A Guide to Authentic Performance Practice in Handel's Harp Concerto in B-Flat, Concerto VI, Op. 4

By Moore, Kathy Bundock | American Harp Journal, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

A Guide to Authentic Performance Practice in Handel's Harp Concerto in B-Flat, Concerto VI, Op. 4


Moore, Kathy Bundock, American Harp Journal


AUTHENTIC performance practice is the performance of any piece of music as it was originally conceived by the composer. This trend has increased over the past several decades, in large part because new sources have come to light. Historical scholarship is revealing details about the performance of music from centuries ago. Among others, treatises such as On Playing the Flute (Versuch einer Anweisung die Flote transversiere zu spielen) by Johann Joachim Quantz (1752), translated by Edward R. Reilly in 1966, contain detailed, firsthand information about the musical style of the Baroque era.

A stylistically correct interpretation of music of all eras is an essential skill for any educated performer. Increasingly educated audiences are well aware of stylistic differences and have come to expect such skills from a performer. We would not take seriously the performance of, say, a Renaissance madrigal sung with a country drawl any more than we would a Classical symphony re-orchestrated to include gong, vibraphone or electronic music. A Medieval chanson should be sung differently than a hit tune from a Broadway musical. It shows that the performer is aware of musical styles and respects the difference among them.

Performers with a wealth of repertoire written for their instrument from the Baroque period have many more opportunities to explore matters of authentic performance practice than do harpists. Solo and concerto harp repertoire from the era is very limited: Vivaldi, Bach, Purcell, and other composers of the period did not write for harp. However, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) wrote occasional harp parts for his oratorio and opera orchestras, though only as a continuo instrument. The concerto in B-flat, Concerto VI, Opus 4, written for harp in 1736, is one of the sole existing harp concertos from the Baroque era. The piece was written to be performed among movements of Handel's oratorio Alexander's Feast. Handel, an accomplished organist, had made it a custom to play organ concerto movements during the intermissions between movements of his oratorios.

The concerto was later arranged for organ by the composer and included in the six Opus 4 Organ Concertos.

Arrangements of Handel's Concerto VI, Op. 4, have been available for more than half a century. Though they have served to make the piece both popular and widely performed, they do not reflect truly authentic performance practice.

So how does a harpist attempt to play the concerto in real Baroque style? One would think that the solution is to check the original concerto that Handel wrote. How fortunate the harp world is that the original publication from 1738 still exists. But a new problem arises. Much of the original version is incomplete, as are all of Handel's organ concertos. Baroque musicians were expected to improvise embellishments such as added melody notes, fuller harmonies, and ornaments, so they were not written in. Sadly, no authentic, embellished versions of Concerto VI, Op. 4, exist today. The task of performing the concerto authentically is left to the harpist, who is expected to supplement the original score with appropriate dynamics, countermelodies, ornaments, bass lines, and a cadenza. This article will address features of authentic Baroque performance practice as they apply to Handel's Concerto VI, Opus 4.Various sources and musical examples from the era will be cited. The five other organ concertos of Opus 4 will also be examined as examples of Handel's style.

The Harp in the Late Baroque Period

The first thing to keep in mind in the interest of authentic Baroque style is the limitations of the Baroque harp. By the 1720's, the most popular harp in use was the single-action pedal harp although the triple harp was still quite popular in England. (1) The larger hook harps, which were the predecessors of the single-action pedal harp, were also still in use. They had only five pedals, on B, E, F, C and G.

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