Alexander Weimann

Alexander Weimann: Handel Organ Concertos

Alexander WeimannMozart wrote, in 1777, a letter to his father: “Die Orgel ist doch in meinen Augen und Ohren der König aller Instrumente” (“The organ, though, is in my eyes and ears the king of all instruments”). From 1300 to 1800, for half a millennium of music history, the organ, alongside its keyboard siblings, has maintained the role of a principal: setting the point of reference and ruler to many parameters of music making, such as pitch, tuning and temperament, texture of instrumental (and vocal) music, genre and form, the evolution of counterpoint, and the wide field of improvisation practice. Thus, it was the organ that helped most significantly the process of establishing a canonical repertoire for generations of composers and musicians to follow.

On a personal note as well, I entirely subscribe to Mozart’s point. Since early childhood, I have been fascinated by the phenomenon “church organ.”  Its countless pipes, keys, often multiple keyboards, the pedal, sometimes more buttons and switches (in order to control registrations, sound combinations, etc.) than on the flight deck of a big aircraft; the fact that it challenges the whole body and all available mental skills to master the tricky task of coordinating all limbs… clearly, my attraction to this particular instrument was initially boyish, but it still persists, and today I am very excited to share my passion with you in a program of some of the finest writing for solo organ and orchestra.

The “organ concerto” as such was effectively Handel’s invention. Most of his oratorio performances, from the mid-1730s onwards, included at least single movements and often entire concertos taken from his celebrated Opp. 4 and 7. By doing this, Handel reanimated a practice he had used in his early oratorio Il trionfo del tempo in 1707, during his Grand Tour to Italy. Certainly later in London, when playing/directing his organ concertos, he had found the perfect forum to excel as composer-performer in one.

Op. 4 No. 3 represents an early stage of Handel’s taking on the challenge of a new genre; the composition is built very much like a typical Italian concerto grosso, and the organ is gently introduced as a solo instrument, in the way of a first player in a group of peers. Handel also knew a good tune when he wrote one. The Trio Sonata Op. 2 No. 5 shares an identical Allegro movement with Op. 4 No. 3, as well as an opening Larghetto akin to the haunting aria, “Ah, crudel,” from Rinaldo. Op. 7 No. 1 is one of Handel’s organ classics, providing plenty of liberty to the soloist for improvisation, especially in the first movement, which is a set of variations on an immortal ground.

London’s kaleidoscopic musical scene provided the perfect home for Handel’s talent as a performer and composer, but music flourished in the more provincial towns as well. Like Handel’s organ concertos, Capel Bond’s Six Concertos in Seven Parts were written to spice up the oratorio and festival performances common to England’s vibrant musical scene. Bond, the son of a Gloucester bookseller, was organist at St. Michael and All Angels (now Coventry Cathedral), the second largest parish church in England. He organized many festivals and concert societies, and his music was thought of as some of the best outside of London. Bond knew Handel’s oratorios well, having directed L’Allegro and others at the first Birmingham Festival in 1768, and was clearly influenced by Handel’s adept use of the bassoon’s more lyrical tenor register. The galant bassoon concerto, in four movements, gives us a charming picture of the wider musical scene in England at the time.

Bach’s cantata BWV 35, Geist und Seele wird verwirret (“Spirit and Soul become confused”), was composed only a couple of years after Bach was appointed to the position of Kantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Its two parts are each opened by opulent concerto movements for solo organ, woodwinds, and strings, presumably derived from a lost solo concerto for violin or oboe. We find all the characteristics of Bach’s concerto style, and the inclusion of wind parts resembles Bach’s scoring for BWV 146 (Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal gehen) another early Leipzig organ transcription of what we now believe would have been a lost violin concerto in D Minor. (This was adapted for harpsichord and string orchestra in the 1730’s, and is sadly the only version that survived.)

Bach had four genius musicians we know of amongst his children. Everyday life can’t have been easy. With two wives, he fathered twenty children, fifteen of whom survived infancy – a much luckier rate than Mozart, who lost four of his six children soon after they were born.

One of the most prolific composers in the area of keyboard concertos is Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, who came up with the impressive number of over fifty, without always being specific about the intended instrument, be it harpsichord, pianoforte, or organ. The A Minor concerto we will perform today belongs to the group of pieces for which organ is the best-suited soloist. The opening is written in the rather unusual meter of 3/2, and encompasses both fast motion and, simultaneously, slow pulse. The middle movement exemplifies the expressive potential of musical ornaments applied to a simple melody, and the concerto ends in a fiery, Mediterranean-tempered finale.

I have already mentioned Mozart’s love for the organ. Much like Bach and Handel a few decades earlier, Mozart was at his time the undisputed master on all sorts of keyboards, as much virtuoso as composer. The one-and-a half dozen church sonatas were all written during the 1770s, after Mozart had emerged from his travels to several European countries, as a rising superstar. He would soon feel the urge to escape Salzburg, his birth town, which had become too small: after Archbishop Schrattenbach, a friend of the arts, died and was succeeded by Colloredo, who was insensitive to artistic matters, the court music in particular suffered. Today’s sonata comes from the late 1770s, when Mozart, right before moving to Vienna, was exploring other kinds of musical activity like private orchestras, concentrating on sacred music, and also experiencing his first big love (ultimately unfulfilled) and the loss of his mother.

—Alexander Weimann

Handel Organ Concertos

Friday, Nov. 18 - 7:30pm
First Baptist Church
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Saturday, Nov. 19 - 7:30pm

First Baptist Church
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Sunday, Nov. 20 - 3:00pm
Kaul Auditorium
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Alexander Weimann, Director and Organ

Alexander Weimann, star keyboardist of last season’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, leads from the keyboard again with spectacular works for chamber organ and orchestra. Handel’s organ concertos served as models for future composers, including Mozart and C. P. E. Bach.

The pre-concert lecture will begin 1 hour before the performance. The location for the Reed College lecture is in the Performing Arts Building (PAB) room 320.

Abridged family-friendly Young People’s Concert, November 19 at 3pm at First Baptist Church

  • G. F. Handel: Concerto in G minor for organ, Op. 4/3, HWV 291
  • G. F. Handel: Concerto in B-flat major for organ, Op. 7/1, HWV 306
  • C. P. E. Bach: Concerto in A minor for keyboard, H 430 (Wq 26)
  • W.A. Mozart: Church sonata in C major, KV 336
  • Capel Bond: Concerto in B-flat major for bassoon (1766)

Preview the repertoire on Spotify:

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