Syllabus: Music of Handel

Course themes:

  • The music of most Baroque composers fell out of fashion soon after their deaths; but Handel remained continuously—and in England, increasingly—popular throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.  What about his music is so universally appealing and enduring?
  • Fortspinnung
  • nationalism, internationalism, cosmopolitanism, empire
  • What makes Handel sound like Handel?

Week 1: Handel in Italy (1706-1710)
Cantata: “Tra le fiamme,” HWV 170 (1706)
Psalm 110: Dixit Dominus, HWV 232 (1707)

  • How is the style of the church (Dixit Dominus) different from the style of the chamber (Tra le fiamme)?
  • How do the individual movements of each piece cohere into a single composition?  Do these works seem like unified “pieces”?  Identify similar or differing strategies which achieve cohesion in each piece.  Does one piece feel more or less unified than the other?  Is this a drawback or an advantage?
  • Comment on Handel’s use or non-use of cantabile (tuneful or song-like) melodies.  Why might he choose tuneful melodies in one instance and angular motives in another?  What effect does this have?
  • Compare an aria in the psalm to an aria in the cantata.  Are there significant differences in style, instrumentation, text setting, tunefulness, or other features?  Consider what makes them both arias, but also whether one is recognizably a “sacred” aria and the other a “secular” aria.
  • Compare a movement like “Juravit Dominus” to “Tu es sacerdos.”  The texture of these compositions are exceptionally different from one another: does the text have equal prominence in each of these?  Assuming that each of these movements is textually motivated (an assumption worth questioning!), think of what that textual motivation might be for each movement.

Week 2: Handel in England, 1 — Drama
Acis & Galatea, HWV 49a (1718) [excerpts]
Zadok the Priest, HWV 258 (1727)
Messiah, HWV 56 (1741) [excerpts]

  • Choruses are essential to the Handelian idiom—”Hallelujah” from Messiah, Zadok the Priest, the Chandos anthems, etc.  How does Zadok work as a piece of drama?  How does the musical structure serve the dramatic intent of the piece?
  • Focusing on Part I of Messiah, consider what strategies Handel employs in order to make the oratorio tell a story.  Consider in particular Part I, Scene 1 and Part I, Scene 5.
  • We often listen to texted art music without considering the words—often because those words in are in a language we do not understand.  How does the fact that Handel’s texted music is often in English affect us?  Is it distracting or enlivening?
  • How is Handel’s Italian style different from Handel’s English style?  Are there similarities as well as differences?
    • What did Handel learn in Italy that he preserved in the early English works (such asAcis & Galatea)?
    • What seems to be a new element in his compositional craft developed only after arriving in England?
    • In this light, compare the trio “The flocks shall leave the mountains” in Acis & Galatea to the chorus “Juravit Dominus” in Dixit Dominus.

Week 3: Handel in England, 2 — Pomp
Water Music
, HWV 348-350 (1717) [excerpts]
Concerto grosso in B-flat major, Op. 3 no. 1 (1734)
Concerto grosso in e minor, Op. 6 no. 3 (1740)
Fireworks Music, HWV 351 (1749)
Comparison listening: Concerto for Two Horns in F major, HWV 333 [excerpts]

  • Consider how the orchestra is deployed in the opening movement of the Water Music: the strings, trumpets, and horns are separated. How is this similar or different from the Opus 3 concerto? Opus 6?
  • What techniques of orchestration are used in the second movement of the Opus 3 concerto?
  • Compare La Paix and the second Minuet of the Fireworks Music. How do they achieve completely different musical effects with many of the same orchestral techniques?
  • Consider the soundscape of the Minuet and Country Dance from the G-major Water Music suite. How does Handel create an “English” sound?
  • How do the Opus 3 and Opus 6 concerti sound alike or different? Does Opus 3 sound more “Italian”? Does Opus 6 sound more “mature” or “English”?

Week 4: Handel’s Predecessors: Corelli & Scarlatti
Corelli, Concerto Grosso No. 11 in B-flat major, Op. 6/11 (1714)
Scarlatti, “Su le sponde del Tebro (c. 1695) [excerpts]
Melani, “Cola dove rimbomba (c. 1685)

  • Compare Scarlatti’s cantata Su le sponde del Tebro to the Handel cantata from Week 1. How is the vocal style of Handel’s cantata related to, similar, or different from the Scarlatti cantata?
  • Compare the slow movements of the Corelli Concerto Grosso to the slow movements of the Handel Concerti grossi from Week 3. Which of Handel’s techniques are borrowed from Corelli? Which of them are departures from Corelli’s practice?
  • What in the Corelli, Scarlatti, and Melani sounds “Italian” (aside from the language itself)? What in Handel sounds “Italian”? What in Handel’s pieces sounds “English”?
  • Compare the Italian Fortspinnung technique to Handel’s technique. How are pieces spun-out?

Week 5: Handel’s Contemporaries: Bach, Telemann & Vivaldi
Vivaldi, Concerto con molti istromenti, RV 558
Bach, Concert pour plusieurs instruments (“Brandenburg”) No. 1, BWV 1046

  • Compare and contrast the concertos of Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel (taking Handel concertos from Week 3).  How are they alike; how are they different; what features in particular distinguish each from the others?
  • Compare the Fortspinnung techniques in each.  How does each composer generate (“spin-out”) each musical moment from the musical moments that precede it?
  • What happens in the episodes (as opposed to the ritornelli) of each of the concertos?
  • Compare the slow movements of each of the three concertos.  Consider whether they are based on a dance, an operatic aria, or some other musical form.  What might this tell us about the composer’s musical style or artistic intent?
  • Is this music expressive?

Week 6: Handel’s Legacy: Mozart & Mendelssohn
Mozart, Messiah arrangement, K. 572
Mendelssohn, Acis & Galatea arrangement (1828/29)

  • What do Mozart and Mendelssohn add to Handel’s compositions?  Why do you suppose they added these particular features?
  • Are these “new” works of Mozart and Mendelssohn?  To what extent do they remain works of Handel?
  • Which versions do you like better?  Why?