“Would you mind Handel for a familiar name? There’s a charming piece by Handel, called the Harmonious Blacksmith.”
“I should like it very much.”
In this fashion is the protagonist and narrator (Pip or Philip Pirrip) christened Handel by Herbert Pocket, the son of his tutor, in chapter 22 of ‘Great Expectations’, the thirteenth and penultimate completed novel of Charles Dickens.
In my early years, I saw a few film adaptations and read the abridged version of Great Expectations, and they actually put me off the book for a long time, with their dreary depictions of the woeful tale of orphan Pip, ill-treated by his abusive sister and by society in general, and the nightmarish vision of Miss Havisham clad in her wedding gown, with her wedding cake still in the hall decades after her fiancé jilted her at the altar.
It is only more recently, thanks to so many classics being freely available on Kindle, that I ventured to begin reading the original unabridged novel. And it is turning out to be a very good read indeed. Despite the gloom of much of the storyline, Dickens injects much wry humour into the first-person narrative of Pip.
Pip apprentices with his brother-in-law Joe Gargery as a blacksmith when he gets older. This accounts for the nickname (“We are so harmonious – and you have been a blacksmith”, says Herbert to Pip), as Georg Friedrich Händel (later anglicised to George Frederick Handel) wrote a “charming piece” by this name.
Or did he?
“The Harmonious Blacksmith” is the popular name that has stuck to the final movement (‘Air and Variations’) of Handel’s Suite number 5 in E major, HWV 430, for harpsichord. It belongs to the set of his first eight harpsichord suites published in 1720 shortly after leaving his native Germany the same year to accept his new position at the Royal Academy of Music, London. But Handel himself did not give this particular movement its nickname. It gained currency only in the nineteenth century. Several theories therefore abound.
One version claims that Handel had once taken shelter from the rain in a smithy, and the sound of the hammer striking the anvil and got the inspiration for the tune. The ‘proof’ of this is the regular repeated ‘pedal’ note in the first variation, which is said to give the impression of a blacksmith hammering away. A slight ‘variation’ on this story is that Handel heard the blacksmith in the smithy humming the tune of the Air and incorporated it into his composition. Handel was known to ‘recycle’ melodies he came across in real life, so this sounds plausible as well.
But it is now believed that neither of these stories is true. In his 1836 book ‘Reminescences of Handel’, a good three-quarters of a century after Handel’s death in 1759, Richard Clark fabricated this neat story, even going to the extent of finding an old anvil in a smithy near Whitchurch, Edgware, and identifying one William Powell as the fictitious blacksmith (never mind the fact that he had in fact been a parish clerk). The makeover persists to this day: there still is a tombstone over Powell’s grave which 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.”
Handel apparently did visit Whitchurch, smithy or no smithy, but he had already written the work much before this, so this cannot explain the nickname.
The actual reason for the title as for so many other musical works with interesting nicknames, might have more to do with advertising and money than anything else. The following is an extract by William Chappell (1809-1888) in the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music: “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.” Nothing sells like a good story, and veracity should not come in the way. Our media today have taken this philosophy to greater heights (or lower depths), with their own ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’.
William Chappell was a music historian (and partner in the London-based piano-manufacturing firm Chappell & Co.), so it is likely that his account is true. But to date, no copy of Lintern’s edition of the piece has been found. The earliest copy of music with the title ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’, an arrangement for pianoforte duet, has the watermark ‘1819’.
So if not from a Harmonious Blacksmith pounding away at his anvil in his smithy, where did Handel get this tune from, then? As he so often did, Handel probably drew inspiration from himself. A passage in his opera ‘Almira’, written in 1708, is very similar. And others, from Beethoven, to Louis Spohr, Italian guitar-composer Mauro Giuliani, Francis Poulenc to Percy Grainger have mined the melody for their own use.
The Harmonious Blacksmith consists of the opening theme (Air) and five Variations upon it. At Child’s Play India Foundation’s annual monsoon concert (“Let the Children Play”, 23 September 2017, 6 pm at Menezes Braganza hall), two of our children, Irfan Shimpigar and Natsalene Estrocio, will play the opening theme of the Harmonious Blacksmith, arranged for two violins. So do come along; we promise to meet your Great Expectations Harmoniously!
(An edited version of this article was published on 17 September 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)