Handel’s Games

In his Concerto grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6 no. 7 (1739) Handel’s second movement (at 1:06 in the example below) is the traditional fugal canzona with a twist. It’s joke-like subject (a systematic diminution of a single note) is so striking, lucid, and memorable that it allows him, as Taruskin points out, to play with the listener’s expectations. The entrances of the subject are irregular, creating a game of “hide-and-seek”—where will it pop up next?

The example is one of several Taruskin gives to indicate a shift in compositional technique and listener experience: instead of music evoking an emotion, the composition requires an intellectual consideration. It sets up a listener’s expectation, then fulfills or delays the expectation. In Taruskin’s estimation, this was “a virtual revolution in listening, in which the listener’s conscious mind was much more actively engaged than previously in these processes of forecast and delayed fulfillment, and in which the form may even be said to arise out of the play of these cognitive processes.” (II, 208)



  1. Elaine Fine says:

    Perhaps the humor was also intended for the musicians playing the piece!

    Thank you for this post, and thank you for keeping this blog!

  2. Zach Wallmark says:

    Great point – we tend to keep a fairly strict performer/listener dichotomy today, but at this time a lot of music was written with the enjoyment of the performers in mind. After all, who was purchasing the music? The performers, most of whom where amateurs!

  3. herb roselle says:

    a couple of other treats in that fugue – the four note motive 3-5-6-4 is flipped to 6-3-4-2 and both are sequenced in step-wise motion, which Handel then uses to create a scale motive as part of the material in the fugue. Delightful to chase around while listening.

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