Friday, 4 December 2015

Getting a handle on Handel...

On Sunday 6 December at 3pm, the young musicians of Britten Sinfonia Academy will be sharing the culmination of recent weekends' exploration of the music of Handel in collaboration with the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Through this course, Academy members have been joined by Handel and Early Music specialist Dr Christopher Suckling to explore the museum's unique collection of autographed scores by Handel. With a focus on composition and the realisation of a composer's wishes in performance, they have also been working with composer Kenneth Hesketh to develop their own miniatures from a series of unpublished fragments in the collection. Britten Sinfonia Academy clarinetist, Morgan Overton, shares his experience of their recent work...

On Sunday 29th November - amid hectic rehearsals and not-so-hectic sandwiches - we members of Britten Sinfonia Academy went for a little look inside the Fitzwilliam Museum's Founders' Library. This intriguing library, hidden behind high wooden double doors, is home to well over 10,000 volumes reflecting the varied interests of the Viscount FitzWilliam (whose will allowed the formation of the museum in the first place). Items of note include the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (a compilation of Elizabethan and Jacobean keyboard music rare in scope and comprehensiveness but greatly important in the history of chamber music), as well as medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts and tomes on history, natural sciences, philosophy and religion, travel and (naturally) music. However, what we were here to see was some Handel.
Morgan exploring the manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Being our principal focus as an orchestra over these weeks, it was natural to want to see the Fitzwilliam's Handel selection. What we were not prepared for was how widely varied it all was. FitzWilliam was a close associate of Handel, and partook in many performances of his work, whether he was an instrumentalist or an organiser. Therefore, he managed to collect throughout his life several Handelian manuscripts, many of which are unique. These include entire collections of 'scrap paper' where Handel collected notes and melodic ideas, as well as 'words-only' manuscripts waiting for the music to be set to the words, as well as more conventional scores and reductions.
(c) Fitzwilliam Museum

However, what was remarkable to see, even on the performance parts, was how there was no extra marking, except those Handel or his copyists had put on the page that were originally on the score. In other words, the musicians performing knew every piece of articulation, every phrase length and every bit of dynamic shaping without any marking it on the scores. However, beside the more musicological aspect of viewing the manuscripts, it was just extraordinary to be so close to such rare old documents - it was overwhelming, and the excitement doubled when we also were able to view handwritten manuscripts of Bach. It was truly an extraordinary experience, and one none of us in the orchestra will forget for a very long time.

Morgan Overton (Clarinet, Britten Sinfonia Academy 2015-16)

You can join Britten Sinfonia Academy for their performance on Sunday 6 December 2015 at 3pm in Gallery Three of the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Academy members will perform extracts from Handel's Messiah and Acis and Galatea with introductions from Dr Suckling and Kenneth Hesketh. Manuscripts from the collection will also be on display for members of the audience to view.

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