Handel’s Suite No. 5 in E Major: “The Harmonious Blacksmith”

George Frideric Handel composed the Eight Great Suites for harpsichord around 1718 when he was employed as house composer at Cannons in Middlesex, England. By 1720, he became aware of error-ridden pirated copies of the music circulating throughout continental Europe. When the set was published, Handel included the following  explanation in the preface of the London edition:

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.

Formally, Handel’s Suites moved away from the strict blueprint of the Baroque dance suite. In addition to the familiar courtly dances, Handel added “fugues, arias with variations, Italian-style sonata movements, even (in No 7) a Passacaglia,” which give us the impression of “written-down improvisations.” (Danny Driver)

The Fifth Suite omits the typical concluding Sarabande and Gigue. Instead, Handel gives us a spectacular set of variations on an Air. This infectious melody has become known as The Harmonious Blacksmith. The name emerged as a result of spurious stories which sprang up in the nineteenth century. According to one account, Handel heard the melody after ducking into a blacksmith’s shop to avoid the rain. Another story compared the repeated “B” pedal tones in the first variation to the blacksmith’s persistent hammer on the anvil. An alternate history involves William Lintern, a blacksmith’s apprentice from Bath, who later became a musician and published a version of the piece.

Suite No. 5 is filled with the rich, expansive melodies we might expect from a composer rooted in opera. After exploring Baroque dance forms originating in Italy and France, the final movement seems to pay homage to the music of Handel’s adopted home country of England. It’s the ultimate celebratory display of musical fireworks.

Here is a 2009 recording featuring the German harpsichordist, Michael Borgstede:

I. Prelude:

II. Allemande:

III. Courante:

IV. Air:

Great Expectations 

The Harmonious Blacksmith melody emerges briefly in the opening of the final movement of Françis Poulenc’s Harpsichord Concerto. It also inspired a melodious miniature by the Australian composer, Percy Grainger.

Charles Dickens referenced Handel’s The Harmonious Blacksmith in Chapter 22 of Great Expectations. In the novel, Herbert Pocket suggests to Pip a fitting nickname:

“…I tell you what I should like. We are so harmonious, and you have been a blacksmith, — would you mind it?”

“I shouldn’t mind anything that you propose,” I answered, “but I don’t understand you.”

“Would you mind Handel for a familiar name? There’s a charming piece of music by Handel, called the Harmonious Blacksmith.”

“I should like it very much.”

Recordings

Featured Image: Harmonious blacksmith in “Habit de Marêchal” by Nicolas de Larmessin II (1638–1694)

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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