Handel, Couperin, & Bach: Three Masters of the High Baroque

Like Beethoven and Liszt after him, George Frederick Handel was renowned as a keyboard virtuoso before he reached his full maturity as a composer. Like any musician of the Baroque age, his consciousness of music came through the keyboard as well as through singing – there is, of course, the famous story of his having to practise the clavichord late at night in an attic so as to avoid his father’s disapproving eye toward music. The young Georg Friedrich’s training as a keyboardist had its roots in the contrapuntally-focused repertoire of the seventeenth-century German cantor. We know from the contents of a now-lost notebook of 1698 that his master Zachow instructed him with the organ and harpsichord works of Johann  Krieger, Johann Caspar Kerll (a disciple of Frescobaldi and Carissimi), Johann Jakob Froberger, and Johann Pachelbel. Likewise, a central aspect of Handel’s early training most certainly focused on improvisation in both free and fugal styles. This method of instruction must have been quite thorough, for when Handel arrived in Italy as a young man of twenty, he was already said to have wowed Roman listeners with his fabulous improvisations on the organs of the city’s various churches, and during his time in Venice participated in a now-legendary competition at the organ and harpsichord with the young Domenico Scarlatti (true to his German roots, Handel is said to have won the upper hand at the organ). Later, as a newly-arrived composer and leader of his own operas in London, Handel was observed at the keyboard by none other than Isaac Newton, who in describing a performance of one of Handel’s operas is said to have quipped, ”I found…nothing worthy to remark but on the elasticity of his fingers.”

Handel’s own publications of keyboard music have a somewhat varied and tormented history – the composer himself only authorised one publication in his own lifetime, and serious keyboard composition does not seem to have taken his interest once his career as an opera composer and producer became considerably more involved. Nonetheless, Handel’s keyboard works were amongst the most popular and commercially successful publications of their time, and show us a glimpse into the great powers of a man whose own playing style was certainly influenced by his cosmopolitan lifestyle and artistic tastes. The suite in d-minor (HWV 428) comes from the famous Pieces de Clavecin or, as they have become more popularly known in our own age, the ‘Eight Great Suites,’ published (legally) by John Cluer in 1720 and (illegally) by myriad Dutch, French, and German pirate publishers in the same period. Unlike the considerably weaker second and third sets (published later by Walsh, without Handel’s permission) which were aimed at a more amateur audience of private players, the eight suites of 1720 are clearly published with an eye toward the more virtuosic members of the music-consuming general public and thus have a clear tonal order and formal contrast between the various pieces, as if Handel were seeking to give some order to the best of his harpsichord works. Furthermore, his gratitude for Britain’s role in finally ending his generally peripatetic lifestyle is apparent in the tone of his preface to the collection, in which he vows to ”publish more, reckoning it my duty, with my Small Talent, to serve a Nation from which I have receiv’d so Generous a protection.” The suite in B-flat (HWV 434) was part of an unauthorised publication brought out by John Walsh in 1733, but probably comes from an earlier period in Handel’s compositional career; the ‘allegro’ following the arpeggiated introduction is essentially a keyboard transcription from a sinfonia (HWV 339) from Handel’s Italian years, and closely resembles the ritornello of an aria from his first essay in the operatic form, Almira (1705). The famous aria con variazioni is better known in our own time as the basis for Brahms’ celebrated Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24; Handel’s own variations perhaps do not approach the profundity of Brahms’ brilliant meditation on this simple theme, but they are nonetheless charming and certainly represent the kind of salon improvisations for which Handel was famous amongst members of the gentry and nobility.

Francois Couperin represents the apogee of the French harpsichord school – indeed, to distinguish him from his equally musical and often quite gifted relatives (Louis, Charles, Armand-Louis) he was given the epithet ‘Le Grand.’ Great as he is, he is  also quite difficult to pin down. Couperin’s celebrated four books of harpsichord pieces contain references to French Courtly society and its myriad cast of characters from the perspective of a musician who, in essence, is really a rather simple man – let us not forget that according to Baroque social standards, he was still but a descendant of garment- and wine-makers from Chaumes-en-Brie! Observed the great Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, herself a masterful interpreter of Couperin’s works, ”the low-ceilinged house in which he lived and died, with its little peasant garden, had nothing of Versailles. Couperin knew the aristocratic ordonnance of Le Notre; he was admired by Louis XIV and by the Duc de Bourgogne; he moved about in their salons certainly with modesty, but also with ease…[but] after a day at Versailles, Couperin came home to his low, intimate little house.”

As a gifted observer of human behaviour who thus had a certain social distance from his subjects, Couperin paints his characters with a sense of irony that is only matched by his heartfelt sympathy. Whether he is ridiculing silly girls holding their parasols or old noblemen in their long perruques and stately gait, his wit is charming rather than acerbic. More importantly for us as modern listeners, in depicting the pastoral scenes and figures so common in this period of French music, he is always looking at the working classes with the rose-coloured lenses of a ‘bourgeois gentilhomme’ with aristocratic yearnings (he was not indifferent to a rather flimsy noble title as ‘Sieur de Crouilly’ which had been bought in 1696!) . Let us remember this last point – the High Baroque musical aesthetic, such as it was, is in its essence defined by a sort of grace and gravitas that could never stoop to the actual level of the images it portrayed. Imitate in tongue-in-cheek fashion? Perhaps. But to condescend? Jamais! The nobility may have had their pastoral gardens and bleating sheep, but this was all an idyllic fantasy world that had very little to do with the reality of rural life. This is perhaps why French Baroque music in particular can be notoriously difficult to ‘understand,’ for, if anything, we moderns wish to digest and understand things in order to appreciate them. But, as the celebrated French art historian and librettist Gabriel Mourey observed, if ”we were prepared to feel beauty rather than to understand it, to enjoy it rather than to analyse it, we would find life truly sweeter.”

The ‘Folies Francoises, ou Les Dominos’ represents the classic Couperinesque take on courtly society, in this specific instance a view of a society ball and its various characters. Here, Couperin’s characters and personality types appear only behind masks of various colours. Thus, virginity appears under a neutral colour, gallant old suitors under a deep (Imperial?) purple, despair under a mask of black, whereas coquetry appears under various colours so as, perhaps, to represent its capriciousness. Some of the characters being represented and the significance of the colours will never be known to us, as is often the case with this mysterious composer. To underline his satire on society’s rituals, Couperin alludes to the harmonic pattern of the ‘Folies d’Espagne’ (which had gripped Parisian musical society in the form of Corelli’s famous Sonata Op. 5 no. XII), but, by way of reaction, gives it a French stamp so as to underline the particularly Gallic nature of his society’s oddities and idiosyncrasies. The miniature ‘La Morinete,’ an allusion to the composer Jean-Baptiste Morin (or possibly his daughter?), is again, another character piece – although one could say that perhaps the subject of the piece is the music itself. The triplets which define the piece’s movement are so fetching that the listener, if for a moment, forgets the melancholy and sombre tones of the key of b-minor. The famous Passacaille in b-minor, from the 8th Ordre (publ. 1717), is, like the ‘Folies Francoises,’ also taken from Iberian models though, again, its utterances are thoroughly French. Far from its origins as a festive street dance (passar calle in Spanish), the classic French passacaille was perhaps the most solemn and noble of all the Courtly dances, achieving near-symphonic nature in the sweeping orchestral passacailles of Lully and Campra. Couperin himself uses the passacaille form to achieve the apotheosis of both French pathos and the Italianate brilliance that had penetrated early eighteenth-century French musical culture. Each couplet of this piece introduces, in effect, a new character in a drama which is, in turn, punctuated by obsessive returns of an intensely chromatic refrain. Indeed, this work is the final word in the passacaille form.

The Praeludium et Fuga in a-minor (BWV 894) of Johann Sebastian Bach was written, most likely, during the master’s years at the court of Cothen (1717-1723), where he was free from the fetters of ecclesiastical duties to compose a considerable number of orchestral and solo instrumental works. It was at this time, for example, that he composed his celebrated Brandenburg Concerti (BWV 1046-1051) and Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (BWV 1001-1006). The inspiration for BWV 894, however, has its roots in Sebastian Bach’s compositional transformation while at the court of Weimar (1708-1717) – it was there that he first came into contact with scores of the latest concerti by Vivaldi, Albinoni, and the Marcello brothers and was able to take advantage of the extensive library of foreign works in the collection of his kinsman, the lexicographer and encyclopaedist Johann Gottfried Walther. It was this confrontation with the modern Italian style that resonated deeply with Bach and totally changed his approach to instrumental music, for, as in the preludes to the Six English suites (BWV —), one can see the influence of the concerto grosso form in BWV 894. It is the idea of the concerto and the new, exciting possibilities associated with it that influenced the work’s strong delineation between ‘tutti’ and solo passages, and orchestra-like interjections that punctuate the episodic sections in the fugue. This ‘concerto-ideal,’ such as it was, must have stayed with Bach throughout his life, for many years later he transcribed and re-wrote the prelude and fugue into the outer movements of the Triple-Concerto for flute, violin, and harpsichord in a-minor, BWV 1044. This demonstrates how sometimes the structural integrity of the musical idea was more interesting to Bach than the immediate medium in which an idea was expressed – whether in the form of a piece for keyboard or as a work in the concerto genre, Bach saw BWV 894 in dimensions that went far beyond the limited handling of the same ideas in the works of his contemporaries.