Variations on “The Harmonious Blacksmith”, M. Giuliani
James Brydges (1673-1744), the later Earl of Carnarvon, is the prime example of a corrupt, splendor-loving nobleman of the 18th century.
During the War of Spanish Succession he was “Paymaster-General of the Forces Abroad”, which he used above all to enrich himself.
On the face of it, the incredible sum of between 600,000 and 700,000 pounds that he managed to get on his side in just a few years was talked about. For this he was charged and quoted before the House of Commons, but all accusations bounced off him.
Besides these rather unpleasant sides of his nature, he was a highly educated person and a lover of music and literature.
He used a considerable part of his fortune to build Canons, a splendid mansion in the county of Middlesex, which he developed into a centre of the arts.
The brother of Alessandro Scarlatti belonged to his “Court Orchestra“, which comprised about 30 musicians. He also gathered a circle of progressive writers around him, including John Gay and Alexander Pope.
G. F. Handel joined this illustrious group in 1717 as “Composer-in-Residence”. Among the works he was to write here during the two years of his stay were the first version of the oratorio “Esther” and the English version of “Acis and Galatea”, which John Gay translated for him.
It was also in Canons that he composed the “Suites de Pièces pour le Clavecin”, which contain those variations that are known worldwide today under the name “The Harmonious Blacksmith”.
Now there is a beautiful story to this work.
One day, when Handel was on one of his trips, he had to flee from a sudden shower of rain under the canopy of a blacksmith’s shop. He looked discontentedly into the grey veil, behind him the darkness of the Smithy.
Suddenly he heard a melody unknown to him that miraculously harmonized with the sound of the hammers. He looked around and noticed the blacksmith whistling a little song during his work, which now penetrated outside.
Used to looking everywhere for melodies, he gratefully accepted this unexpected gift and immortalized it in his work.
As beautiful as this story sounds and as much as I love it, it is unfortunately not true.
For it only appears three quarters of a century later in the book “Reminiscences of Handel”, in which Richard Clark collected his memories and in the process sometimes got into a bad mood of fabulation.
This was also the case with this story, which soon became so popular that decades later the anvil of the blacksmith was still traded at auctions.
And the name of the work has also been retained, and so today we only know it under the title “The harmonious Blacksmith”.
The simple beauty of his melody and, last but not least, the stories surrounding his name made the work popular with other composers.
It was Louis Spohr who used it as the basis for one of his works, as did Francis Poulenc and the Australian composer Percy Grainger.
This work has also found its way into guitar literature through M. Giuliani’s “Variazioni su un tema di Händel” op. 107, which he composed in 1828.
But before I go into the work now, I would like to talk briefly about something else.
I know that many non guitarists and musical amateurs also read along here and so I will say a few general words about the term “variation”.
If you want to know more about the development of musical forms, have a look at my second blog. There I write an introduction into classical music at irregular intervals.
The term variation means to change something given.
To make this easier to understand, we compare the music with our language. We don’t have to go so far as to equate a musical work with a poem, an essay or a novel.
But on a small scale this makes sense by comparing a melody or a theme with a movement. Because then it is easier to understand how a composer works.
Let’s take a simple sentence like, “I’m walking in the rain today.”
If we want to affirm this sentence, for instance because we believe it has not been understood, then we repeat it.
“I’m walking in the rain today.” – “I’m walking in the rain today.”
In order to underline various aspects of his statement or to explain it in more detail, we must change it.
You can either:
– shorten it: “I’m going for a walk.”
– expand: “I’m going for a walk in the rain this morning and I’m going to dance.”
– or otherwise change it as you like: “I’m going to stroll in the drizzle.”
As we can see, the basic statement of the sentence remains the same (ego, movement, etc.), but nevertheless it changes with each “variation”.
A composer does the same thing and, just as we do in language, he can highlight every single aspect of a theme, illuminate it differently and change it.
A variation work is simply the implementation of this principle not only on a theme, but on a whole piece.
Let’s get back to Giuliani’s music.
His op. 107 is a conservative work without surprises or special musical highlights. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful piece of music and seems to me to be a good introduction to the world of variations, both for listeners and performers.
I’ve decided for a record by Ben Lougheed today. Of the videos I know on Youtube, his seems to me to speak most authentic in the spirit of Giuliani.
At the beginning the theme appears, the song of the “harmonic blacksmith”, accompanied in the bass by the “blacksmith’s hammers”.
The first variation (0:58) brings little new, only the bass plays a few side notes.
The second variation (1:46) becomes a little more lively as Giuliani composes triplets and thus increases the tempo.
Only with the third variation (2:44) one feels a change. The mood seems to have changed and the virtuoso aspect takes a back seat. Very nice to trace here in this recording.
The fourth variation (4:02) is now again under the sign of virtuosity. Not in the sense of a Paganini or Liszt, but everyone who has practiced the piece knows how difficult it is to make all the notes sound as they are written.
Of course also a minor variation (5:06) must not be missing. On the recording it is very nice to observe how Ben Lougheed does not distort it romantically, but always remains in the spirit of classical music in a fixed basic rhythm and interprets it without romantic enamel.
Variation Six (7:25) is the typical “Kehraus” (bouncer), which is almost always at the end of a work of variation. The guitar may shine and cast off its tone cascades. The few small mistakes that the performer makes in the heat of the moment shouldn’t bother us any further.
I hope you enjoyed this introduction to the plant. If you are interested, on Facebook I post daily videos and little stories about the classical guitar, matching my blog.