Some observations after sight reading Handel keyboard works

Having, over the past few weeks, gradually read my way through an edition of Handel’s keyboard music, music with which I was previously unfamiliar, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Bach. For one thing, it struck me that Handel was far less skilled a contrapuntalist than Bach, relying more on harmonic progressions than on tightly knit counterpoint than Bach. In these keyboard pieces, he is also far less harmonically adventurous than Bach – he rarely modulates far afield from whence he started and often repeats (sometimes to a fault) the same simple tonal harmonic patterns. In the suites, while he has movements that are similarly titled to those in Bach suites – allemande, courante, gigue – they sound more English – especially in the movements that don’t have a dance title, but rather are simply called allegro or presto. As I played through the pieces, I was often more reminded of works that are in my copies of the Fitzwilliam Virginal books than of Bach or other Baroque composers of keyboard pieces. That is especially true of the several Chaconnes in the volume, two of which are in the same key as the Goldberg Variations and employ similar progressions to the opening 8 bars of Bach’s masterpiece – but then, like many English composers from an earlier generation, he repeats that same 8 bar phrase in a series of simplistic variations, often repeating couplets where one variation with quick notes in the right hand is followed by a similar one with the same pattern switched into the left.

Despite the above, which appears to criticize Handel’s writing, the music is nevertheless delightful to play. While playing I vaguely recalled reading that Beethoven, while having great respect for Bach, preferred Handel. Reading through these keyboard works, I could see why. Beethoven’s strengths (and weaknesses) were, to my mind, exemplified by the differences I found between Handel and Bach. Despite some extraordinary efforts at counterpoint, Beethoven’s strength, similar to this observation about Handel, was in harmonic progression. Somehow, Beethoven’s counterpoint never seems effortless – as does that of Bach. Somehow, I suspect Beethoven may have been envious of Bach’s extraordinary skill and felt more comfortable with Handel’s efforts. The several fugues by Handel in the collection I was reading were not, in my view, entirely successful. He rambles and seems unable to shape his fugal themes into an overall form that works effectively.

I suppose the greatest surprise for me was how I managed to have this volume in my music cabinet, for goodness knows how long, without ever pulling it out and reading it until this week.