Piano students’ visit to Handel House Museum

The double-manual reproduction Ruckers harpsichord at Handel House Museum (photo: Matthew Hollow)

My colleague Lorraine Liyanage (of SE22 Piano School) organised a half-term trip for some of our piano students to Handel House Museum at 25 Brook Street, London W1. This was the home of composer George Frederic Handel from 1723 until his death there in 1759, and the place where he wrote some of his most famous music, including the ‘Messiah’, the coronation anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’, and the ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’

The Museum runs a comprehensive education programme for primary and secondary children, students, and scholars of Baroque music. Our visit included a full tour of the house in the company of a cheerful and enthusiastic guide, who had plenty of stories and anecdotes to amuse the children; dressing up in Georgian costume; and – the highlight (for me at least!) – a chance to play a copy of a beautiful 18th-century Ruckers double manual (two keyboards) harpsichord.

Not many children have the opportunity to play a harpsichord in the course of their musical studies, unless their school or teacher owns one (Lorraine has a bentside spinet in her home, which her students are allowed to play). For those studying Baroque repertoire, right from Grade 1, it is important to understand what kind of instrument this music was written for. Introducing Baroque repertoire to children is a chance to explain that the modern piano they are learning on is very different from a Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart or Bach-era instrument. It is also an opportunity to explain the evolution of the piano from its beginnings in the early part of the 18th century, and to find out more about other keyboard instruments. I also believe that an understanding of how the harpsichord, or spinet, works, and sounds, is crucial to one’s understanding of Baroque keyboard music. For example, composers such as Handel and Bach, and even Mozart, were writing for an instrument with a much smaller range (4 to 5 octaves). Ornamentation and other decorative features were often used to create sound to make up for the fact that the harpsichord has very limited sound ‘decay’ – unlike the piano – as well as to create the illusion of a forte.

Each of our young performers played a short piece of Baroque music, and was then treated to one-to-one tuition by Handel House’s harpsichord expert, Claire. She encouraged the children to experiment with different types of ‘attack’ (touch) and to experiment with the effects which can be achieved by playing the upper manual (played on its own it’s slightly quieter). Claire then performed Handel’s Air and Variations, commonly known as ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. Lorraine and I played short works by Rameau and Bach respectively, and finally my adult student, Carrie, tried Handel’s ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’.

It was a fascinating and very enjoyable visit, one I would recommend to any piano/keyboard teacher who wants to introduce their students to the variety and excitement of Baroque music.

For further details of Handel House Museum’s educational programmes, please visit the website:

www.handelhouse.org/learning

My review of Handel House Museum

G F Handel – Air With Variations, ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ (link opens in Spotify)

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