The Harmonious Blacksmith
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The Harmonious Blacksmith is the popular name of the final movement, Air and variations, of George Frideric Handel's Suite No. 5 in E major, HWV 430, for harpsichord. An air is followed by five doubles (variations in the English division style): semiquavers in the right hand; semiquavers in the left hand; semiquaver triplets in the right and left hands; and finally demisemiquavers in both hands.
The eight suites of 1720
Handel published his first eight harpsichord suites in 1720 with the following explanation:
|“||I have been obliged to publish some of the following Lessons, because surrepticious and incorrect Copies of them had got Abroad. I have added several new ones to make the Work more useful, which if it meets with a favourable Reception; I will still proceed to publish more, reckoning it my duty, with my Small Talent, to serve a Nation from which I have receiv’d so Generous a protection||”|
—Handel, preface to the publication of 1720
There have been a number of explanations proffered as to why this movement was called The Harmonious Blacksmith, and by whom. The name was not given by Handel and was not recorded until early in the 19th century, when the movement became popular on its own (while Handel's music remained popular in England continuously after his death, it was only very selectively known.)
An unproven history
The story is that Handel, when working for James Brydges the future Duke of Chandos at Cannons between 1717 and 1718, once took shelter from the rain in a smithy, and was inspired to write his tune upon hearing the hammer on the anvil; the regularly repeated pedal note (B in the right hand) in the first variation, can give the impression of a blacksmith hammering. A variation on the story is that he heard the blacksmith singing the tune which would later become the Air; this explanation fits in nicely with Handel's general technique of borrowing tunes.
Neither story is true. The legend began three-quarters of a century after Handel's death with Richard Clark in his Reminiscences of Handel (1836). Henry Wylde and Richard Clark then found an old anvil in a smithy near Whitchurch, Edgware and fabricated a story to identify William Powell as the fictitious blacksmith, when, in fact, he had been the parish clerk. They raised a subscription for a wooden memorial to him, and in 1868, the people of Whitchurch subscribed again for a grandiloquent gravestone, still standing. It reads: "In memory of William Powell, the Harmonious Blacksmith, who was buried 27. of February 1780, aged 78 years. He was Parish Clerk during the time the immortal Handel was organist of this church. Erected by subscription, May 1868."
Another possible history for the Harmonious Blacksmith
William Lintern was a blacksmith's apprentice from Bath who later took up music and so was The Harmonious Blacksmith. The piece came to be called after him, probably because he published it under that name for reasons outlined in the following extract:
A few months after Clark's publication the writer saw the late J.W. Windsor, Esq., of Bath, a great admirer of Handel and one who knew all his published works. He told the writer that a story of the Blacksmith at Edgware was pure imagination, that the original publisher of Handel's lesson under that name (The Harmonious Blacksmith) was a music seller at Bath, named Lintern, whom he knew personally from buying music at the shop, that he had asked Lintern the reason for this new name, and he had told him that it was a nickname given to himself because, he had been brought up as a blacksmith, although he had afterwards turned to music, and that was the piece he was constantly asked to play. He printed the movement in a detached form, because he could sell a sufficient number of copies to make a profit.
Chappell was a respected musical historian and the story is probably true, but there is no copy of Lintern's edition of the piece in the British Museum, and Mr W. C. Smith, who worked at the museum and was a Handelian specialist of high standing, said that the earliest copy of the piece that he had yet (as of 1940) been able to find under the name The Harmonious Blacksmith was that published by the British Harmonic Institution, arranged as a piano-forte duet, the paper of which bears the watermark '1819'.
Origins of the music
As to the origins of the music, a bourrée by Richard Jones (1680–1740) features almost the same air in a minor key, though it is not known whether Jones preceded Handel or vice versa. A passage in Handel's opera Almira, written in 1704, is very like the Harmonious Blacksmith tune, so it is likely that it was his own. Beethoven used a similar theme for the subject of a two-part organ fugue.
There also exist several early manuscript versions of this piece, in G major and entitled Chaconne. The overall shape and form of the variations are the same, but the melody as we know it is not yet fully formed, and there are significant improvements to texture and passagework throughout the later published version. Interesting, perhaps, is a complete lack of the insistent repetition of b' (d" through transposition), which has since been commonly associated with the image of a blacksmith striking his anvil.
Pip, the main character in Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, is fondly given the nickname of Handel by the character Herbert Pocket, in honor of Pip's upbringing as a blacksmith, and in honor of this music: "We are so harmonious- and you have been a blacksmith".
Saint Dunstan is named as the Harmonious Blacksmith in the 18th century poem "The Devil and Saint Dunstan".
The piece is mentioned in Siegfried Sassoon's semi-autobiographical work Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man. Aunt Evelyn is heard to be playing the piece one evening and the author recalls this happy memory during his time at the Front.
The Italian guitarist-composer Mauro Giuliani used the theme as the basis for his Variazioni su un tema di Handel ("The Harmonious Blacksmith"), Op. 107, for solo guitar in 1828.
The German composer Louis Spohr used the theme as the basis for a variation movement in his Octet in E major, Op. 32.
The Australian-born composer and pianist Percy Grainger based one of his most famous works on this melody. He first wrote his Variations on Handel's ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ in 1911. Shortly after, he used the first sixteen bars of his set of variations to create one of his most beloved pieces, Handel in the Strand. He wrote that the music “seemed to reflect both Handel and English musical comedy”, hence the title. The composer made various versions of the work, most notably, a piano solo version (1930).