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 [...]
Handel: The complete organ concertos, 1
They spoke about it
On March 20, 1735, the Old Whig: or, The Consistent Protestant published the following excerpt, under the heading “A Letter to a Friend in the Country”:
“Handel, whose excellent Compositions have often pleased our Ears, and touched our Hearts, has lately reviv’d his fine Oratorio of Esther, in which he has introduced two Concerto’s on the Organ that are inimitable.
But so strong is the Disgust taken against him, that even this has been far from bringing him crowded Audiences; tho’ there were no other publick Entertainments on those Evenings. His Loss is computed for these two Seasons at a great Sum…” As much as we would like to preserve, at times, the old faith in the quasi-mythical view of the composer’s motivation as pure and disinterested commitment towards the renewal of form and style, force is to admit that it has little to do with the creation of the organ-concerto genre. We would be hard-pressed to find a more succinct summary of the “accidental” circumstances assisting the birth of the genre than the letter quoted above. The “great Sum,” for example, was nothing new: one only has to think of the financial difficulties sustained by the Royal Academy from its beginning to its demise in 1728, or of those created by the defection of Senesino and other star singers to the rival “Opera at Lincoln’s Inn Fields,” in the early 1730s. It reminds us, however, that purely economic considerations play, at times, an essential role in a composer’s creative process.
The mention of Esther is also revealing, as it underscores the intimate link that existed from the start between oratorio perfomances and concerto. One, in fact, would not be misled in believing that the concerto, feeding on Handel’s reputation as improviser, had, so to speak, the mission of winning back the so-described “disgusted” public. The revival of Esther took place on March 5, 1735. On March 15, Mrs. Pendarve, close friend of Handel, wrote to her mother: “We [my sister Ann and I] were together at Mr. Handel’s oratorio Esther.… My sister gave you an account of Mr. Handel’s playing here for three hours together: I did wish for you, for no entertainment in music could exceed it, except his playing on the organ in Esther, where he performs a part in two concertos, that are the finest things I ever heard in my life.”
One of these concertos was probably the Concerto op. 4 no. 3, in g minor. Its compositional history show the haste in which the new genre was conceived. A substantial part of the first movement, for example, is simply an adaptation of a movement of the trio sonata op. 2 no. 6, while the material used for the last movement comes from two sonatas of the op. 1 set. Moreover, the notation of the organ part of the first movement, almost shorthand, is an indication that the main attraction, here, might have been essentially the richness of Handel’s improvised ornamentation.
The Concerto in A and the Concerto in F (“The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”) were both composed during the first months of 1739. On March 20 of that year, the London Daily Post announced that “At the King’s theatre… this day… will be reviv’d an Ode, call’d Alexander’s Feast. Written by Mr. Dryden. With Several Concerto’s on the Organ, and other Instruments, Particularly a new Concerto on the Organ by Mr. Handel…” The concerto in question, written “on purpose for this occasion,” was probably the A-major concerto — no doubt occupying the same place in the oratorio that Op. 4 no. 6 did before, that is, after the recitativ “Timotheus, plac’d on high.” As for the Concerto in F — its name derives from the characteristic themes of the second movement — it was probably the one announced on April 4 (“With several Concerto’s on the Organ, and particularly a new one…”), for the premiere of Israel in Egypt. As mentioned, the Concerto op. 4 no. 6 originally belonged to Alexander’s Feast (1736), albeit in a version for harp and orchestra. Its orchestration differs slightly from that of the other concertos, recorders replacing the customary oboes doubling the violins. The writing in the solo part is also fuller, leaving little room for improvisation (interestingly, the indication ad libitum, fixture of most of the concertos, is absent).
In 1854, the parishioners of St. Stephen’s Anglican Church of Chambly, Québec, changed their small tubular bell organ (sold to St. Thomas’ Church of Rougemont) where it still functions) for a Samuel Warren choir-organ. This latter instrument was restored in 1955 by English organ-builder J.S. Tuttiet. He seems to have respected the original character of the instrument, although he changed the foot of the pipes of the 16′ bourdon and increased the pedal-board from 22 to 27 notes. The custom of the period was to have the dulciana take its low-pitched pipes from the bourdon. The organ-case, which blends in so well with the setting of the church demonstrates that Warren, born of a family of cabinet-makers and architects, not only had a sense of auditory balance, but a sense of visual proportion as well.
The Organ builder: Samuel Warren
Samuel Russell Warren (Triverton, R.I. 1809 – Montréal 1882) received his organ-building training in Appleton in the United States. He settled permanently in Montréal in 1836 and very quickly achieved a wide and lasting reputation, building more than four hundred instruments. He taught his apprentices, his sons Charles S. and Louis Mitchel, who themselves became well-known in Canadian organ-building. Warren was, in fact, the first professional organ-builder and he laid the basis for the development of the organ-building industry Canada. He also introduced new organ components such as Barker’s pneumatic lever (1851), the hydraulic bellows (1860) and relatively new stops such as harmonic flutes and free reeds. Unfortunately, the large instruments Warren built no longer exist or have been reworked. But the choir-organs in the churches of Chambly, Frelighsburg and Dunham have resisted the ravages of time and also of fashion.
– Antoine Bouchard
Composition of the Instrument
Swell – Manual 8′
Stopped Diapason 8′
Fifteenth Pedal 16′
Bourdon Pedal Coupler 4′
The sixteen Handel concertos included in this series were performed on antique Québec organs. The small size of these instruments suggested the limited scale of the orchestra. Mechanical noises are common in organs of this period and should not come as a surprise to listeners. These noises are represented here as faithfully as is the music.
© Alex Benjamin
Translation: Rachelle Taylor