is nowhere in sight.

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Concert Reviews: Three Musketeers and a Developing Talent

Leslie Kwan of L'Academie

Andrew Staupe

Between L’Académie‘s sophisticated, thoroughly danceable program of French works and pianist Andrew Staupe‘s Boston debut, this was an inspiring weekend for young artists, music lovers of all ages and the future of classical music.

It was also a great weekend for the guy who got to cover these performances!  Check out my reviews of both concerts in The Boston Musical Intelligencer:

Glowing L’Académie, Dance-Worthy Musketeers

Pro Musicis Winner Staupe at Longy

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Concert Review: Father Knows Best but La Donna Musicale Reign

La Donna Musicale, courtesy of Houston Early Music

If de Rossi‘s The Prodigal Son had been composed by a man, it wouldn’t have received such a sterling modern premiere on Saturday night.  Thank goodness for historical gender politics!

Here’s my review of La Donna Musicale’s performance in The Boston Musical Intelligencer:

La Donna Musicale: Erudite, Spirited Prodigal Son

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Concert Review: Balance and Ballistics in Handel & Haydn’s “Four Seasons”

What can an eighteenth century Venetian composer and priest tell us about hard-hitting individuality?  Plenty, especially with Aisslinn Nosky‘s bow firing off his ubiquitous Four Seasons alongside Beantown’s own Handel and Haydn Society.  Small wonder director Harry Christophers was shaking his rear end as much as his conducting hand by the end of the show.

My review of some subjective, idiosyncratic and thoroughly fun Baroque on The Boston Musical Intelligencer:

Handel and Haydn’s Varied, Visceral Four Seasons

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“forty 2 and 3 year olds had their first taste of baroque favourites…you could hear a pin drop”

While I don’t often re-post from other websites (or perhaps I simply don’t do it as often as I should), the latest blog post from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was heartwarming, inspiring and pretty frigging adorable.

So, what’s the secret to opening up new audiences to “old” music?  It might be the same as opening ourselves up to new experiences regardless of our age or background: keeping that childlike sense of wonder, and having a good teacher.  These little ones didn’t seem to mind that the music was written by dead folks or that it didn’t have a drum set!

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Favorite Fridays: Don Ellis’ “Passacaglia and Fugue”

Don Ellis would have hated this blog.  He might have asked why jazz and classical are discussed separately, or why discuss them at all when you can play them?  His performance of Hank Levy‘s “Passacaglia and Fugue” from the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival is all about splitting differences, even shattering them.

Don Ellis Grooving...and Yes, "Groovy"

Passacaglias date back to the Baroque era.  The name is a combination of Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street), and the form’s most prominent feature is an obstinately repeating ground bass underneath variations.  The descending riff that begins this passacaglia finds three unison basses easing down the sidewalk in a gritty minor key, with an earnest brass chorale and tapping triangle on top.  The two part counterpoint is quaintly “classical,” until the band gets down to business with punchier syncopation.

Ellis would become famous for using unusual meters such as 5/4, 7/4, 17/4 or the utterly uncountable “3-3-2-2-2-1-2-2-2” but here the 6/8  time signature is a footnote to straightforward swing .  Sections and soloists are having a blast with this chart, occasional raggedness aside.  Ellis’ trumpet lines tend to blur but his phrases fall right into the groove alongside drums and electric piano.  The “Passacaglia” ends with a whispering return to the ground bass, making way for a driving “Fugue.”

Fugues are considered the highest test of a composer’s mettle. Levy had studied composition and theory, but what he absorbed from Bach, Handel, Brahms and other contrapuntal masters was that forms are a means, not an end.  Now in straight four, the saxes start the fugue off, with each voice dropping down and countering the next, building a slow burning groove and even including a brief second subject.  The parts move logically against one another without sounding studied.  They can be taken a part one by one, either by a theory major or a dancer.


Hank Levy

When the leader’s trumpet calls the fugue to an abrupt halt (a wink to the mixed form or “false fugue” Handel was known for), all the fancy arranging footwork is an afterthought to burning improvisation.  Ellis’ solo works off of of skipping phrases, engaging in defiant call and response with the band.

A return to the initial fugue builds tension rather than monotony (and also indicates this chart could’ve been opened up for more solos.  Were Ellis’ sidemen content to play their parts, or intimidated by the score?).  The fugue in turn signals a screaming restatement of the passacaglia, and a slightly tongue-in-cheek double-time coda.  The audience at Monterrey replies in turn with some whistling and shouting that most fugues in the concert hall never garner.  Ellis might have been surprised more people don’t hoot and holler for Bach, or why more jazz musicians aren’t playing stretto alongside “Straight, No Chaser.”

For more swinging (occasionally sixties-style switched-on) sounds from the Monterey concert, purchase or download the complete album here.

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William and Kate Are Married: We Now Resume Your Regular Musical Broadcasting

I’m going to miss the coverage of the royal wedding.  It’s not for the footage of painted smiles and multi-tiered hats, or lessons in centuries old rules of etiquette I’ll never utilize (should I use the appetizer or main course fork for Buffalo wings?), but the background music for these stories is straight out of the Baroque I know and love. The Baroque’s crisp strings, surging rhythms and bursting counterpoint, pitched in a major key and at a fleet tempo, exude an air of classy celebration that suits nuptials from royal London to DIY backyards.

The Middleton/Mountbatten-Windsor affair has had a hefty dose of Handel surrounding it, no surprise given the composer’s lengthy, successful career in London during the eighteenth century.   What is surprising is that one of the most “English” sounding of composers, with a gift for grand, long-breathed melodies and stately, strutting rhythms, hailed from a small town in Germany and cut his teeth as an opera composer in  Italy before arriving in England.  England was not known for promoting local talent at the time, and the country’s so-called “unmusical” native tongue made Italian opera quite successful.  Handel’s emotionally charged music and top-notch casts of singers made his operas the hits to be heard, and his unmatched prowess as a keyboardist further cemented his reputation.  Concerts, commissions and collections poured in, from which wedding planners and script writers have been pilfering ever since.

Most of what we hear is a single movement, sometimes just a single theme, from a much larger work.  The “Hornpipe” from Handel’s Water Music, commissioned by George I for a concert on the royal yacht, has become synonymous with elegance and pomp, with the remaining twenty movements getting relegated to several Baroque-era B sides.  Contemporary listeners who might not otherwise stomach Handel’s nearly two hour oratorio Solomon are no strangers to the fussy cascades of its “Arrival for the Queen of Sheba,” and Handel’s so-called “Largo” (literally, “slow”) is in fact “Ombra Mai Fu,” a serenade to a tree from his opera Serse.  Due to obvious time (and attention span) restrictions, Handel’s works are chopped up and co-opted to suit a variety of needs.  Watching coverage of the royal wedding, we get a lot of very little Handel.

Like the story of two star-crossed lovers or the image of the Mona Lisa, Handel’s continued success is not a result of hearing all of his works in completely undiluted form, but the way that just a piece of them survives to this day and lodges itself in the souls of millions of listeners around the world.  Music has meaning, and it’s often not in the complexity of its complete structure or sophistication of its poetry.  The fruits of Handel’s creative labor have caught a particular sentiment for over centuries, in this case the sometimes trite but ultimately life-affirming act of people publicly symbolizing their love.  It’s a pretty impressive thing to put on your resume as a musician, or a citizen of the world.

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