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Georg Friedrich Händel (23 February 1685 – 14 April 1759) – Christmas meditation (Harp concerto)

by Luca

On February 19, 1736, King’s Theater in London played host to a remarkable gala musical event, of the likes of which modern Baroque aficionados can only dream. No fewer than four of George Frideric Handel’s best-known full-scale concert pieces were first heard on that blustery winter evening: an Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day for soloists, chorus and orchestra (HWV 75), served as the massive centerpiece around which were performed the “Alexander’s Feast” Concerto grosso (HWV 318), the Organ Concerto in G minor, Op. 4, No. 1, and, perhaps most strikingly, a thing rather remarkable for its time: a concerto for harp and orchestra in B flat major (HWV 294, later printed as the sixth and last piece of the collection of concertos called Opus 4 that publisher John Walsh released in 1738). In the Opus 4 publication, this Harp Concerto was issued as a work for organ and orchestra (making it congruous with the other five works in the volume), and it is on this instrument that the work is most often played today. But a quick glance at the pared-down orchestra parts and streamlined textures — the violins are muted, bass parts played pizzicato, and the wind family is represented by two lone flutes — reveals immediately that it was originally conceived of for the quieter and gentler harp. The piece is cast in three movements, more or less following the then-emerging modern concerto fast-slow-fast ordering. As with many of the organ concertos, the orchestra is entirely subordinate to the soloist in Op. 4, No. 6. In the first movement, for instance, 46 of the 66 measures are the exclusive province of the harp; the tutti appears just four times (double that counting the repeats) — at the movement’s opening and close, and to lend strength to two major internal cadences. However, unlike the organ concertos, whose keyboard parts were played by the very skilled Handel himself, the Harp Concerto features little in the way of virtuosic flair. Certainly there are running sixteenth notes galore in the first movement, but these are almost always built around repetitive Alberti bass-like figures that fall easily to the hand, not the kind of flash-and-dazzle workout that is found in, say, the Op. 7, No. 2 concerto in A major.

The transparent opening movement, with its main theme built of seven broken-up, individual gestures, gives way to the thicker, more integrated melody of the G minor Larghetto. Throughout the movement, the tutti is consumed with pondering repeated dotted figures while, each time it is given a chance, the harp/organ breaks out with improvisatory musings of a far more flexible nature.