Interpreting Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’: A Performer’s Discourse of Method 
by Ralph Kirkpatrick.
Yale, 132 pp., £14.95, January 1985, 0 300 03058 4
Show More
Bach, Handel, Scarlatti: Tercentenary Essays 
edited by Peter Williams.
Cambridge, 363 pp., £27.50, April 1985, 0 521 25217 2
Show More
Handel: The Man and his Music 
by Jonathan Keates.
Gollancz, 346 pp., £12.95, February 1985, 0 575 03573 0
Show More
Sensibility and English Song: Critical Studies of the Early 20th Century: Vols I and II 
by Stephen Banfield.
Cambridge, 619 pp., £27.50, April 1985, 0 521 23085 3
Show More
Show More

Even those of us who believe that the European Music Year is an invention of Saatchi and Saatchi can hardly deny that la generazione dell’ottantacinque was a formidable crew. How J.S. Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti all came to be born in 1685 must be ascribed to chance; no juggling with the facts of cultural history can possibly account for it. Indeed, the common factor between them is precisely that they were all outsiders in one way or another: Bach because he was a Kantor, Handel because he worked in England, Scarlatti both because he lived in Spain and because he remained a very specialised keyboard player and composer. The insider would have been an Italian opera composer playing the European market. He would have been unlikely to be a virtuoso player. That was to come in Mozart’s time with the invention of the pianoforte.

Yet all three were great instrumentalists. Bach was the most pronouncedly so, a fact that has receded into the background. Although the revival of the baroque organ has encouraged better performances of his music than ever, the average music lover, none too happy on the hard pews and in the cold atmosphere of churches, will probably hardly meet this aspect of his work, whereas in the old days Klenovsky (alias Sir Henry Wood), Stokowsky, not to mention Elgar, would have ensured a knowledge of at least some of the monumental toccatas and fugues in suitably brilliant orchestral versions. Handel seems to have been scarcely less fine, though his life did not encourage him to leave written down the improvisations which fascinated his English audiences. As for Scarlatti, we have the evidence of six hundred and more sonatas, often difficult, never easy, clearly the work of a great and subtle player.

Otherwise, they had little enough in common. The startling new researches emanating from the Bach Archiv at Göttingen are, it is true, shaking the view of old Bach, the Lutheran archpriest in Kantor’s robe: but the emerging picture of the frustrated choirmaster passing into his puzzle-solving maturity can hardly be mistaken for the very worldly Handel, a great eater and drinker, an entrepreneur capable of winning and losing on the stock-exchanges, willing to chance his arm with new operatic ventures which nobody in their right mind would have given a more than fifty-fifty hope of success. Scarlatti was fond of gambling too, though, according to Farinelli, his downfall was at the tables – and one can imagine it, for, as the player of his sonatas soon finds out, you need a modicum of luck to negotiate his difficult passages. Practice will not ensure getting it right. For those crossings of hands, prayer and faith are likely to be a help.

The point of anniversaries, I take it, is that they bring to light some music or some aspect of a man’s oeuvre hitherto neglected. Little composers are usually more in need than great ones. A Beethoven-Jahr does no one much good; a Wagner-Jahr no good to anyone. But, surprisingly, all three of ‘85 could do with some decent celebrations. Scarlatti is the most neglected. How many of us know even a dozen of his sonatas? Yet the pianist (I do not presume to advise the harpsichordist) will find something new, probably eccentric, certainly unpredictable, in every sonata. Do not believe that, as with Dallapiccola and Vivaldi’s concertos, Scarlatti composed the same piece six hundred times. The pattern may be similar, the bipartite structure with its double bars and repeat marks may be the same. The content is never the same and rarely even similar. Handel is, of course, better-known than this. Or is he? The Water Music and the Music for the Royal Fireworks; Messiah; Israel in Egypt – is this the total tally? Surely Bach is the one whose music is well-known. But again the list is surprisingly limited. The Mass in B Minor; the two Passions; the Brandenburg Concertos and the D minor Concerto for two violins – after this it becomes less easy. The cantatas remain terra incognita; the ‘early music’ movement has removed the suites, the toccatas (even Schnabel would hardly dare commence his programme with the great D major, as he did in the later 1940s, with marvellous results), even the Italian Concerto, from the concert pianist’s repertoire. There is some consolation in the gramophone catalogue, though one suspects that the inexorable flow of cantata boxes is more observed in the buying than in the playing.

In performance, there is a good deal of Bach around this year, though it seems to be the familiar rather than the neglected. In literature, Bach has done less well. This is not unexpected. Bach research (not just at Göttingen) is very much in transit. All sorts of new discoveries needing reassessment of our views seem to appear daily. Alberto Basso’s volumes in Italian are probably the most significant of recent publications, and may well be out of date in certain respects before too long. In English, musicologists seem to be holding off. Ralph Kirkpatrick’s little book on the ‘Forty-eight’ is a posthumous piece which is hardly on the subject at all. True, the examples are largely drawn from the ‘Forty-eight’, but the real matter of the book is good old-fashioned musicianship, and none the worse for that. Kirkpatrick knew his 18th-century sources as well as anybody, and he was a first-rate player of harpsichord and clavichord, so that no one could accuse him of being anti-historical in approach. Nonetheless the main problems for him were not whether and how to double dot, how to play the upper auxiliary note of a trill, and the other things which worry our scholar-performers. The weight to be given to an up beat, how staccato is staccato, whether it is possible, or even sensible, to attempt a continuous legato, these are the issues – just as they would be in Beethoven or Chopin or, for that matter, Stravinsky. Kirkpatrick will annoy those awaiting solutions. He insists that every player should do his own fingering simply because only in that way will he face the real problems of interpretation. There are always several different methods of doing things. The pity of the book is not that it will not make up people’s minds for them, but that it started life as a series of lectures in which Kirkpatrick showed the issues at the keyboard itself. Musical notation on the page is a poor substitute for sound. If ever there was a need for a tape – or better still a video recording which could show how fingers and hands move – this book shows it.

The section on Bach in the set of essays edited by Peter Williams mainly deals with matters of performance in a more conventional way. The most interesting of the essays is by the editor himself, on ‘Figurae in the Keyboard Works of Scarlatti, Handel and Bach’. The problem is that in the 18th century composers were encouraged to think in terms of musical phrases or themes (figurae) which had a distinctive emotional connotation. So far, so good. But when these ‘figures’ occur in scales or other keyboard passage work, how does one treat them? Must one isolate them in the phrasing to bring out their presence? Or do they have something to tell us about the mood of a piece? Or are they just incidental and to be ignored? Peter Williams has no simple answer: but by posing the question he makes us think.

Handel provokes a more straightforward historical and biographical approach in these essays. This is not surprising, for, in spite of several large volumes over the years, the biographies are not yet satisfactory. The reason for this is that the basic work was done in the 19th century by Friedrich Chrysander, a heroic scholar who worked alone to produce a Gesamtausgabe and suitable commentary on a man whose scores could be found to a great degree in nearby Hamburg. Short of financial and no doubt other resources (not least that of time), he failed to gather the importance of either the Italian or the English background: these are now the subject of research by Americans and English. So the essays on Handel’s music for Cannons (the Duke of Chandos’s home at Edgware) by Graydon Beeks and Gerald Hendrie are distinctive and valuable contributions to knowledge. More unexpectedly, so is Donald Burrows’s account of Handel’s relationship with the court of Hanover, for we might have thought that German scholars would have done all that. But no, Hanover, like many of the other German courts, remains shadowy to music historians. Burrows is concerned with exactly what Handel wrote for Hanover, which takes him into the area of watermarks and the like; and Winton Dean’s essay on ‘Handel’s Early London Copyists’ pursues handwriting in some detail. This might be thought a dull if necessary subject for Handelian scholars: but the general reader will find it interesting for the light it throws on how 18th-century music was disseminated and brought to performance.

It could be that with a great deal of this kind of work in progress, it will be easier to write an authoritative biography in a few years rather than now. Nonetheless, the major reassessment has already been made: this concerns the importance of the operas. The 19th century had no use for them; for the Victorians, Handel was a pillar of Anglican virtue by dint of his oratorios. It is only since the Second World War that the penny has dropped, largely due to the enthusiasms of Englishmen, with Anthony Lewis at the Barber Institute in Birmingham and the devotees of the Handel Opera Society in London providing the chance to see as well as to hear – a necessary test for any kind of opera. It is the miracle of Handel’s operatic genius which has allowed these ventures to succeed. No Farinelli or Senesino, no Cuzzoni or Faustina, have ever been within miles of the financial range of our revivalists. With singers well-known on our amateur choral circuit, Lewis and Farncombe have consistently shown us the glory of Handel’s devotion to the theatre.

This allows Jonathan Keates to get the balance right in his Handel: The Man and his Music. He admits to being no musician and obviously expects musicologists to deny him admission to the club. He gets in a muddle occasionally over the instrumental music (he fails to see the point about the popularity of Corelli, for example) and tends to think of the plot of either opera or oratorio as being more important than it is. But his main defect comes in his chapters on the operas, where he tells us who had set the libretto before Handel, and who had adapted it for Handel, and so on, without explaining the significance of this. It becomes therefore a little clogged – one damn opera after another, in fact. This is, of course, how it may have appeared to Handel himself, but a little speeding-up of the narrative would not have come amiss. This said, Mr Keates has taken some good advice and makes us aware of the variety of Handel’s operas. Opera seria was not, as is generally believed, a stilted genre. It allowed a genius like Handel a huge set of possibilities, and the private enterprise nature of the London operatic scene pushed him into all kinds of entertainments to keep his audience. Mr Keates does well to make this plain, although I suspect that he underestimates the invasion of England by modern tastes in the 1730s, which must have affected Handel’s reputation to some degree. After all, the same thing happened about the same time to Vivaldi in Italy, though he hadn’t the wit to try the genre of oratorio to rescue himself, as Handel did.

In common with all other Handel biographers, Mr Keates leaves one with some sense of puzzlement over two things. The first is Handel’s relationships with the Court; the second the real state of his finances. We know he taught the royal daughters for £195 a year, and Mr Keates tells us briefly of Croft and Eccles, who had some functions (not very clear) in the Chapel Royal. But what did happen to the cappella regia after Purcell’s death, one would like to know. Did it just fade away? And although Handel’s profits and losses on his various ventures are mentioned passim, and we know he died a wealthy man, it is difficult to gauge the extent of the risks and the overall receipts and expenses of giving an opera season.

These matters are of some importance in the history of English music. The old story was that the popularity of Handel killed off the native product for the next hundred and fifty years. The cult of the foreigner reigned to the decay of the Englishman. This seems unlikely. After all, Germany was totally swamped by Italians for nearly all the 18th century: we do not need Amadeus to tell us that. Indeed, some of Wagner’s problems at Dresden in the 1840s were caused by the traditional Italian group at the opera house. The German states came out of it because of the strength of the court music at a host of small towns: that, and the Kantors at the free cities. The respectability and social worth of the composer-musician is shown in the dynasties – Mozart as well as Bach – which allowed the art to be passed on from one generation to the next. Purcell seems to be the last English family to manage this. Was it private enterprise which diverted England from keeping its royal cappella (there is, significantly, no English word which conveys the flavour of the Italian)? Certainly it was lost completely by Victoria’s time. The Great World Power and Empire could not compete in its serious musical culture with the very minor state of Meiningen, which had an orchestra conducted by von Bülow, and the wisdom to get Tovey to write its programme notes. As for Handel’s finances, even the glimpses we gain from Mr Keates show that the public were as fickle as ever. The canary fanciers ruled, o.k.?

The ultimate results of this attitude to culture are all too evident in Dr Banfield’s Sensibility and English Song, whose second volume lists some five thousand songs written by about fifty composers mainly in the first half of the 20th century. There are one or two bright spots, notably Ivor Gurney, but it makes dismal reading. Here is a country with a splendid tradition of lyric poetry at a time when such poetry was flourishing, a wealthy country where there are publishing houses and a decent bourgeois audience – and its songs are on the whole rubbish. No use blaming the Victorian ballad, Dr Banfield’s starting-point. Anyone who has looked at the French mélodie of the 1860s will be amazed that, within the half century, there were Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Duparc. No doubt asking for a Schubert is too much, but where are the equivalents of Loewe and Cornelius, or the chips off greater blocks such as the songs of Beethoven or Richard Strauss. Can the best that we can offer really be Finzi or Ireland?

Dr Banfield clearly wants to like some of these composers, but cannot help critical groans, as one after another commits a banality in dealing with some very suitable verse for setting. As he works through the generations, it gradually emerges what went wrong. None of the composers was a real professional. Off to philistine public schools they went, rebelled against the Establishment, refused to follow dad into productive work (they would have been the despair of Sir Keith Joseph), but were quite prepared to live off his money – often not very opulently but nonetheless in a certain comfortable style. They studied at the Royal College of Music or, better, in Leipzig; their compositional skills rarely went deep. They took to song because it is relatively easy (ignoring Stanford’s advice to tackle more obviously demanding media first). It is interesting that – to judge, at least, by the examples quoted here – they are at their best when they get away from the song with piano accompaniment and take to a piece using an ensemble for several instruments, which forces them to face technical problems.

Dr Banfield cheers up, as well he might, when he gets to the newer generation of the 1920s, with young Willie Walton not fitting into the Prince Consort Road, and then with Benjamin Britten, who can be seen as the equivalent of the Thirties poets. The study (too long for its subject, but full of interesting insights) stops before English music was dragged into the 20th century, squealing rather than screaming, by Sir William Glock and his merry young men at the BBC in 1959.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences