Born into a family of renowned Québécois musicians, Geneviève Soly was eight years old when she realised that she was going to be a performer. This revelation came while she was listening to an LP [...]
They spoke about it
Georg Friedrich Handel is mostly known today for his vocal music, especially his oratorios and operas. Even though he was a prolific composer of keyboard music these works still have to be discovered to be fully appreciated. Harpsichordist Geneviève Soly delights us by performing this repertoire through a new point of view: an historical exchange between composers of the same era, Handel and Christoph Graupner. A trip to Darmstadt in music and time.
Händel in Darmstadt
The Darmstadt Harpsichord Book
The present recording features a selection of youthful works by Georg Friederich Händel (1685-1759). Except for the sonata HWV 579, all are taken from a manuscript volume housed at the Darmstadt library, commonly known as the Darmstadt Harpsichord Book (DHB), prepared by the copyist Samuel Endler (1694-1762). This recording contains 20 of the 29 works by Händel found in the manuscript volume.
These works had for the most part been published during the composer’s lifetime, in Amsterdam and London between 1719 and 1733, in versions that were often unauthorized and faulty. Composed by Händel between the ages of 15 and 26 (from 1700 to 1711), they had been circulating throughout Europe in manuscript copies for quite some time. Rarely performed, they are especially noteworthy for their high-spiritedness and the singing qualities of their melodies, and are replete with Händel’s genius, youth, impetuousness, and wonderful sense of improvisation.
The Darmstadt Harpsichord Book
The Darmstadt Harpsichord Book contains works by four German composers. Apart from Händel (systematically identified as il signor Hendel ), two of his contemporaries figure in the book: Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) and Christoph Graupner (1683-1760). The book opens with a suite by that great composer of the previous generation, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722). It is my great interest in Graupner that led me to study the pieces by Händel in the DHB. It quickly became apparent that certain obvious stylistic traits linked the two composers. I also wished to examine the extent of their relationship. Their friendship is attested to in an obituary published in Hamburg in May 1760, shortly after Graupner’s death, but the greatest and surest testimony is the DHB itself. Here we find Graupner putting down in writing— alongside his own works, a suite by his master Kuhnau, and a handful of pieces by an esteemed colleague, Telemann—works by his good friend from Hamburg. These works were probably the more endearing to him that they had been transmitted by a friend whose genius had certainly not escaped his notice.
This study has allowed me to come up with a hypothesis concerning the source used by Samuel Endler: the Darmstadt Harpsichord Book could well be the copy of a personal notebook of Graupner’s started in his Leipzig years, and which he continued to expand during his stay in Hamburg and even beyond. A good amount of Händel’s music it contains could have been given Graupner during friendly exchanges between the two Saxons while working at the Hamburg Opera, around 1705-06, and kept up after they parted ways.
Comments on the Works
Chaconne in G major (HWV 435a) 
The version heard here is the first of five and dates from the Hamburg period. The piece is built upon the same bass line as Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The middle section, marked Adagio and in the minor key, is a fine example of Händel’s lyricism.
“Sonata del Signor Hendel” in F major (HWV 427a)
The best known work recorded here, this sonata appeared in Händel’s most famous collection, the eight suites for harpsichord, published as the “First Set” in London in 1720. The Darmstadt manuscript presents a preliminary version dating from the Hamburg period, quite different from the published version, at least in the initial adagio and in the ordering of the pieces.
The first movement  is indebted to opera; it is a very embellished aria supported by a chordal bass. The second movement, marked allegro , does not appear in the 1720 edition; it is a lovely piece similar to hundreds of others in harpsichord books of the time. The central movement, also marked allegro , is more like an “allegro andante” (a term which is found in Händel’s music). It is a two-voice piece, in the form of a solo instrumental sonata, with a well worked-out soprano voice, steady and singing, over a walking bass. One could easily imagine it as an andante from a sonata for violin and harpsichord. The adagio  that follows is but a transition (but oh how rhetorical!) to the ensuing fugue. It is a wonderful four-part fugue . As early as the Hamburg years, Mattheson noted that “Händel was already an exceptional force on the organ, as well as in fugues and counterpoints, especially ex tempore (improvised).”
Suite in C major (HWV 443): Sarabande  and Gigue 
This is the only suite by Händel in the DHB that was not published during the composer’s lifetime. This is of some significance since it is his first harpsichord work, a manuscript copy of which he may have handed Graupner at the time of their friendship in Hamburg.
Sonata in G major (HWV 579) 
This piece does not figure in the DHB. It is a one-movement sonata Händel composed early on in his Italian sojourn (around 1706). It has close ties with Graupner, as we will see below , since the theme is borrowed from him.
It is quite an original piece, a real compositional hotchpotch. The theme is heard 17 times in various guises: in echo, in canon, like an orchestral tutti and in a kind of “double echo choir” reminiscent of Gabrieli. The theme elicits an impression of suspension… and with good reason! It is in fact a half phrase followed by a four-note echo.
The sonata is written for a two-manual harpsichord, with frequent switches between manuals and alternations of hands on both keyboard. The Italian concertante style is evident from the outset, with the typical bariolage of violin concertos.
Close to the end of the piece, in a section in jig rhythm from which the theme is absent, Händel directly quotes Buxtehude (who he had gone from Hamburg to visit in Lubeck in the summer of 1705 with his friend Johann Mattheson). He also quotes Graupner again.
Finally, Händel used this theme twice more in the years to come: first in the sonata with obbligato organ from the oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (Rome, 1707), and again in an aria from his first London triumph, the opera Rinaldo (1710-11).
[Marche en rondeau] 
The theme of the sonata HWV 579, both in the soprano and in the bass, is identical to the one heard at the beginning of this movement taken from a partita in G major by Graupner (GWV 145) that is also found in the DHB. Christoph Graupner expands the initial phrase which, from four bars in Händel (excluding the echo), is eight bars long here. The theme actually sounds complete, and it would be plausible to say that Händel parodied Graupner in this case, and not the contrary, especially since Händel, unlike Graupner, made a habit of parody throughout his career.
Suite in B flat major [11 to 18]
Prelude – Sonata – Aria and 5 variations (HWV 434)
The opening figure to the second movement, sonata , is derived from the aria Blinder Schütz from Händel’s first opera, Almira (Hamburg, premiered in January 1705). The style is the same as in the G-major sonata on this recording: Italian to excess, it is also a showcase for virtuosity.
The air and variations, very common in Germany in the 17th century, was a form equally favoured by Händel and Graupner. It is the air from this suite that served as the model for Brahms’s piano variations. Each variation is written in a distinct style. For example, the third is a jig in the manner of Buxtehude, followed by a variation in mirror form.
Suite in B flat major (HWV 440) [19 to 22]
Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Gigue
In the DHB, these four movements are associated with the prelude, the sonata, and the aria and 5 variations, which today bear a different catalogue number (HWV 434).
Note in particular the gigue in 3/8 time, very short and perky, whose initial subject is composed of wide leaps, obviously evoking a very leaping dance. It is contrapuntal in style and the main subject is restated in the second part, this time in inversion. This type of fugal jig is extremely common in the 17th century. This particular piece, highly reminiscent of more ancient music (by Henry Purcell, for instance, or Henry Desmarets), and devoid of typical Handelian features, is perhaps a pastiche through and through. Here, I only use the four-foot stop during both repeated sections of the dance, which makes them sound an octave higher than the first time around.
Finally, it is interesting to note that a musical material identical to that of the sonata  is found in a Händel trio sonata for two violins. This work, published only relatively recently in 1979, has come down to us in a single manuscript source kept at Darmstadt. It is in Graupner’s hand, and dates from his arrival at court in 1709! This may seem merely anecdotal, but one could see this instead as significant testimony to the human and musical sympathy between the two composers, who had been good friends at the Hamburg Opera.
© Geneviève Soly
Translation: Jacques-André Houle