A Concerto Grosso named Salmigondis – by Ken Hesketh

Later this month the young musicians of Britten Sinfonia Academy will give the first performance of Concerto Salmigondis as part of At Lunch Five. Ahead of the premiere, we asked composer Ken Hesketh to share his experience of writing this work, which was also inspired by Handel manuscripts from the Fitzwilliam Museum, for the young ensemble…

Writing for a young group, without conductor, using the music or some aspect of George Frideric Handel (to be found in the marvellous Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge) is not the type of commission that comes across my work desk every day, or even every year. Don’t get me wrong – it intrigued me and the unforeseen is certainly a good thing, at least musically. Thus, I accepted the commission.

My work is (far more often than not) rhythmically agile and turbulent, usually rapid in harmonic change and generally quite tricky to pull off. I like it that way. However, I also like working with younger players, especially those who have technical facility and musically open minds. The brief necessarily challenged my usual way of working and so this particular commission became an enjoyable conundrum that needed to be solved and one that in doing so sharpened my lateral thinking skills. There are various approaches I could have pursued – graphic score, some form of aleatoricism, some sort of post-minimal knitting music rhythmically repetitive to get around the no-conductor stipulation). The list of options could go on as you might imagine. However, the Handelian requirement of the brief gave me a clue as to how to proceed.

During the workshops with Britten Sinfonia Academy, led by the wonderful Rachel Byrt and Christopher Suckling, I was able to indulge my early joy of the music of Handel, specifically from my years as a chorister and as a young school boy. One of my first Dover edition scores was the Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, or Twelve Grand Concertos, HWV 319–330, by Handel. The other was the complete Brandenburg Concerti. Both are now discoloured with age and show signs of early dog-earing. Being able to peruse the delicacies and riches of the Fitz Handeliana collection (thanks to Rachel Sinfield and Dr Suzanne Reynolds at the Fitzwilliam Museum for such access) was a real joy, particularly in the company of Rachel and Christopher. Seeing the young performers from BSA enjoying their exploration of the collection was a delight. The introduction by Dr. Suckling to various aspects of Handel’s music, life and times really enthralled the young players and in the process suggested a way for me to combine aspects of the collection in my own new piece. Amid the manuscripts on display during the workshop was a carillon part from the final chorus of Part 1 of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (an ode by Handel based on the poetry of John Milton) titled “Or let the merry bells ring round”. In my correspondence with Dr. Suckling regarding the carillon part, he sent me the following rather splendid quotation from Charles Jennens to Lord Guernsey, 19 September 1738:

“Mr Handel’s head is more full of Maggots [an 18th century term for an earworm] than ever. I found yesterday in his room a very queer Instrument which He calls Carillon (Anglice a Bell), and says some call it a Tubalcain, I suppose because it is both in the make and tone like a set of Hammers striking upon Anvils. ’Tis play’d upon with Keys like a Harpsichord, and with this Cyclopean Instrument he designs to make poor Saul stark mad.”

Look up Tubalcain in the bible (Genesis 4:22) by the way (and Jubalcain if you have a few minutes after that).

The carillon part itself seems to be transposed by a perfect fifth (it sounds in D, but is notated in G). I therefore chose to put a quotation from this part in G (though the surrounding texture of my work is anything but G, D or anything else). There is speculation, according to Dr. Suckling, that Handel’s carillon “had thick bars to sound like [an] anvil with pitch higher than written notes (for metal bar free at both ends, thicker bar = higher pitch)”.

The one extra-musical element present in my work comes from a painting, “The Charming Brute” – a caricature by the French engraver, painter and set designer Joseph Goupy of Handel (dated 1754) – which also resides at the Fitzwilliam museum and suggested the title for one of the movements of the Concerto. The story behind this painting is fascinating and there is a recounting of it in the Monthly Epitome and Catalogue of New Publications, Volume 2, Jan to Dec 1798 (reproduced below):

An interesting insight to Handel’s culinary generosity!

In order to bring these elements together I chose a musical form called the pasticcio (literally pasty in Italian); a musical work built from an adaptation of an existing work (or works). Handel worked with the pasticcio form throughout his life, for example in Muzio Scevola (1721) and Giove in Argo (1739). My work for BSA, Concerto Salmigondis, utilises this form. The word salmigondis is a synonym for pasticcio (salmigondis is a French word meaning a disparate assembly of things). Loosely based on the Concerto Grosso form, similar to those found in the Op. 6 concerti, it is in five sections – Intrada, Lento, Leggiero – The Charming Brute, Musette and Hop Jig. The antique titles and forms of the movements have been freely interpreted and, if one is frank, resulted in a neoclassicisation of my style for this particular work. The concept of the concertino and ripieno groups from the Concerto Grosso form is utilized (mostly formed of principle strings and harpsichord, but also, in the ‘Brute’ movement, of various groups of flutes, oboes and brass); the carillon part from the Fitz Handeliana collection also peeks through textures in various forms in the third movement. Four of the five movements are based on music written when I was about the age of the average BSA member (the ‘Brute’ movement has no antecedent). The reworking of the originals includes extensions and recastings as well as the imposition of various episodes for the concertino groups on the extant materials’ formal arcs. This frequently meant taking the originals down very different compositional routes allowing me to have a great deal of fun in the process.

After hearing a rehearsal of the completed work for the first time with BSA I was convinced I had fulfilled the brief. I had enjoyed doing so, and it was clear – wonderfully clear – that BSA really enjoyed what I had written. When that happens it’s a wonderful feeling as you might imagine. Being able to cut one’s musical cloth accordingly and to quickly commit to a project outside of the everyday was something Handel was pretty good at. I greatly enjoyed doing likewise, just for a moment, and in the process communicated, interacted and responded to the wider musical world in a way that usually evades me.

Ken Hesketh (composer)

Concerto Salmigondis will be performed by Britten Sinfonia Academy as part of At Lunch Five. Tickets are still available for both performances, in Norwich’s St Andrew’s Hall on Thursday 30 June, 1pm (tickets), and in Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall on Friday 1 July, 1pm (tickets). More information can also be found here.