The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Handel’s keyboard music is rich, underperformed and underappreciated, says harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson, who performs an all-Handel solo recital this Sunday.

January 19, 2012

ALERT: The Ear has received the following message to pass on from cellist Andrea Kleesattel of Classical Revolution Madison. “Hello everyone! We are changing the time of our first Classical Revolution event of 2012 on this Sunday to 11:30-1 p.m.  at the Fair Trade Coffee House (below), 418 State St.  (We’ll play music by Vivaldi, Brahms, Debussy, Prokofiev and Piazzolla.) Originally we had planned on 11-12:30 p.m., but this semester we’re going to be starting a little later (because it’s Sunday morning).  Also, we are no longer playing at the Brink on February 21st. Be sure to check out our website for the latest on dates, times and locations.  Also, we are currently planning repertoire for our shows this semester. Let us know if there is a piece you’d like to play or hear — otherwise you will be left to our artistic discretion. That’s all for now.  As always be in touch if you’d like to play something — we love your involvement! Here is a link:

By Jacob Stockinger

Early music keyboardist Trevor Stephenson is devoting his next intimate house music concert (below), this Sunday afternoon at 3, to solo keyboard works of George Friderich Handel.

The concert is at the home of Trevor and Rose Stephenson at 5729 Forsythia Place, on Madison’s west side, off Old Middleton Road.

Tickets are $35 and light refreshments are served. Reservations are required, and the seating capacity is 40. Last I heard, only a few seats remained. For information about seating availability, contact or call (608) 238-6092.

Stephenson (below) – who is a virtuoso explainer as well as an accomplished performer – agreed to an email interview with The Ear about Handel:

What pieces by Handel will you play?

I’ll play the Passacaglia from the Suite No. 7 in G minor; the Suite in D minor; the Gavotte in G major; the Sonatina in B-flat major; a collection of small works called “Impertinence”; and the Suite in E major, which ends with the “Harmonious Blacksmith” Variations.”

How does the keyboard music by Handel (below) compare in quality and variety to his more famous works — the concerti grossi and chamber music, the operas and oratorios?

I think most people would agree that Handel’s home turf is the opera and oratorio genres. His music has an innately public sensibility and he is so comfortable addressing a large audience. In every note of his music he tells us, convincingly, that we are all in this together. I always think of him as something of music’s version of FDR.

This orator’s voice is present in the solo keyboard music as well, though Handel often tempers this with explorations of the keyboard’s penchant to soliloquize. Handel (below) was a great keyboard player and improviser—particularly on the organ, which of course is a grander and more public medium than the harpsichord. The keyboard suites provide us with a window onto how he might have sounded as a soloist.

How does Handel’s solo keyboard works compare to those of his contemporaries such as the suites and partitas, preludes and fugues, of J.S. Bach and the sonatas of Scarlatti?

Like Bach—and unlike Scarlatti—Handel’s music is a fusion of three main styles: Italian, for melodic richness and invention; German, for contrapuntal and harmonic structure; and French, for taste, ease, and grace.

Handel’s use of the three styles is of course different from Bach’s, but in short, Handel’s trademark is what can be called “jeweled melodies” (coming largely from the Italians)–-tunes that are so perfectly constructed and catchy that they can bounce around in your head for weeks on end.

Handel’s Suites, like Bach’s, often start with a Prelude, followed by an Allemande, a Courante, a Sarabande; while Bach is pretty consistent in writing Gigues for concluding movements, Handel will sometimes forego the gigue and end with a surprise, like the set of variations (known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” below) at the end of the E major suite.

How does Handel’s keyboard music differ is style, substance and technical difficulty from, say, Bach and Scarlatti? And why do you think haven’t they been performed as often?

Handel’s keyboard music doesn’t have as much technical audacity and display as Scarlatti’s, and not as much contrapuntal density as Bach’s, but it requires a unique set of skills. As a player, you need to have your Handel Hands ready.

Handel has a wonderful sense of chord spacing that feeds the dramatic progression of the piece—he knows when to be thick and when to be thin.

But I think beyond this he also requires of the player that they be very versed in how to play stylistically at the harpsichord: how to listen for the particular sonority of the instrument, how to roll chords (even when not indicated) either slowly or quickly, up or down, and how to lift and place the agogic accents so that the line and meter get their full expression.

Do you think Handel’s keyboard music deserves a rediscovery? What drew you to Handel and why did you choose to program an all-Handel solo keyboard program?

Handel is a wise and wonderful composer, and his genuine theatricality provides the listener with catharsis. Perhaps better than anybody else, he can “take the roof off.”

When Handel returned in mid-life to his boyhood home in Halle, Germany  — a kind of celebrity visit (a la Mark Twain goes back to Hannibal, Missouri) — J. S. Bach dropped everything and took a long carriage ride to Halle, only to find that Handel had just left. I think Bach wanted to meet a man who could write like that.

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