What if the greatest keyboard players of the first half of the eighteenth century, Bach, Scarlatti, and Handel—all born in the same year—had met in a contest pitting their devastating technical brilliance and quickness of invention each against the others? This recording imagines these three remarkable musicians competing on that most celestial of instruments, the organ: The three were never joined in simultaneous musical battle on earth but perhaps on the slopes of Parnassus they meet to the glory of their art.
After all, live competition was a crucial part of musical life of the period. It was in 1708 or 1709 that Handel and Scarlatti, then in their early twenties, were involved in a celebrated keyboard contest in Rome. According to the surviving (and not always reliable) account, Handel was declared to be superior on the organ, while Scarlatti matched or perhaps even surpassed Handel’s skill at the harpsichord. Scarlatti is said to have realized the musical possibilities of the organ only after hearing Handel play; regardless of the reliability of such a statement, it certainly confirms Scarlatti’s love for the instrument. In any case, the two became good friends and Scarlatti followed Handel throughout Italy in order to listen to him and learn from his mastery of the organ.
More than a decade later, Handel was visiting his sick mother in Halle, about 20 miles south of Cöthen, where Bach was then employed. Bach was keen to meet Handel and tried to make contact, but without success. In the early 1730s Handel returned to Halle, and on learning of his presence, Bach sent his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, to deliver an invitation to Handel to visit his father in nearby Leipzig. Bach’s efforts were again unsuccessful; twice within 30 miles of each other, the two great musicians never met.
Of the three, only Bach left a significant body of organ music. But both Bach and Handel were considered the finest organists of their time, as was recognized in 1739 by Germany’s leading music critic, Johann Mattheson, when he wrote, “No one could easily surpass Handel in organ playing, unless it might be Bach in Leipzig; for which reason, these two must stand at the head of the list.” Even in his 65th year, corpulent and soon to lose his sight, Handel was performing on the monumental organs of the Netherlands with “great skill and art,” to the astonishment of the assembled dignitaries and musicians. Yet the only music Handel published for the organ solo is a single set titled Six Fugues or Voluntaries for the Organ or Harpsichord. Wonderful though this collection is, it is not commensurate with his talents and scope as an organist. Scarlatti, too, apparently showed a considerable interest in the instrument, particularly after meeting Handel in Italy around 1708. But among his nearly 600 keyboard sonatas, only three are specifically for the organ.
Why did Handel leave so little organ music to posterity? The simplest answer is that most of his keyboard “works” were played only once—when he improvised them. But to limit oneself to the Six Fugues is too literal and confining an approach. Handel cannibalized his own music voraciously; from this same 1735 organ collection he took two fugues and set them as choruses in Israel in Egypt. (This is not to mention his extensive—and uncredited—borrowings from other composers.) Along similar lines, the organ concerto heard here is an arrangement of an earlier recorder sonata, and Handel used the third movement yet once more in a version for two recorders, this time transposed to D major. For the opening set of Handel pieces I have taken an overture from Handel’s opera Alessandro Severo—which is itself a pastiche—removed the original fugue that follows, and substituted one from the 1735 collection.
To claim that no organ trios survive misses the Handelian spirit of musical appropriation: There are many fine Handel trios that, with small adjustments, work perfectly on the organ. The trio movements heard on this program are assembled from two sonatas originally published in 1732 or 1733 for two flutes or violins and basso continuo. I have replaced the final movement of op. 2, no. 6 with the last movement of the preceding sonata because its bass line is more manageable with the feet. I feel as little guilt about making changes to these bass lines as I do about piecing together coherent blocks of music from apparently disparate sources. The main difference between my cut-and-paste tactics and Handel’s is that I note the original sources of the music and defend—in this case by disclaimer—my procedures.
Only one of Handel’s surviving organ works—a posthumously published concerto—features pedals. After 1712, Handel took up permanent residence in England, where the organs lacked a separate pedal division, though he often visited the organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral because of “the exercise it afferded [sic] him, in the use of the pedals”; the range of its pedal board was far smaller than that found on the instruments Handel had played in Germany during his youth. Nonetheless, Handel must have retained a robust pedal technique that he showcased on his continental trips and during his 1740 season at Lincoln Inns Field in London, where the instrument used for the organ concertos certainly had a pedal board. Thus in integrating the pedals into the musical texture, my transcriptions of Handel’s music hearken back to his German roots as an organist, and therefore differ significantly from the popular arrangements of Handel’s overtures that appeared during his lifetime.
What then of Scarlatti’s gifts as an organist? In his match-up with Handel in 1708, Scarlatti was certainly playing something more than simple, charming pieces like the K. 328 sonata. For example, the Fuga in d fits the compass of the organ, an instrument well suited both to the antique polyphony of the opening and the furious left-hand acrobatics that abruptly hijack the piece halfway through. Scarlatti’s only (surviving) publication is the set of 30 sonatas that appeared at the end of 1738 in London under the title of Essercizi. Various inconsistencies suggest that Scarlatti (or his publishers) made emendations to many sonatas so that they would fit on a keyboard with a four-octave compass, thus hoping to appeal to as many instrumentalists and as wide a market as possible. Indeed, in the last 20 years new 18th-century sources for some of Scarlatti’s sonatas have come to light that include modifications made specifically to allow for performance on the organ.
The Essercizi (i.e., keyboard exercises) were followed within a year by the third installment of Bach’s own Clavier-Übung (literally, keyboard practice) series, and both clearly exceed the technical abilities of the bourgeois consumers at which both claim to be directed, at least in part. I place works from the two collections in confrontation with one another to show the competing visions of personal improvement they offered amateurs and experts alike. Scarlatti relies on humor—he called it “an ingenious jesting with art” in his preface to the Essercizi—and an over-the-top virtuosity, as, for example, in the D major sonata, K. 29, which is played almost throughout with the hands crossed. But Bach, too, can on occasion (e.g. the first Duetto) turn his own obsessions into what sounds to me almost like self-ironizing parody. Sometimes these roles could be reversed, as in the nearly atonal subject of Scarlatti’s so-called Cat’s Fugue (K.30) and the appealing sweetness of Bach’s trio setting of the German Gloria, Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’.
In contrast to the provinciality of his biography, Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue encompasses a vast range of styles, combining the thrills of contemporary Italian string writing with conceits of North German organists of the preceding generation. The piece begins with virtuosic manual figures derived from the northern idiom; these exhortations give way to a demanding pedal solo that leads directly into a concerto-like movement of an Italianate cast. The Adagio has the effect of a solo instrument accompanied by string orchestra, and the fugue brims with the irreverent optimism of a Scarlatti.