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In the era that we now call “Baroque,” musicians looked at France and Italy as opposing poles of musical style. The French strove for elegance and tunefulness, played and sang with composed emotion that never exceeded the bounds of good taste, and made beautiful sounds. The Italian style was at once louder, harsher, more outgoing, more learnedly contrapuntal, and more appealing to rebellious youth in France.
It was in German lands that the two styles were blended, which may be why nearly two centuries of what makes up our standard musical repertoire is dominated by Germans. Bach, Handel, and Telemann all developed their own cosmopolitan style, a Teutonic mix of foreign flavors.
Nobody blended better than George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). He grew up in Saxony and spent four years in Italy composing operas, oratorios, and cantatas, and directing an orchestra in Rome that boasted Corelli as its concertmaster, before becoming the quintessential English composer. When he composed the 12 concertos of his Op. 6 in the span of a month in the fall of 1739, he was a recovering operaholic. After a quarter-century of composing, directing, and producing Italian opera for the London public, he was almost ready to give it up. A few disastrous seasons of pitched battle with a rival opera company had nearly destroyed him, and the vogue for Italian opera seemed to be ending. He was putting on a season of English-language oratorios and odes, and he composed new concertos to play during the performances and sell to the public. The concertos would enhance the oratorios and the oratorio performances would advertise the published concertos.
The English idea of a concerto was the Corellian concerto grosso, a dialog between a solo trio of two violins and cello and a bigger body of strings. In other parts of Europe the newer Vivaldian solo concerto might reign, but in London Corelli’s biggest disciple, Francesco Geminiani, had made the Corellian concerto dominant. Handel’s Op. 6 Concertos resemble Corelli’s in texture, but as always, Handel went his own way. His concertos put less of a spotlight on the soloists, whose parts are not overtly virtuosic, than Corelli’s concertos do. The soloists add to the discourse, rather than behaving like stars.
- Howard Posner