I can recall very clearly the first time I was introduced to the music of George Frideric Handel (1685-1749), born in Germany, but later a naturalized Brit who is buried in Westminster Abbey. In the same way that I try to bring pieces which I enjoy to people’s attention, a schoolmaster, the late father of a follower of these posts, was keen to enlighten a small group of us with the great man’s music – and did so with one of the briefest and most exhilarating passages ever written by anyone. It had an instant effect.
Handel and J S Bach, born in the same year, came to epitomize that category of music which we now call ‘Baroque’, a period roughly spanning 1600-1750. Bach seems to enjoy most of the glory these days, but Beethoven heralded Handel as “the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” His thirty years in London brought him great wealth and popularity, doubtless assisted by being a favourite, eventually, of George 111. (His wealth might also be attributed to the fact that he was a very private man who never married and had no children; unlike Bach who found time to father twenty, of whom ten survived to adulthood.) Few people reading these posts will not at some stage have heard at least excerpts of his most famous work, “Messiah”.
But if I had to select just one piece to represent the Baroque period, a tough ask, I would nevertheless not hesitate to single out “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”.
The Queen of Sheba was a biblical figure, whose visit to Solomon in order to exchange all manner of gifts and riches, has been widely covered in a variety of texts, but it is Handel’s musical narrative which grabs the most attention. It oozes exuberance, with just a handful of strings and some woodwind. Uplifting, joyous, sprightly: it is small wonder that it is often used to announce the arrival of a bride at her wedding.
This particular recording, performed by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers, is so speedy, that I suspect if Handel had heard it, he might have wondered if the Queen of Sheba was running late; but for this humble enthusiast it’s perfect, with a controlled momentum and particularly fine playing by two oboists on original instruments. Put it on if you’re in a rush to catch that train – with this encouragement, you’ll get there with time to spare.