David Yearsley Presents:
Handel was praised as one of the greatest organists of his time, yet he left only a slender volume of organ music for manuals alone, reflecting the fact that the organs of his adopted country, England, were almost universally without a keyboard for the feet.
As a boy, Handel played the great organs in his native Halle in Saxony with their full pedal divisions, and he had impressed dukes and kings at the splendid instruments in their courtly chapels. From the age of 18 he spent some three years in Hamburg, pursuing his career as an opera composer, but he also held forth on that city’s colossal organs, the richest assemblage in Europe. We know Handel also travelled to the Hanseatic capital of Lübeck to see if he might succeed the venerable Dieterich Buxtehude as master of St. Mary’s famous two organs—that in the west end gallery a richly decorated color machine with massive pedal division. The foundation of the German organist’s art was the pedal, both in complex contrapuntal textures and flashy solos in which the hands did nothing but grip the bench for balance.
But Handel’s path through a musical life took him away from Germany, first to Italy where he also made organ pyrotechnics a crucial feature of his Saxon brand of showmanship: on his arrival in Rome in the first days of 1707, he played the towering, ornate organ in St. John Lateran before “an extraordinary crowd of prelates, cardinals, and aristocrats… to the amazement of all.”
After 1710, he settled in London, where only the organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral had but a stunted pedal board on which Handel would, of a Sunday afternoon, display as best he could his German skills with the feet.
In an archly mixed metaphor that has the buckled shoes peeking out of the cuffs of a laced shirt, the haughty Hamburg music critic, Johann Mattheson praised Handel (along with Bach) for unsurpassed skill “at pulling from his sleeve all that belongs to manuals and pedal.”
The comparisons with Bach were—and remain—inevitable and ubiquitous. Writing in 1788, C. P. E. Bach (Johann Sebastian’s second son, and then one of the most revered composers in Europe) chided Handel for renouncing his pedal patrimony: “Should not Handel have disposed at least one piece among his organ works in such manner that masters across the sea, too, could tell that he measured up to their higher art? Should he not have written and left behind in Germany a single work worthy of the German organ?” This meant a work with vigorous, obbligato pedal.
Handel surely played “German” pedal-rich music, but these improvisations vanished with their echo in the cavernous interiors of churches like St. Bavo in Haarlem, The Netherlands. That instrument was one of the largest and most famous German organs on the continent, and Handel played it in 1740 when it had just been finished and again in 1750. For his own enjoyment and “to the amazement” of those down in the church, he certainly let rip on the impressive pedal division with the antics of his slender youth adapted to those of his corpulent maturity. Here’s betting his girth didn’t slow him down at the bench with hands and feet.
Handel was the most inspired and dedicated of musical plunderers, adept and unapologetic at lifting themes and even whole sections from teachers, competitors, and friends. He almost always put his inimitable spin on what he stole, “paying back the loan with interest” as his old friend Johann Mattheson, the haughty Hamburg music theorist, charitably put it. The organ, as Handel knew better than anyone, is the instrument of instruments—a symphony unto itself. To sit at an organ like that in Anabel Taylor, an instrument that would have seemed like a long-lost friend to Handel, is to have the world of 18th-century music (and beyond) at the tips of one’s fingers and toes. Let Handel steal from Handel, with Yearsley as the accomplice. Guilty as charged, your Honor! The opening chorus of the anthem heard at the opening of today’s program sets the then-new St. Anne hymn tune (composed by William Croft in 1708, and also the subject of one of Bach’s greatest fugues) in an Italian concerto style that builds eventually towards a bracing contrapuntal exercise in which the reanimated Handel (improvised by Yearsley) lets his feet run wild: nothing like two-manual-and-pedal fitness apparatus to try and burn off some Covid calories.
Played on the organ, the aria “As with rosy steps the morn” could well serve as a chorale heard before a sermon in Handel’s Saxon homeland; the composer remained true to his Lutheran faith both during his sojourn in Catholic Italy and his half-century in Anglican Britain.
In the 1720s Bach elevated the trio to the benchmark of organ playing. Handel would certainly have passed muster, and his joyful facility with independent voices in each hand and the feet together can be happily explored by adapting any of his many instrumental sonatas.
Our program ends with a valedictory fugue, all the voices of the organ capable of attaining, I hope, an impact akin to that of the choral sublime for which Handel was celebrated.
As attendees (both virtual and real) of these midday organ concerts will perhaps know, these thirty minutes of Handelian hijinks are part of a longer recording project of mine: “Handel’s Feet.” On the video you’ll note that, although my shoes don’t have a flashy eighteenth-century buckle like Handel’s or Bach’s (the latter’s listed in the inventory of his estate), mine do have the two-and-a-half-inch heels of yore (custom-made at Aurora Shoe Repair on Plain Street in Ithaca by a skeptical cobbler). In pursuit of Handel’s pedal art, I have become a high-heeled organist. This footwear is especially necessary for the cadenza in four-voice counterpoint inserted into the “Amen,” a self-indulgent detour that might seem to threaten to bring the organ above me tumbling down like the Walls of Jericho. The only eyewitness account of Bach at the organ has him ending a pedal solo with a double trill (for which hefty heels are also indispensable). Handel could have done that trick, too.