Programme Notes: “A Farewell to Mr Handel’s organ”

The Handel Friends
St George’s Hanover Square
Tuesday 25 April 2023

A Farewell to Mr Handel’s organ”
A Handel recital on the 1998 Goetze & Gwynn chamber organ
and the 2012 Richards Fowkes & Co organ

Andrew Benson-Wilson

Allemande – Courante – Air and Variations
(HWV 428, from Suite in D minor, Eight Great Suites, 1720)

A Voluntary on a Flight of Angels
(HWV 600, ‘Ten Tunes for Clay’s Musical Clock’, c1735)
Fugue in A minor
(HWV 609, ‘Six Fugues or Voluntarys for the Organ’, 1735)
(HWV 350, ‘The Celebrated Water Musick Set for the Harpsicord’, 1743)

Organ Concerto VI in G minor
Largo e Affettuoso – A tempo Giusto – Musette – Allegro – Allegro
(HWV 300, Second Set of Six Concertos, c1740)

* * *
Voluntary III Slow – Cornet
Voluntary V Largo – Trumpet & Echo
(From Twelve Voluntaries, 1776)

Organ Concerto in G in Alexander’s Feast
Larghetto – Allegro – Adagio – Andante
(HWV 289, Opus 4/1, 1738)

Chaconne in G
(HWV 435, Eight Great Suites, 1720)

The Goetze & Gwynn chamber organ was commissioned by the Handel House Trust. It is based on a larger surviving 1749 organ that Thomas Parker built for Charles Jennens, the Messiah librettist, with a specification suggested by Handel. It was intended for the Handel House Museum but was too large for the space available at the time. It has since lived in St George’s Hanover Square. As part of the Hallelujah Project of what is now known as the Handel & Hendrix in London, the organ will move into Handel House in May. In the first half of this recital, we explore how Handel’s music might have been played at the time on a chamber organ, as revealed by 18th-century publications of his keyboard music.

The Suite in d was published in 1720 as the third of the Eight Great Suites, although it was composed several years earlier, perhaps when Handel was based in Hamburg. In its published form it has six movements. The central group of Allemande, Courante, Air and 5 Variations follow a Praeludium and Fugue and are succeeded by a Presto.

The delightfully named little Voluntary on a Flight of Angels was composed for a musical clock with a tiny organ inside, made by Charles Clay. Several of Clay’s musical clocks survive, many with Handel’s music, but none with this particular piece. It is found in the Aylesford manuscripts (now in the Royal Collection of the British Library) in the collection of ‘Tunes for Clay’s Musical Clock’.

The Fugue in A minor was published in the 1735 Six Fugues or Voluntarys, although it was probably composed around 1711/16. The wide leaps and descending chromaticism of the fugue subject create a strikingly dramatic mood. Perhaps appropriately, it was later reused for the chorus They loathed to drink of the river / He turned their waters into blood in Israel in Egypt.

The Water Music was first performed in 1717 by around 50 musicians in a barge alongside King George I’s royal barge in a spectacular Thames procession from Whitehall to Chelsea and back. It was repeated several times on both the upstream and downstream trips. There are many theories as to why the event happened, one being that the King was trying to outdo the antics of his son. The first complete publication was this 1743 Walsh version for harpsichord. This particularly tuneful Menuet is from what is now known as the Third Suite of pieces G major.

The Organ Concerto VI in G minor is the last of the 1740 Second Set of six organ concertos. The 1738 Opus 4 and the posthumous Opus 7 organ concertos are well known, but the Second Set is less so, with the exception of the first concerto, The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. Most of the other Second Set concertos are keyboard versions of Handel’s Opus 6 Six Concertos Grosso, in this case, Opus 6/6. The opening movement has a rather dark and melancholic mood, which is reinforced by the following chromatic fugue. Charles Burney wrote that the extended central pastoral Musette that follows “was always in favour with the composer . . . who frequently introduced it between the parts of his Oratorios.” The first of the final Allegros is in a flamboyant Italianate style with virtuoso passages originally intended for solo violin. The final one is similar to the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti.


The Richards Fowkes & Co organ was built in 2012, the first American-built organ in London. It is designed in the 17th/18th century Netherlands/North German style with some concessions to the English Parish Church style. It reused the existing organ case, the central section of which is from the 1735 Gerard Smith organ that Handel would have known. We now hear Handel’s music as played in a parish church of the time and finally by a youthful Handel himself on a large German organ.

The set of Twelve Voluntaries published in 1776 includes some of the very few Handel compositions intended for an English church organ – if that is, they were actually by Handel. Voluntary III opens with a slow Diapason movement, followed by the distinctive English sound of the Cornet stop. Voluntary V opens with a lyrical Largo followed by a movement for Trumpet and Echo.

The powerful four-movement Organ Concerto in G was composed for the 1736 performance of Alexander’s Feast in Covent Garden, an oratorio based on Dryden’s St Cecilia’s Day 1697 ode to the Power of Music. It represents the triumph of the organ over all other instruments and was played just before the final chorus. This keyboard version published by Walsh is based on the organ and continuo part.

The monumental Chaconne in G was published by Walsh in 1733 in the second volume of the Suites de Pièces although it was composed much earlier. It has 21 variations, with a contrasting lyrical minor key central section. The chaconne is a musical form built on a repeating bass line. It was a common basis for organ improvisation in Germany and was frequently used as an audition test for organist posts. It is the sort of piece that Handel might have improvised in his early days as cathedral organist in Halle.

© Andrew Benson-Wilson 2023

Andrew Benson-Wilson specialises in the performance of early organ music, ranging from 14th-century manuscripts to the late Classical period. His playing is informed by his experience of historic organs, understanding of period performance techniques and several internationally renowned teachers. The first of his two CDs of the complete Tallis organ works was Gramophone Magazine’s ‘Record of the Month’. The Organists’ Review commented that his “understanding of the historic English organ and its idiom is thorough, and the beautifully articulated, contoured result here is sufficient reason for hearing this disk. He is a player of authority in this period of keyboard music”.

Andrew’s concerts have ranged from the enormous 1642 Festorgel in Klosterneuburg Abbey in Austria to a tiny 1668 chamber organ in a medieval castle in Croatia, via St John’s, Smith Square. According to one reviewer, his St John’s, Smith Square recital was “one of the most rewarding organ recitals heard in London in years – an enthralling experience”. Other concerts have included the 1723 Hildebrandt organ in Störmthal (where Bach gave the opening recital) and the famous 1558 Ebert organ in Innsbruck’s Hofkirche.

Andrew’s little book “The Performance of Early Organ Music” is used as a required text in a number of Universities. After 20 years as the principal concert and organ CD reviewer for Early Music Review magazine, Andrew now reviews on his own website:

He has been elected to The Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain (founded in 1738, with Handel as a key supporter) and is a member of the Council of The National Early Music Association.

Andrew’s next two London recitals commemorate the
400th anniversary of William Byrd’s death in July 1623.

Sunday 9 July (7.45)
Christ’s Chapel of God’s Gift at Dulwich
William Byrd & John Bull

Tuesday 1 August (1.10)
St George’s Hanover Square.
Byrd’s World