The art of the harpsichord reached its height in the later Baroque period, during the first fifty years of the eighteenth century, before the development of the hammer-action fortepiano and pianoforte, which were to replace it. Not only did it command the attention of virtuoso performers like Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, but it also benefited from the attention of some of the most gifted instrument makers. In 1719 Bach travelled from Cöthen, where he was Court Kapellmeister, to Berlin to buy a fine new two-manual instrument from the well-known maker Michael Mietz. The present recital, including compositions by three of the great keyboard virtuosi of their time, is given on a harpsichord by Bruce Kennedy, based on a Mietke instrument from 1704.
Born in 1685 at Eisenach, the son of a town musician and member of an extended musical dynasty, Johann Sebastian Bach established himself as an organist at Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and then, in 1707, at the court of Weimar. 1717 brought a change of career when he became Court Kapellmeister in Cöthen, the seeming height of his career. The period there brought a wealth of instrumental compositions for the court, the Pietist leanings of which made no sacred music necessary. In 1723, after the marriage of the ruling prince to a woman without musical interests, and financial limitations on the court budget, he moved to Leipzig, where he became Cantor at the Thomasschule, employed by the City Council to provide music for the principal churches of the city. He remained in this position until his death in 1750. Nevertheless Leipzig provided an outlet for Bach’s other musical interests, with an ensemble of musicians associated with the university, for which he devised his harpsichord concertos, largely based on earlier compositions from the Cöthen period.
It was in Leipzig that Bach turned his attention to the provision of a comprehensive collection of keyboard music. This began with the publication in 1731 of Clavier-Übung I, containing Suites for single manual harpsichord. In 1735 Clavier-Übung II followed, with works for two-manual harpsichord contrasting the Italian with the French style in the Concerto nach italienischen Gusto (Concerto after the Italian Taste), better known as the Italian Concerto and the Ouverture nach französischer Art (Overture after the French Manner), a French dance suite. Clavier-Übung III was published in 1739 and contains music for organ, with and without pedals, and Clavier-Übung IV, the last of the series, followed in 1741 and contained the Goldberg Variations, for two manual harpsichord.
The Italian Concerto follows the pattern of concertos written in Italy and particularly developed in Venice by Vivaldi in his solo instrumental concertos. Bach had transcribed a number of such works for solo harpsichord during his years in Weimar. A lively first movement leads to an aria-like slow movement and final Presto. Here the two-manual harpsichord, with different registration for each manual, makes it possible to distinguish between the equivalent of the orchestra, the tutti, and the concertino, the solo group or instrument, the solo episodes divided by the customary recurrent ritornello in the outer movements.
Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major is from a set of six such works, based on suites written for his second wife, Anna Magdalena, after their marriage in 1722, part of a collection that Bach entered into his wife’s Clavier-Büchlein, that provided her with music for her own musical formation and performance. The Suite includes the customary French dance movements, an opening Allemande and faster Courante leading to a slow Sarabande. Before the final Gigue are three other dances, a Gavotte, a Bourrée and a slower Loure, the last one of two examples of the dance in the work of Bach.
Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples in 1685, sixth of the ten children of the composer Alessandro Scarlatti. He started his public career in 1701 as organist and composer there in the vice-regal chapel. The following year his father took him to Florence to seek further employment, and Domenico was later despatched to Venice, where he remained for some four years. In 1709 he entered the service of the exiled Queen of Poland, Maria Casimira, in Rome, there meeting and playing against Handel in a keyboard contest, in which the latter was declared the better organist and Scarlatti the better harpsichordist. Perhaps after a short period from 1719 in Palermo, his earlier connection with the Portuguese embassy in Rome led him to Lisbon, where he became music-master to the children of the royal family. This employment took him in 1728 to Madrid, when his pupil the Infanta Maria Barbara married the heir to the Spanish throne. Scarlatti apparently remained there for the rest of his life, his principal achievement the composition of some hundreds of single-movement sonatas or exercises, designed largely for the use of the Infanta, who became Queen of Spain in 1746.
The two Sonatas in F minor, K.466 and K.467, coupled by the harpsichordist and Scarlatti scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick, start with a slower movement in which the opening figure provides an accompaniment to the right-hand melody. The second of the pair includes characteristic hand-crossing. The Sonatas in D major, K.119, and Sonata in D minor, K.120, not paired by Kirkpatrick, include an opening movement that provides the harpsichord equivalent of a crescendo by its increasingly denser chordal writing. The second work calls for extraordinary feats of hand-crossing.
George Frideric Handel was born in Halle in 1685, the son of a successful barber-surgeon. His father opposed his son’s early musical ambitions and after his father’s death Handel duly matriculated at the University in Halle in February 1702, as his father had insisted. The following year he moved to Hamburg where he worked at the opera, at first as a violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer. At the invitation of the son of the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, he travelled, in 1706, to Italy, where he won considerable success during the next four years, during which he met Scarlatti in Rome in a keyboard contest. Connections he had made in Venice, brought appointment in 1710 as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. From here he was granted immediate leave to fulfil a commission for an Italian opera in London. In the following years Handel settled in London and became closely involved in the business of opera, with all its financial risks. In the 1730s, however, he began to develop a new form, English oratorio. His last opera was staged in 1741, the year before the most famous of his oratorios, Messiah. Over the years he assumed a dominating position in music in England, and his posthumous influence was equally considerable, after his death in London in 1759.
Handel may have excelled as an organist, but he was well enough known as a harpsichordist. He left sixteen published harpsichord suites, the first set of eight published in London in 1720, to obviate further pirated copies in apparent circulation, and the second set, unauthorised and compiled by the publisher Walsh, in 1733. The first set also derived in part from various earlier works, dating as early as 1705. Suite no. 7 in
G minor starts with a French Ouverture, a transcription of the overture to the 1707 dramatic cantata Cor fedele, with a slow dotted rhythm introduction leading to a rapid fugal section, before the return of the opening. The Andante and Allegro, two-part inventions, suggest an Allemande and corresponding Courante in mood, if not in name, leading to a Sarabande and Gigue. The Suite ends with an impressive Passacaille, a set of fifteen variations on a harmonic pattern.