Releasing the “loudie” – harpsichord accompaniment in G. F. Handel’s continuo cantatas

Christian Kjos, Norwegian Academy of Music

I’m a musician with 17th and 18th century music as my special field and I’m diving into a spesific repertoire by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), one of the most known composers from the baroque era (1600-1750).

In his youth he spent four years in Italy (1706-1710) to build his career as a musician and composer. In that period, Handel composed, among other works, more than one hundred cantatas, i.e. vocal music with an instrumental accompaniment. Some cantatas require a large amount of players to accompany the singer(s), some only one player, e.g. a harpsichordist. The harpsichord is, by the way, a keyboard instrument with its heydays from around 1500 to 1770. Handel was a specially gifted harpsichordist and organist.

My focus of research is how to accompany Handel’s cantatas for one singer and basso continuo. He wrote about seventy with this formation. Basso continuo or continuo is a form of musical notation and accompaniment that evolved during the baroque era, where the performer improvises his part above a bass line that is either figured or unfigured. The figures indicate which harmonies that should be played, but not exactly how. This musical notation and technique was used for instruments that could play chords, like the harpsichord, organ, harp, guitar or lute. The skill of playing continuo was considered one of the most important musical diciplines in the baroque era and demands a thorough knowledge of music theory, harmony and practical skills even today.

According to the custom in Handel’s days, he wrote the voice line and the instrumental bass line, sometimes figured, but more often not. This leaves the continuo player free to form his accompaniment according to his or her abilites, knowledge of rules, composition and style, taste, and what suits the instrument used.

My method is primarily to study sources that give a hint about continuo playing relevant to Handel’s music, but also solo harpsichord music by him and his contemporary colleagues. This is to seek out models that I can use in my work with these cantatas. In addition I will work on improving my improvisational skills because this will affect my approach to this repertoir. Together with different singers, we will try out different solutions and experiment with how they affect the performance and the relationship between singer and continuo player.

There is very little research within this spesific repertoire and I believe that there is more to be discovered. Continuo playing is a vast field with several approaches among performers of today. In a busy musician’s life, there is hardly ever time to go into the depths of a subject like this. Today Handel’s music is performed more than ever and research regarding his music should be of interest to performers and scholars internationally. I hope my project will shed new light and open up for reinterpretation of the music by this great composer.