The Harmonious Blacksmith

April 10, 2010 at 2:01 am (By Theo Boehm)

(Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening)

For no other reason than I think this is a fun piece and the interpretation by Trevor Pinnock so spot-on, I’d like to offer you the last movement of Handel’s Suite for harpsichord No. 5 in E major, HWV 430, a set of variations called “The Harmonious Blacksmith.”

Here is the reasonably good Wikipedia article about the piece. The name “Harmonious Blacksmith” apparently was not given until the 19th century.

This is odd, because this piece seems to have blacksmithing built into it, no matter when it was named. One of the reasons is the effect of the slightly distant key of E major. Most keyboard tuning systems in Handel’s day had noticeably different tone colors in different keys, owing to the uneven thirds inherent in the unequal temperaments used at the time. In every system I’m familiar with, the “sharp” keys, starting with A major, become increasingly bright and almost “clangy”-sounding, because thirds such as E-G#, A-C#, B-D#, or, my favorite, F#-A#, are often quite a bit sharper than they are in equal temperament used for pianos today, in which all the thirds are equally sharp.

The dominant (V) chord of E major, B major (B-D#-F#), has two rather out-of-tune intervals, courtesy of any of the tuning systems likely to have been used by Handel. This chord has a remarkably metallic sound on the harpsichord. The immediate impression of this piece played, as it is here, with historical tuning on a good harpsichord, is distinctly one of clanging. That, combined with the characteristic “hammer blow” figures in the bass in the first variation, and other obvious imitations of the sounds of a smithy throughout the entire thing, leaves very little doubt that this was intended as a “character piece,” featuring a blacksmith at his anvil. The fast runs in the last variation nicely represent showers of sparks, as well.

The question is whether there was a real blacksmith who was the inspiration for this piece, or, more likely, the mythical blacksmiths behind the famous story of the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras discovering the laws of musical harmony by listening to hammers striking in a forge. The sounds Pythagoras heard that harmonized well when struck together were the result of hammers that had mathematical relationships—their masses were simple ratios or fractions of each other. Here is a good, illustrated summary that also mentions Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith.

The Pythagorean story was passed down to the Middle Ages and later in Boethius’ early 6th century treatise, De Musica. “Pythagoras at the Forge” had become a well-known musical conceit, old in Handel’s day, that connected tuning and temperament with this legend.

As I said, Handel must have chosen the key of E major for its “metallic” sounds, but there could be something a little more sly behind the obvious symbolism of the story and achieving the desired effect to tell it on the harpsichord. The tension between the mythical Pythagorean purity of simple numbers, and the compromises of tuning necessary to play in all keys—even the E major that makes the instrument sound like an anvil—might have seemed a hidden piece of wit to Handel, fit for connoisseurs who understood that the dirty end of keyboard temperament got to represent mathematical and Classical perfection.

As philosophy and religion have been saying for thousands of years, nothing is perfect in this fallen world. But is seems to be our fate to grasp for perfection and order, even if it’s to be imagined under swinging hammers or among out-of-tune strings.

The gentleman at the harpsichord uses this part of our nature to draw us from the coarse thoughts and crude instincts that also occur naturally to us. If he can truly succeed for a few minutes,  I suppose that is all you can ask of any music.

1 Comment

  1. amba said,

    Thank you for cross-posting this. It’s delicious.

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