Handel – Suites for Keyboard

History repeats itself

George Frideric Handel was a true European. He had a German work ethic, Italian passion and a Dutch head for business. And after training in Germany and Italy, from 1711 he went on to win the hearts of the British. He wooed them with his many operas and oratorios, and with instrumental works like his Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Yet during his lifetime, he was renowned not only as an organist, but also as one of the greatest harpsichordists of his day. The public couldn’t get enough of him on the harpsichord, either as a composer or a musician. Evidently times change. However, if we take a closer look at the period during which Handel settled in London, we soon see that people were occupied with the same issues then as they are today.

European cooperation

The signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 finally brought peace after a long period of war, and with it a lasting balance of power in Europe. It was a historic moment, comparable to the foundation of the European Union. Historic, partly because it was the first time a treaty had been signed not on the battle field but at the negotiating table. For Handel it was a fortunate development as it allowed him to move much more freely around Europe. At the same time, England had not done badly out of the peace deal it had struck in Utrecht. Welfare in the country increased, certainly in London.

It was in this prosperous climate that Handel made his home in the city. From his London base he gave concerts throughout Europe and his compositions were on sale everywhere. There was more sheet music in circulation by Handel than there was by Bach or many other of his contemporaries – a keen measure of his immense popularity. Handel even managed to cash in on the Treaty of Utrecht itself: he composed the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, which were performed during a thanksgiving service in the brand-new St Paul’s Cathedral. For many years these pieces were rarely heard in the Netherlands, but since 2005 the Te Deum has been performed annually in Utrecht.

Economic crisis

Britain had been flourishing economically since the European treaty of 1713, when it won the right to trade slaves in the Spanish colonies. The South Sea Company bought these trading rights from the British government, and issued shares to cover the massive debt. They were bought by the 30 directors themselves, who then went on to issue more shares at ever higher prices. London could smell money, and many members of parliament as well as the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and Handel bought shares. But the sale turned out to be a swindle.

When the price was at an absolute peak, the directors sold off all their shares in the knowledge that the company would never be able to pay its debts. The result was a vast financial crisis that drove many into bankruptcy: the South Sea Bubble. The bubble brought down other companies with it and the crisis spread across borders.

Handel sold his shares just before the price crashed. But many of his patrons, like the Duke of Chandos, lost so much money that Handel was obliged to seek new sources of income. The publication of the suites was one such source. An indirect consequence of the South Sea Bubble was that Handel began to compose more oratorios as well as operas: an astute businessman, he spread his risks and chances of making a profit. In investor’s terms, he expanded his portfolio.


Digitisation has made it virtually impossible to enforce existing copyright laws. CDs and DVDs are widely copied or made available on the internet without a penny going to the owners of the rights. Handel also lost out from the illegal distribution of his music.

In the early decades of the 18th century, Amsterdam was one of the most important publishing cities in the world. Vivaldi, Corelli, Albinoni and Locatelli all chose to publish in Amsterdam rather than in Venice because of the superior quality of Amsterdam publications. But pirate copies soon came on the market, for which the composer did not receive a penny. In 1719 – from the presses of the reputable publisher Roger no less – an unauthorised version of a number of Handel’s pieces for harpsichord appeared. In 1720 Handel responded with an edition of his own:

‘I have been obliged to publish some of the following Lessons, because surrepticious and incorrect Copies of them had got Abroad. I have added several new ones to make the Work more useful, which if it meets with a favourable Reception; I will still proceed to publish more, reckoning it my duty, with my Small Talent, to serve a Nation from which I have receiv’d so Generous a protection.’

The ‘Suites de pièces pour le clavecin – Premier volume’

Handel thus brought together new and old material, but just what was old and what was new we do not know. Probably some of the work dated from his student days in Germany, some from his years in Italy, and the new material from his time in London. The German folksongs in the Air of the Suite in d [track 5] and the Passacaille from the Suite in g [track 16] could well have been composed in his German years, as could some of the Fugues. The Suite in F, with its variation of Adagios and Allegros, takes the form of an Italian Sonata da Chiesa – could the entire Suite have been composed in Italy? Then the opening sections of the Suite in d [track 1] and the one in g [track 11] in particular sound very French. However, they could equally have been written in London.

The Suites HWV 323 to HWV 433 are known collectively as the ‘Grand Suites’. A showcase of Handel’s ability, they reveal him to be a master of every European style. The pieces were hugely popular and were even republished. Handel was apparently pleased with them himself; for one thing, he was later to use the Presto from the Suite in d [track 6] as the closing section of the Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 6. The harpsichord pieces are a match for the very best work for the instrument by his contemporaries.

Mozart, who revised and orchestrated Handel’s Messiah, was a great admirer of Handel. In his youth he went to great lengths to get hold of as much sheet music of Handel’s work as he could. In 1782 he composed his Suite ‘Dans le style de G.F. Haendel’, which sadly remained unfinished – he got no further than the first three movements. The Allemande from the suite is a baroque gem built on classical foundations. Mozart’s homage to the master.

Handel’s oratorios, operas and orchestral works have always remained popular. It is therefore hard to fathom why Handel’s harpsichord works should receive so little attention today. But history repeats itself, so perhaps one day the tide will turn.

Text: Alexander Klapwijk, translation: Michael Blass

The CD booklet contains a timeline, placing the period of composition within contemporary developments in politics and economics, science and art