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Händel. Sonatas for Flute

Jan De Winne, Lorenzo Ghielmi, Marco Testori
2010Evil Penguin Records Classic 2010 EPRC 006

G.F. Handel settled in England for good in 1712. For the first three years he was in the service of the Burlington family. From 1717 onwards, he was under the protection and in the service of the Count of Carnarvon, who became Duke of Chandos in 1719.

From his arrival in London, Handel mainly devoted himself to his greatest passion, the opera. However, his daily obligations to his protector on the one hand and, on the other, the fact that operas couldn’t be staged all year round, entailed that the composer wrote a considerable amount of instrumental music for orchestra and chamber music, the latter category including sonatas for recorder, flute, oboe and violin.

Some sonata manuscripts have been preserved (3 in the British Library in London and 11 in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge), but others have only surfaced as copies and early editions. The first edition was published by Roger in Amsterdam around 1726 under the title: Sonates pour un traversière, un violon ou hautbois con basso continuo composeés par G. F. Haendel (sonatas for flute, violin or oboe with basso continuo composed by G.F. Handel). Two years later a printed version was published by Walsh, and in 1732 a revised version appeared which was entitled: Solos for a German Flute, a Hoboy or Violin with a Thorough Bass for the Harpsicord or Bass Violin, composed by Mr Handel. This is more correct than the former Edition. It is this last remark that tells us that we are dealing with a corrected version, and that Handel collaborated on this revision. When we compare this printed version to the autograph manuscripts, we can see that some sonatas were transposed and slightly rearranged so that they could be played on the flute. The printed score in any case guarantees the composer’s approval.

It is not easy to date the original version of every sonata; some could be (very) early works. For example, at a time when Handel was already very famous in England, Lord Polwarth, an admirer, brought over from the continent a collection of trio sonatas for two oboes and basso continuo. These sonatas are among the oldest surviving works of Handel. The flutist and oboe player Weidemann – a fervent admirer of Handel’s and subscriber to the works published by the master – once showed this collection to Handel. The latter recognised his own music and almost apologetically said: “oh yes, back then I was composing like a man possessed.” This implies, in other words, that Handel had already composed a lot before coming to England.

While the Italianate style of the sonatas inevitably recalls the composer’s Italian period (1707-1710), it should be borne in mind that from 1702 to 1706 Handel worked at the Hamburg opera, which gave him ample opportunity to familiarise himself with Italian opera. Moreover, it was there that he composed his first opera, Almira (1705), followed by Nero, and Florindo e Daphne. But it was in Italy that Handel acquired a distinctive style. Handel was often called upon for the chamber music soirées – the Academie Poetico-Musicali – that took place at Cardinal Ottoboni’s house, where he became acquainted with Archangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti (and, in 1709-1710, Domenico Scarlatti).

The structure of the sonata da chiesa, which was frequently employed by Corelli, returns in most of Handel’s sonatas for recorder, oboe, flute or violin. The sonata da chiesa begins with a highly elaborate slow tempo (featuring expressive harmonies as well as some imitation between melody and bass), which subsequently evolves into a fast, dynamic allegro, often a fugue. The ensuing slow movement is sober and lyrical, and the sonata ends in one or more light and up tempo dances (minuet, bourrée, jig, gavotte…).

It should be noticed that these four distinct sections and their individual characters converge well with the law of the four temperaments, a psychological theory that was very much en vogue at the time. The first movement illustrates the melancholic humour, a temperament that should not be equated with sadness, but rather with the concentrated idleness which engenders the creativity that is the driving force behind constructive projects. The second illustrates the choleric humour, which should not be interpreted in the modern sense of anger-prone, but as enterprising and active. The third is the phlegmatic humour (correlating with the introvert, unstructured, fleeting, inactive), whereas the sanguine humour takes to physical action, movement and dance. We can also build on the description by Roger North (1651-1734), amateur musician and essayist, and point out the resemblance between the four movements of a sonata and a series of portraits of the same person at different times of the day. The first movement represents the morning with breakfast and making plans for the day, a primarily intellectual activity. The second portrait shows the execution of these plans. The third portrait evokes the afternoon, with quiet reflections brought on by the preceding activities.

The fourth picture depicts the evening, devoting to relaxing, eating, drinking and dancing (based on a series of essays by R. North written between 1695 and 1728).

A large number of the sonatas for flute were published by Walsh between 1726 and 1732.

The HWV 363b, 367b and 359 sonatas were published as opus 1. There are also older versions of these sonatas in existence, written for instruments other than the flute.

We know of a version for oboe in F major of the G major sonata HWV 363b; close scrutiny of the manuscript reveals that this version goes back to the period 1712-1716.

The B minor sonata HWV 367b was transposed to D minor for the recorder, the autograph manuscript dating from 1724. The E minor sonata HWV 369 also exists in a version for violin in D minor (autograph manuscript dating from 1724).

The autograph manuscript of the E minor sonata HWV 379, from 1727-1729, has also been preserved. It seems to be the result of an occasional arrangement: the first movement is almost identical to the first movement of the D minor sonata HWV 359, while the other movements are transcriptions from various sonatas for recorder and violin. The A minor and B minor sonatas HWV 374 and 376 belong to a collection published by Walsh around 1730. This volume contains six sonatas, three of them by Handel, the others by Geminiani, Brivio and Somis respectively.

The authenticity of the A minor sonata is somewhat dubious, and the third sonata must be a work previously composed by Handel. The second sonata was undoubtedly (re)arranged for the Walsh edition. The first two movements come from the sonata for oboe in C minor HWV 366 from 1712, but some major transcription errors have found their way into this 1730 edition. The fourth movement minuet is identical to a minuet which appeared in 1717, and reappeared in several other Handel manuscripts. This same minuet is also found in an edition of harpsichord pieces from 1733.

One could argue at length on the subject of instrumentation in the sonatas: were they intended for the flute, for the recorder, for the oboe or for the violin? While it was not costumary In Handel’s days to specify for which instrument a sonata was written, in Handel’s sonatas the instrument was often designated during the composer’s lifetime. These explicit attributions moreover suggest that in England at that time, the flute was in the process of replacing the recorder. Handel wrote very few original sonatas for the flute. In his operas and oratorios the flute is prescribed in only a few places, while the oboe and the recorder appear much more frequently. Was the tone of the flute too intimate for such an expansive character as Handel’s?

Jan De Winne

Sonata in b minor HWV 376
1 Adagio
2 Allegro
3 Largo
4 Allegro

5 Prélude harpeggio in e minor HWV 570

Sonata in e minor HWV 375
6 Adagio
7 Allegro
8 Grave
9 Minuetto

10 Prélude harpeggio in a minor HWV 573

Sonata in a minor HWV 374
11 Adagio
12 Allegro
13 Adagio
14 Allegro

Sonata in e minor opus I, 1B HWV 259B
15 Grave
16 Allegro
17 Adagio
18 Allegro

19 Preludio ed allegro in g minor HWV 574

Sonata in G major opus I,5 HWV 363B
20 Adagio
21 Allegro
22 Adagio
23 Bourrée
24 Minuetto

25 Prélude in b minor HWV 561

Sonata in b minor opus I,9 HWV 376B
26 Largo
27 Vivace
28 Presto
29 Adagio
30 Alla breve
31 Andante
32 A tempo di minuetto

Jan De Winne flute
Marco Testori cello
Lorenzo Ghielmi harpsichord