Suite No.4

George Frideric Handel

Suite No.4 in D minor

HWV437

About this work

Comparisons between the solo keyboard works of J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel more often than not cast those of Handel in an unfavorable light. Like Bach, Handel was among Europe's premier keyboardists during the early eighteenth century, but Handel's harpsichord music has very little of the profound symmetry and varnish that have made Bach's keyboard works famous, or even the simple élan found in similar works of the great Italian, Domenico Scarlatti. As a result, Handel's entries in the genre have been sadly neglected.

The reason that Handel's keyboard output would seem, at first glance, to fall noticeably below the bar set by his two worthy contemporaries is simple: Handel never intended any of it to be published, and Handel as a rule took a great deal less care with music not meant for public consumption than he did with the commercially minded operas and oratorios upon which his reputation still rests.

Handel's 25-plus harpsichord suites were probably meant for use in teaching as much as for performance, though Handel himself often played -- or improvised -- them for his friends, students, and employers. Two collections of suites appeared in print during his lifetime: one in 1720 (eight suites) and one in 1733 (nine). The 1720 volume was issued to counter a Dutch publisher's publication of the same works without Handel's consent; the 1733 volume may or may not have been approved by Handel, though in the preface to the 1720 volume Handel had promised to release more keyboard works to the public. There are also a dozen or more suites not published during Handel's lifetime, some of which remained unknown until the twentieth century.

For the most part, the suites are cast in the old Froberger Suite mold (allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue, etc.); sometimes a prelude or an ouverture is affixed to the beginning, and occasionally a fugue appears in the middle. Very often, Handel incorporates a variation form of some kind -- either a sarabande or an air with variations (like the "Harmonious Blacksmith" movement of the Suite in E major, HWV 430, or the third movement of the B flat major Suite, HWV 434, that provided Brahms with the theme for his Handel Variations), or a chaconne that, by nature, is a kind of variation form (like the final movement of the Suite in G minor, HWV 432). Two of the suites in the 1733 volume, HWV 435 in G major and HWV 442 in G major, are in fact not multi-movement works, but single-movement chaconnes; HWV 442 was originally published with a prelude that turns out to have been written by another composer.

The suites are undeniably inconsistent -- brilliant here, mediocre there; they are rarely truly finished products. They are also, however, evidence of Handel's fertile mind; once one gets to know them they seem to bubble over with life. It is as if Handel could not be bothered to touch up what he had written -- his mind was already churning with the next thought; and by the time that next thought had been sketched he had moved on to some new project that demanded his full attention (most likely an opera or an oratorio). Handel's harpsichord suites are like a musical mixing bag, a vat into which he threw ideas without any promises or guarantees. Naturally they make for fascinating listening.

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