GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
(GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL)
(born 1685 Halle, Germany; died 1759, London)
Sonata in E Major, Op.1 No. 15 HWV 373 from The Complete Sonatas for Violin and Figured Bass
Born in 1685 in the German city of Halle, George Friderick Handel demonstrated musical talent early on in his lessons in counterpoint/harmony, organ/harpsichord, violin, and oboe. His father, a businessman, vehemently opposed his son’s wish for a life in music. However, a family friend, the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, recognized young Handel’s exceptional musical gifts and convinced his father to continue his musical education in addition to his regular studies.
Recognized widely today as the composer of Water Music and Messiah, Handel was granted instant acceptance as a composer at the age of 19 with the premiere in Hamburg of his opera, Almira.. More operas followed immediately, as well as an Oratorio based on the Passion of St. John. But Handel did not stay long in Hamburg, the city of his first success as a composer. In the next few years, he spent much time in Italy where he absorbed the Italian tradition of Baroque Opera and acquainted himself with Italian masters including Alessandro Scarlatti, Corelli, and Carissimi.
Returning to Germany, this time to Hanover, in 1710, he took a position with the Electoral Court, but he spent virtually no time there. Instead, he spent much time in England, where his employer in Hanover, Elector George, came to the throne of England as George I, succeeding Queen Anne, in 1714. As a result, Handel continued to serve the same person but in London.
Handel’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 1, No. 15 HWV 373 was first published as a part in a more extensive set of fifteen pieces: “Solos for German flute, Hoboy or Violin with a Thorough Bass for the Harpsichord or Bass Violin.” In Handel’s case, the opus numbers are not indicative of the order in which they were written. This is because he not only had the habit of recycling earlier material, but his publisher changed the order (and even exchanged two sonatas for new ones) when he republished the set.
In the beginning of the 17th century, violin-keyboard literature was a rather new invention, as the ancestor of the modern violin had just emerged. While the keyboard instrument, the future piano, was to go through major alterations over the next few centuries, instruments in the string family were being transformed from instruments of soft sounds into instruments that could project and sustain the new solo lines that were being composed for them. Of course, Baroque instruments and bows seem different from “modern” instruments, with their more focused attack and sonority and, arguably, different tuning for the open strings. But it is clear that the stringed instruments of the 17th century were the forefathers of what we have today.
Musically speaking, there were changes as well. Up until the beginning of the 17th century, music (or musical lines) were written in counterpoint, meaning that the multiple lines were of equal importance and were independent of each other. Gradually these principles evolved into a new musical idea: prominent melodic lines, with the support of an accompanimental harmony. For example, in the early Baroque operas, the expressive melodic line was sung and accompanied by the subordinate lines, played on various instruments.
This style of writing (solo line, with support) came to be used in instrumental music, and, because the sound of a violin was the closest stringed instrument to that of the human voice, violin music gained an important place in the Baroque musical literature.
Handel’s “Sonatas for Violin and with Figured Bass,” like other Baroque sonatas, are played by the solo violin, accompanied by a bass line, which supplies harmonic continuity. This bass line can be executed by the viola da gamba alone, by the keyboard, or by the two instruments together, to accompany the solo violin line. Basso continuo literally translates as continuous bass, but it is a synonym for figured bass. The instruments usually involved in a Baroque sonata are the violin, and the basso continuo. It is most frequently covered by two musicians, a keyboard player and a lower string player who constantly doubles the keyboardist’s left hand. In some movements, this results in a continuous bass, but in other movements (especially the slow ones), there may be very little bass playing.
As one looks at the music for the basso continuo, it is written out with numerical symbols signifying the specific construction of the chord to be played, based on the notation. For the keyboard player, too, the bass line or the left hand is simple, and in addition, occasionally embellishing, improvisatory notes are written as suggestions for the right hand. What is concretely written is minimal. The bass line is provided, under which numerical symbols appear to clarify the kind of harmony that is to be constructed by each individual player. In the right hand, certain embellishments are made to be at the discretion of the player to “realize” the intent. Often the embellishments are in the forms of trills, scales, and appoggiaturas (dissonances emphasized on strong beats). The violinist improvises too, but to a lesser degree. There is a distinct difference between embellishment (adding trills, scales, and appoggiaturas to pre-existing lines) and improvisation. The continuo part requires extensive realization (choosing exactly which pitches to play above the bass line), considerable embellishment, and very little improvisation. To some extent, realization and embellishment add improvisatory effects to the music. The creation of melodic line, the kind of improvisation referred to in the violin part, is of a different flavor. In many slow movements from Baroque sonatas, all that was provided to the musicians was a figured bass. It was the violinist’s responsibility to make-up the music that would appear over this figured bass. Some times the violin would not play at all, and the movement would be a continuo solo, but this kind of improvisation is very different from realizing a figured bass (only by the continuo) and adding embellishments (both violin and continuo may do this depending on their level of skill and comfort.) It is also interesting to note that things are rarely truly improvised. There is not much done on the spot–these melodies are usually practiced and planned out ahead of time. However, their presentation is supposed to be improvisatory.
Handel’s music, unlike that of his famous contemporary J.S. Bach, has an open quality about it, with simplified musical components that are not introspective. The Sonata in E Major, Op. 1, No. 15 HWV 373 follows the format of a Baroque Church Sonata, alternating slow and fast movements. In this Sonata, the first movement opens the work with a feeling of simple nobility. Poised and elegant, the movement is written in one continuous, prolonged line. It moves directly into the second movement, Allegro, full of happy, positive energy. In this movement, the two half-sections are repeated, giving the performers a chance to challenge themselves to embellish differently each time. Moreover, the second half begins in the dominant key of B major, typically following the rules of composition popular in the Baroque era, as well as in later stylistic periods. In the third movement, one is reminded of a dirge, or a funeral procession. This is the least written-out section of the piece, and in this movement every performer is likely to realize and to interpret in a most “feelingful” way. The final movement, Allegro, is a gigue in E major. As in the second movement, the two halves are repeated, and the second half is in B major. This is essentially a charming movement.
Notes © 2003 by Midori, OFFICE GOTO Co.Ltd.
Referential sources available on request.