The first performance of Handel's Harp Concerto is well documented.
It occurred on 17 February 1736, when it was played as an Entr'acte
in a performance of his Oratorio Alexander's Feast. The harp soloist
is thought to have been one William Powel, a Welshman then active
in London, who played it on the triple harp.
The poem by
Dryden which Handel set as Alexander's Feast dramatises the legend
that Alexander - son of Philip of Macedon, conqueror of Darius,
King of Persia, and lover of the courtesan Thaïs
- was influenced by the musician Timotheus to burn the city of
Persepolis, in which he was feasting. After the Overture, the tenor
soloist describes the scene at a celebration banquet following
Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia. Alexander sits in state
with Thaïs, and the entertainment at the feast is provided
by Timotheus, who accompanies his songs on the lyre. Handel's harp
is meant to present Timotheus, who 'With trembling fingers touch'd
the lyre/ And heavn'ly joys inspired'.
Three performances of Alexander's Feast were given in 1736 and
1737 - the last time it can be certain that the Harp Concerto was
included in a performance under Handel's direction. Three performances
were also given in 1739, one of them being for the benefit of the
'Fund for Decay'd Musicians'. This Benefit performance included
'a new Concerto on the Organ by Mr Handel, on purpose for this
occasion', and this almost certainly replaced the original Harp
Concerto. In 1742 the concertos noted in the earlier librettos
of the performances were removed, never to return.
Handel's links with the harp were always strong. From the beginning,
when he was a young boy in Halle, Zachow, his teacher, set him
to copying scores of some of the cantatas he had composed. One
of the earliest that Handel copied at the age of about eight, was
one which contained a very important part for the triple harp.
It is thought that the portrait of the be-wigged small boy, pictured
with his harp and his pet dog (frontispiece), may well be a portrait
of Handel painted at about this time.
This new edition of the first movement
of Handel's Harp Concerto (Op.4 no.6) has been arranged so that
it can be played as a solo on the Celtic harp. Justification for
such a solo arrangement may be derived from the fact that in the
mid-1740s, the blind Welsh harpist John Parry played the Concerto
as a 'Lesson without accompaniments', that is to say, as a harp
solo, and that this version had Handel's total and unqualified
approval. The new version for Celtic harp also has the advantage
that it can be used as the solo part when the work is performed
© Ann Griffiths 2004