Handel – Harp Concerto in B-flat Major, Op. 4, No. 6, HWV 294

by Max Derrickson

George Frederich Handel
(Born in Halle, Germany in 1685; died in London in 1759)

Harp Concerto in B-flat Major, Op. 4, No. 6, HWV 294
1. Andante – Allegro
2. Larghetto
3. Allegro moderato

Handel’s greatest fame may come from his contribution to the English Oratorio genre, his Messiah (1741) being his best known.  Between 1735-1736 he composed four of these Oratorios: Esther, Deborah and Athalia in 1735, and Alexander’s Feast in 1736.  Each of these was premiered in the newly designed Covent Gardens, and all of them were great successes despite facing steely competition to their premieres in London.  For one, the new and wildly popular “Opera of the Nobility” theatre had been set up deliberately to steal Handel’s audiences and in its ranks was one of the great singers of the age, the castrato Farinelli, whose performances created hysteria with audiences and won him the epithet “One God, One Farinelli!”  For Handel and Covent Gardens, Oratorios weren’t enough to lure audiences back, and so Handel, who was widely hailed as the greatest organist of his day, created six concertos for “Chamber Organ and Orchestra” to be played [. . .]  now known as the Harp Concerto in B-flat Major.

How exactly an organ concerto might become a harp concerto has seemed puzzling, but it is generally accepted that [. . .]   But it hardly matters the instrument, because one of the great beauties of the Baroque masters, such as Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann and Bach, was their ingenuity at writing music that could be played on many different instruments.  The Harp Concerto, by whatever soloist, is one of those great beauties, [. . .].

Alexander’s Feast (subtitled The Power of Music) appears to be a turning point in Handel’s treatment of the Oratorio.  The choral parts are much more intricate and the music more dramatic – certainly showing the beginnings of the highlights we cherish in his Messiah written just five years later.  The libretto in Alexander comes from an Ode to St. Cecelia (the patron Saint of music) [. . .]  Particularly lovely is the solo part itself.  After a brief introductory statement of the main theme with soloist and orchestra (called, in Baroque parlance, the ritornello), [. . .]  whisking this wonderful masterpiece to a pleasingly cheerful conclusion.