26 Oct 2009

Handel's clavichord

Handel by Philip Mercier 1730

Handel's father was in his mid-60s in 1685 when his son George Fridric was born. He was surgeon-barber to the duke of Saxe-Weissenfels - and he hated music. Legend has it that young George's mother managed to smuggle a clavichord up to the attic where her talented young son was able to learn to play.

By the time he was eight years old the youngster played so well that when the duke heard him playing the organ at one of the Sunday services, he insisted that Handel be allowed to study music properly, and his musical genius was quickly recognised by all. One wonders what Handel's father must have thought when he discovered his wife's actions - was it relief that he had not prevented his son doing what he clearly had such a talent for, or anger at her subterfuge? Regardless, the clavichord that young George played secretly in his own home has quite captured Jemimah's and my imagination during the time that we have been studying the life of this great composer. Imagine an instrument so quiet that you could play it undetected by people under the same roof!

Read what Handel's first biographer, John Mainwaring, had to say as early as 1760:
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 forbade 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, John Mainwaring 1760p 426.
The exceptional musicologist, conductor and clavichord player, Christopher Hogwood, even sheds light on what young Handel may have played. According to Hogwood, William Coxe in 1799 described a manuscript keyboard book from Handel’s schooling with his first music teacher, Friederich Zachow, the organist at the Lutheran Church in Halle, Handel's birthplace:

...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 William Coxe 1799 p. 6n.
This TouTube video features a replica of a very rare fretted clavichord, the 1726 Ugo Annibale Traeri. The instrument, which today resides in the Maidstone Museum in England, is reputed to have belonged to Handel himself. It is extremely compact, at only 32" wide, and would have been ideal to smuggle up a narrow internal staircase. Have a listen, and imagine young Handel playing his little heart out in his attic with perhaps his mother as his audience.

Ah yes, the man had a 'musical propensity' indeed.

1 comment:

  1. We are yet to study Handel, but we do listne to a lot of his music! Thanks for sharing a bit! Cheers, xxx


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