Celebrate Spring with Händel’s Sonatas for Oboe!

Formal perfection. © Charles Thibo

I have made my peace with Georg Friedrich Händel. More than a year ago I explained in a post on Händel’s keyboard sonatas how I had come to hate his music being constantly exposed to it when I lived in Halle. Since then I have explored his music with much candour and I discovered many a treasure. Recently I wrote about his sonatas for recorder and this collection features also a number of sonatas for oboe and basso continuo. To celebrate spring in all its splendour, its freshness, its vitality, you may wish to listen to his Trio Sonata for Two Oboes and Basso Continuo No. 1 (HWV 396) and No. 6 (HWV 401), written in A and F. They have been recorded like the sonatas for recorder by musicians from the Academy of St. Martins in the Fields.

Musicologist believe that Händel published these pieces in 1739 in London. It is unknown when exactly he composed the sonatas, but he used material from previous compositions i.e. elements of an overture written in 1717-18 and the dance music of operas he had written in 1734-35. Other parts were written from scratch. Around the time of the publications of the two sonatas, Händel was busy writing and rehearsing operas at Covent Garden and at King’s Theatre. However, instrumental chamber music was in demand, fueled by the publication of earlier sonatas composed by Händel.

They “usefully made some attractive music available for concert use”, says Oxford Music Online and underlines the economic potential of Händel’s music. No word about their quality. Händel’s biographer Donald Burrows considers them as “successful and engaging, despite the diverse origin of their constituent movements”. Muted acknowledgment here too! Isn’t it strange, that great composers expose themselves posthumously to the reproach to have written “trivial” pieces? The underlying assumption is that great composers wrote great music only, which is nonsense of course.

Until very recently, composers had to bend to the fashion of the day, the wishes of their patrons, the economic logic of the concert hall or opera that employed them or, in the case of sacred music, the requirements of liturgy. I suspect that many composers relished composing from time to time less demanding pieces just for the fun of it or because they wanted to experiment. Or because there was an urgent demand and the composer needed a quick fix, that borrowed from earlier works without making the plagiarism too apparent. Does that meant these pieces have less value? I don’t think so. If Händel would not have been satisfied about the quality of his sonatas, he would not have published them.

So let’s have a look at the pieces. Sonata No. 1 in A starts gently: The harpsichord sets the pace, the oboes play a calm, joyful melody. In the second movement, speed picks up, a lighthearted dance. The third movement is solemn, yet pleasing, and the piece finished on an optimistic gavotte, a Baroque dance. Sonata No. 5 in F starts almost with a hint of melancholy, quickly balanced by a playful second movement. The adagio is solemn as you would expect, very gentle. The fourth movement picks up the jaunty spirit of the second. A minuet, a slow-paced walking dance, rounds the sonata off.

Never before did triviality have such an enchanting echo.

© Charles Thibo

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2 thoughts on “Celebrate Spring with Händel’s Sonatas for Oboe!”

  1. Beautiful picture and informative re Handel thank you and happy Spring to you. I clicked onto the link hoping to listen but was taken to iTunes where I would have to purchase.

    1. Ah, but I believe you can listen to parts of the titles for free on iTunes or am I mistaken?

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