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Adding to the Periodic Table of ‘Cambridge Elements’


Our fellow Bostonian Mark Kroll has published again. This time the harpsichordist, teacher and writer has written “Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti: Reception in Britain 1750-1850” for Cambridge University Press (available HERE as a paperback or E-book). We are pleased to reprint a review by the noted Dutch conductor, organist, harpsichordist, and musicologist, Ton Koopman.

The ‘Cambridge Elements’ series provides concise publications on a wide range of subjects, including music history. A recent issue in this series (mainly intended as an online publication but also available in “old fashioned” book form) is by Mark Kroll and deals with the reception and appreciation of the music of Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti in Britain in the century after their deaths. An interesting subject! I read this little volume with pleasure.

Harpsichordist, teacher, and author , Mark Kroll (file photo)

Of the three famous composers born in 1685, Handel was by far best known in England. His music has remained on the music stands continuously since Handel’s own performances in England and has been much appreciated ever since. Actually, Handel was one of the first composers whose works have remained popular after his death, second only to Palestrina perhaps. During the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, some of Handel’s larger works like Messiah, Samson and the Dettingen Te Deum were regularly performed. And of many other works excerpts or selected movements were parts of concert programs. We can only guess how these performances must have sounded, but this book actually does give us some interesting clues. It is a well-known fact that Handel’s music was often performed with large or even enormous forces. Concerts with several hundred participating musicians were not the exception. Kroll has collected a lot of information on Handel performances herein, which I found very useful. The combination of all these anecdotes and references gives us a look behind the scenes of the late 18th– and early 19th -century performance practice of “ancient music.”

Kroll also brings up how the compositions of Domenico Scarlatti and Johann Sebastian Bach often suffered all kinds of “improvements” in those days. He shows, for instance, how Amrose Pittman altered and even extended Scarlatti’s Sonata in D Major K 29. Pittman did this with the best of intentions but to us still feels almost shocking. Another example is Ignaz Moscheles, who happily added wind parts (including clarinets!) to the orchestral accompaniment of J.S. Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor (performed on a piano). The aim was of course to rescue this music from obscurity by improving it for the modern taste.

Mark Kroll is a highly experienced researcher and trusted author on Early Music. I would recommend this little volume both to a wide audience and to musicians and musicologists who already know something on the subject. It paints a vivid picture of musical life in Britain between 1750 and 1850 for all interested readers, but on the way, I found many interesting details: on organ pedaling in early 19th-century England; concerning choir and orchestra setups; about the use of the clavichord in the 19th century; regarding pianists playing harpsichord around 1800; and delving into practices of tuning and temperament; etc. etc. Kroll’s valuable contribution shows the start of the interest in Early Music in Britain and the commonly held views of those times. It reminds us that we have come a long way since then! Early music does not need rescuing, but we can defend, with heart, soul, and knowledge, the works of these great composers who are no longer able to do so themselves.

Ton Koopman is harpsichordist, organist, conductor, the founder of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, and an authority on Early Music and historically informed performance practice. He is a keen book collector too: his extensive collection is currently housed at the Orpheus Intitute in Ghent. Koopman is president of the Leipzig Bach Archiv.

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