Friday, November 18, 2005


Handel Orchestration

Gardner Read writes:

George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) was inclined to design his instrumentation for audience effect. His method with the strings, however, was even less enterprising than Bach's customary four-part treatment. Handel's violas had no separate and independent part, but followed the bass voices at the upper octave or else filled in harmony notes---an unfortunate waste of color potential. His bass parts, like those of the other Baroque composers, served for cellos, double basses, bassoons, and the continuo (organ or cembalo).

Woodwinds, on the other hand, made a major contribution to the generally massive sound of Handel's orchestra. They frequently included as many as ten double-reed instruments against a string body rarely exceeding twenty-five. Any imbalance of tone, however, was probably not a problem, for eighteenth-century oboes and bassoons did not possess the power and intensity of their modern counterparts.

In his oratorio Saul(1739), Handel became the first composer to make the bassoon a solo instrument. Previously used only as a doubling agent, the bassoon was accustomed to follow the basso continuo and seldom had its own part written in Baroque scores. This time-saving practice on the part of composers led some later editors and publishers to assume that no bassoons were required in many works of the period. This misunderstanding applied even to certain of the Haydn and Mozart symphonies of a later era. Modern editions, of course, rightly supply these missing parts in the the printed scores.

Handel's obvious fondness for horns and trumpets also gave great solidity and brilliance to his orchestration. He is now generally credited with being the first to use four horns in the orchestra (in the opera Giulio Cesare (1724). Later, Mozart also called for four horns in his Idomeneo of 1780, but these instances are both the exception rather than the rule in the instrumentation of the Baroque and Classical periods.

Another "first" that can be credited to Handel is a solo role for the timpani, notably in the two oratorios Ode for St. Cecilia's Day (1739) and Semele (1743). Like the bassoons, the kettledrums had heretofore only supported and doubled existing parts, nearly always in conjunction with the trumpets. In several passages in the two oratorios, however, they are used quite independently.

Uniformly apt and always powerful, Handel's orchestration employed two broad methods of procedure. In his early period he duplicated all the component parts---oboes with violins, bassoons with cellos and double-basses---as Bach did. Even his brasses would simply reinforce or imitate the string-wind voices, as in the Water Music of 1715-17.

Closer to the modern orchestral manner is the practice of Handel's later years, when he deliberately contrasted the three tone-colors of strings, double reeds, and combined brasses and timpani. By overlapping these groups, alternating them, and also combining them in the fashion of earlier duplicating procedures, Handel exemplifies what the later Romantic composers took for granted---an orchestral technique rooted in the principle of contrast by choirs.
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