October 31 - November 3, 1985

1585 -- 1685 -- 1985

by Howard Serwer

1985 has been strenuous for musicians and musical scholars alike, for this year we have been celebrating the 300th anniversary of the births of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti, nor must we forget that Heinrich Schütz, arguably the greatest German composer of the seventeenth century, was born 400 years ago. (There is even more for those fascinated by anniversaries: this year also marks the centennials of Alban Berg and Jerome Kern.) In the context of these centennial, tri-centennial, and 400-year celebrations, the Maryland Handel Festival takes modest pride in noting that this is our fifth festival.

As expected, 1985 has produced endless festivals and congresses dedicated to the lives and works of Bach and Handel. 1985 has also seen the announcement of the discovery of a sizable number of previously unknown organ compositions by Bach. Not to be outdone, Handelians have brought to light two of Handel's early vocal works, thought to have been lost. In addition, harpsichord arrangements of some of his opera overtures, long known, but dismissed as inauthentic, are now shown to be, in all probability, the work of the composer. The overture arrangements will be published soon and Igor Kipnis will play two of them during this year's Maryland Handel Festival in what are almost certainly their American premieres.

If the works of Bach and Handel have been well represented in this tri-centennial year, those of Heinrich Schütz and Domenico Scarlatti have been a bit neglected, and so we have included a small sample of their art in two of this year's Festival programs. We trust that Handel's shade will not be too jealous. After all, we now know that Handel thought enough of Scarlatti's music to have incorporated several of the ideas from the latter's Essercizi of 1738 into his own Concerti Grossi, Op. 6.

The 1985 Maryland Handel Festival's performance of Athalia is the continuation of our plan to perform all of Handel's oratorios in the order of composition (except that special occasions such as last year's "Commemoration of the Commemoration" may from time to time interrupt the cycle). In performing Handel's oratorios, we have decided that, except where there are good reasons to do otherwise, we will present them in the form in which Handel first gave them to the public, because revisions made for revivals often merely reflected external pressures -- usually a change in cast. In Handel's case, changes made to accommodate a singer rarely improved a work, and as Winton Dean has pointed out, often weakened it.

Preparing any baroque oratorio for performance presents problems, and Athalia is no exception. The original materials for Athalia show that, as usual, Handel made a number of significant changes for revivals after the work's premiere in 1733. Nonetheless, the content of the original version, as it was presented in 1733, is easy to reconstruct from his original score, from the libretto that was sold at the first performances, and from the professionally written copy that Handel used at performances. So far, so good. There are, however, problems with detail. This professionally written copy, known to scholars as the conducting score, contains cuts in the length of some of the numbers. The trouble is that we do not really know when the cuts were made, and more important, we are not sure who made them. In most of the cases, the cuts seem to strengthen the individual numbers and improve the dramatic flow. We shall never know, however, whether Handel made them during rehearsals for the very first performance or for later revivals. Nonetheless, because they seem to be authentic, and because they make excellent musical sense, we have, with all possible diffidence, adopted most of them.

The most recent published score appeared more than a century ago and needed to be checked and, in a few places, corrected. Because there are no published orchestral parts, we are using copies of a set of eighteenth-century parts owned by the Manchester (England) Public Library. These are beautifully copied but contain errors. Fortunately the vocal parts are available in a new and reliable edition. Each item in this mixed bag of materials had to be compared with each other note by note; errors had to be corrected, the cuts accurately reflected in each part, and finally, all manner of performance indications must be inserted -- by hand in each and every part -- a labor not of hours, but of days and weeks.

The Smithsonian Chamber Players, in their fourth year of association with the Maryland Handel Festival, perform on what are sometimes called "original instruments," that is to say winds, strings, and keyboard instruments which were either built in the first half of the eighteenth century or which are carefully made replicas of such instruments. The instruments produce a sound which is at once lighter, clearer, and softer than that produced by the instruments' modern counterparts. The members of the orchestra are all experts in the performance of eighteenth-century music and have come to prefer performing this repertoire on the old instruments rather than on modern ones. In the past, critics sometimes characterized performing baroque music on so-called original instruments as "esoteric" or even "precious." At this year's London tricentennial celebration, almost all of the orchestras used original instruments reflecting a growing awareness that old music sounds best on the instruments for which it was written.

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