Conductor, Musicologist, Keyboard player

Handel and the Clavichord

August 1, 2007


For his masterclass at Handel House in November 2004, Christopher provided these notes, which shed light on Handel’s affinity with the clavichord.

Handel’s attraction to the clavichord is well documented in 18th-century sources; the first biography of Handel (and in fact the first biography of any composer) written by John Mainwaring begins with a description of his famous obstinacy and his first clavichord:

From his very childhood HANDEL had discovered such a strong propensity to Music, that his father, who always intended him for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. Perceiving that this inclination still increased, he took every method to oppose it. He strictly forbad him to meddle with any musical instrument; nothing of that kind was suffered to remain in the house, nor was he ever permitted to go to any other, where such kind of furniture was in use. All this caution and art, instead of restraining, did but augment his passion. He had found means to get a little clavichord privately convey’d to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep. He had made some progress before Music had been prohibited, and by his assiduous practice at hours of rest, had made such farther advances, as, tho’ not attended to at that time, were no slight prognostications of his future greatness.
(Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel, 1760, pp. 426).

Although this story was later embellished, it stemmed from converstations with Handel’s assistant, J C Smith, who presumably had it from the composer himself.

Information on what music the young Handel performed comes from another 18th-century source; William Coxe in 1799 described a manuscript keyboard book from Handel’s early schooling with Zachow:

it contains various airs, choruses, capricios, fugues, and other pieces of music, with the names of contemporary musicians, such as Zackau, Alberti, Frobergher, Krieger, Kerl, Ebner, Strunch. They were probably exercises adopted at pleasure, or dictated for him to work upon, by his master. The composition is uncommonly scientific, and contains the seeds of many of his subsequent performances.
(Anecdotes of George Frederick Handel and John Christopher Smith (London, 1799), p. 6n.)

One of Handel’s closest friends, Bernard Granville, made an note on Krieger’s Anmuthige Clavier-Übung:

The printed book is by one of the celebrated organ players of Germany; Mr Handel in his youth formed himself a good deal on his plan, and said that Krieger was one of the best writers of his time for the organ, and, to form a good player, but the Clavichord must be made use of by a beginner, instead of Organ or Harpsichord.
(British Library Dept. of MSS; P. R. 2. D. 15. (7))

Contrary to traditional thinking, the clavichord was far from unknown in England; while there may have been few builders there were many imports, as Mattheson noted (Critica Musica, 1722):

When it is said that clavichords are to be found nowhere but in Germany, and then, that a clavichord has been heard in England in the home of a German organist [?Handel], then [one must conclude that] there must be clavichords in England, at least among the Germans there (of which there are quite a few now). There are people living here in Hamburg who each year send as many clavichords as they can make to England, Spain, Holland, etc. So where are [these clavichords]?
(Translation by Greg Crowell from Clavichord International November 1999 p. 48,).

Mrs Delaney (sister of Bernard Granville and neighbour of Handel) wrote in 1756 that her niece, about ten years old, “is now practising the clavichord, which I have got in the dining-room that I may hear her practise in my leisure moments...” So the profile of a regular domestic instrument is as clear in Handel’s England as it was in Bach’s Germany.


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