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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Handel's Borrowings: From Others

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

I hope that you’ll allow me in this post and the next to share with you one of my abiding passions, related to the music of the composer with whom I’ve metaphorically spent almost all my life. The composer is George Frideric Handel, and the passion in particular is his much commented-upon practice of borrowing material from other composers, and himself, for use in his compositions. In this post I’m going to address Handel’s use of material by other composers. In the next, we’ll look at his self-borrowings.

Denner: George Frideric Handel (late 1720s)

In both articles I hope to show that far from indicating laziness, or worse, this practice indicates another aspect of the great man’s gregarious breadth of musical vision. It shows his stunning ability to make new things from old. And in the final analysis, we need to remember that Handel’s use of other composers’ material was not regarded as badly in the 18th century as we might today. In some respects such borrowing was regarded as a compliment, although it must be said that the practice was widely-known in Handel’s lifetime and frowned upon in some quarters.

But frankly, I don’t care. The English composer William Boyce, when asked about Handel’s use of other composers’ ideas, is supposed to have replied, “He takes other men’s pebbles and polishes them into diamonds”. Handel himself is supposed to have had the chance to answer his critics in this. When asked why he used a theme by Bononcini in one of his pieces, he apparently replied, “It’s much too good for him; he did not know what to do with it.” Considering what he did with other composers’ ideas, there’s a great deal of truth in that!

Chamberlin (attr.): William Boyce (c. 1767)

It was very rare for Handel to take an entire piece by a composer and reuse it note-for-note. Two very rare examples of this are in Israel in Egypt, an oratorio composed in 1738. A large proportion of Israel in Egypt is derived from the music of other composers such as Alessandro Stradella, Dionigi Erba, and Francesco Urio but in the case of these three, the original material is reworked to various degrees, sometimes rather extensively. In the case of the austere chorus, “Egypt was glad when they departed”, however, Handel uses an organ canzona by Johann Caspar Kerll, a 17th century German composer who had died in 1693. It is assumed that Handel would have probably studied this piece when a boy in Halle. [listen]

Johan Kaspar Kerll (c. 1680)

In describing the Egyptians being glad that the Israelites had left after the ten plagues, Handel used this music virtually note for note (arranging it for chorus and orchestra of course). The music would have been regarded as very old-fashioned by Handel’s time; it conveys a seriousness and austerity which is quite appropriate. [listen]

An even more curious borrowing occurs in Israel in Egypt, one which to this day has scholars stumped. Many years ago I was putting together a set of bookshelves and I had on the stereo a recording of instrumental music by Giovanni Gabrieli which I had just bought. I was only half listening to the music as I tried to make tab A fit into slot B, while holding up panel C and inserting pin D, but at one point I had to stop and listen to one piece - played by an ensemble of viols - because it was familiar. I racked my brains for a minute trying to work out where I’d heard it before and then it dawned on me. Handel has used it in Israel in Egypt. I dug out a couple of recordings and sure enough, there it was. Handel had taken chunks of a Gabrieli ricercar and rearranged it to make one of the chorus movements in 1738.

Giovanni Gabrieli

I was even more astounded to find no reference to this in any list of the known borrowings in Israel in Egypt that I had access to at the time (this was in the early 1980s), but I later discovered that I wasn’t the first person to notice this correlation. The question which arises though is how on earth did Handel, who visited Italy between 1706-10, have a copy of a ricercar by Gabrieli, who died in 1612? No copy of such a piece is known from Handel’s extensive library, but as he used more than just an easily remembered melodic fragment, he must have either had a copy, or known it intimately. It’s a mystery, but it’s there. Gabrieli probably wrote this around 1600. [listen]

To set the text, “And I will exalt him”, Handel took extensive chunks of this ricercar and rearranged them, adding his own section in between for, “He is my father’s God”. [listen]

These two examples, though, are more the exception than the rule. Handel’s use of ideas from other composers was more commonly limited to just that - ideas - which he then reworked rather more extensively than these two movements might suggest.

The most famous composer in Europe during Handel’s lifetime was, oddly enough, not Handel. It most certainly wasn’t JS Bach either. It was Georg Philipp Telemann, whom we now remember as somewhat less stellar than either of these other two giants. Yet Telemann deserves much better press than he currently receives. His massive output dwarfs that of both Bach and Handel, and the sheer wealth of invention in his music clearly was an inspiration to many, Handel included.

Lichtensteger: Georg Philipp Telemann (c. 1745)

Telemann’s influential opus called Musique de table was published by the composer himself in 1733 and it boasted a list of 206 subscribers. Among them was one “Mr Hendel, Docteur en Musique, Londres”. This Mr Handel, a Doctor of Music who lived in London, was a friend of Telemann’s. They had been students together and started their professional careers together in Hamburg. Telemann’s Musique de table (sometimes called by its German title of Tafelmusik) comprises suites, concertos and chamber music for various ensembles, and it’s in three sets or “productions”. It’s enough to fill a four-CD set in a complete recording. Handel was clearly impressed with his former colleague’s work, if the extent to which he borrowed from it is anything to go by.

One of the movements in Telemann’s publication bears the title of Postillons. Telemann frequently used such programmatic titles, and this one is meant to suggest the calling of a post horn on a coach or in a hunt. The octave leaps at the start are an imitation of the post horn call. [listen]

In 1744 Handel wrote Belshazzar, and there is in this magnificent oratorio a moment where the king calls for his wise men, astrologers and seers to be summoned to read the mysterious writing on the wall. At this point Handel inserts an instrumental movement called Allegro postillions. It describes the mad rushing around of everybody trying to summon the men to the king, who is a blind panic. The situation suggested Telemann’s post horn calls. In this complete recording, go to the 1h49’35 point to hear the scene in question. [listen]

The following year, 1745, Handel had disastrous box office receipts and had to curtail his concert activities. The nation was in crisis with the Jacobite threat from the north under the banner of Prince Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") and despite the English victory in December of that year, London was still very unsettled. Handel responded by writing - in great haste - the Occasional Oratorio. This was designed to lift the flagging spirits of the English public and was therefore written for a specific occasion, hence the title. There’s no real narrative; the text is a collection of words from various sources designed to encourage the people to trust in God and his chosen House of Hanover. Much of it was recycled from earlier works, some of it was newly-composed, but the magnificent overture, using three trumpets rather than Handel’s usual two, summoned from him yet again the urge to adapt Telemann.

Ramsay: Prince Charles Edward Stuart (c. 1745)

Telemann’s Musique de table contains the following music as part of the opening of the third production. It’s in the commonly-used French overture form: a slow, grand introduction and a fast main section. [listen]

Handel clearly found that rousing music perfect to inspire the troops back home. In this case, he used just the fast section of Telemann’s overture in his new work (the slow introduction he raided in one of the organ concertos!). The overture to the Occasional Oratorio draws on Telemann’s sparkle, mixed with Handel’s political imperative. The result is spectacular. [listen]

This is a good example of how Handel took an idea from another composer - Telemann’s melodic figures are clearly there - but then reworked them into a completely different composition. Even one of Handel’s most famous moments owes its genesis to his old student friend. Here’s the first movement of a concerto for three violins from the second production of Telemann’s publication. The opening will possibly be familiar… [listen]

The opening figure in Telemann’s concerto was appropriated and adapted by Handel in Solomon, composed in 1748. It’s used in the instrumental movement which opens the third act of this masterpiece, the act which describes the visit to Solomon’s court by the Queen of Sheba. Here Telemann’s initial idea is identifiable but Handel takes it immediately into completely new territory. [listen]

We tend to forget nowadays that most of Handel’s concertos of the 1730s and 40s - which include more than a dozen organ concertos and the twelve magnificent concerti grossi which make up his opus 6 - were designed to be performed as interval music in his oratorio performances. The organ concertos were of course designed to feature Handel himself, one of the finest organists in Europe at the time, as the soloist. Here again, he was inspired by Telemann’s 1733 publication a number of times.

Telemann’s Musique de table contains a delightful sonata for flute and continuo which Telemann simply called Solo. Its last movement is an infectious Allegro with a rather catchy opening phrase. [listen]

The opening phrases of that music obviously appealed to Handel. His D minor organ concerto, known as number 15, was written in 1746 for performance during the Occasional Oratorio. Its last movement takes the theme of that flute sonata of Telemann’s and plays with it rather deliciously. [listen]

In a similar vein, Handel used parts of another movement from Telemann’s publication to delightful effect. The second production of the Musique de table opens with a suite featuring solo trumpet and oboe with a string orchestra. This is the second movement of the suite; it’s vintage Telemann: catchy and delightful, never dull, always intriguing. [listen]

Handel reworked this in the 1740s as part of organ concerto published as opus 7 no 4. Telemann’s tempo marking for what you just heard was “Tempo giusto” (meaning a just - or strict - tempo). In Handel’s version he marks the tempo amusingly as “Allegro così così”, which I would approximate in English as “a so-so sort of fast tempo”. He obviously caught Telemann’s spirit of fun, or maybe the unique tempo marking had a private meaning for Handel and his orchestra now lost to us. [listen]

Capon: The King's Theatre in the Haymarket (1783)

There are scholars whose life’s work is studying the Handel borrowings, trying to decide whether some fleeting reference to a work by another composer is really a borrowing, or maybe a fluke based on a cliché of the period. The ones in this program are among the clearest and most obvious, but there are plenty more examples of pebbles (certainly an unkind description in the case of Telemann) being polished into diamonds.

In my next post I’ll look at Handel’s reworking of his own music; a completely separate and totally fascinating area in itself, especially for Handel nerds like me!

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2007.

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