They are preserved in a manuscript from the early eighteenth century held by the Biblioteca del Civico Istituto Musicale ‘Gaetano Donizetti’, in Bergamo.
The manuscript, still in excellent condition, came to the Biblioteca in 1916 from the estate of the distinguished Italian cellist Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901).
Piatti, who often performed with the great pianist Franz Liszt, lived in London from 1859 until 1898 and it was presumably there that he acquired the Bergamo Handel manuscript.
In the manuscript there was no attribution for any of the works but Piatti correctly identified their composer as Handel.
Several of the pieces appear to be early versions of works that are known to be by Handel, who frequently recycled his own compositions and many by other composers.
Pont found the manuscript listed in the online database known as RISM OPAC which locates and describes over a million musical manuscripts dating mostly from before 1800.
The Biblioteca kindly supplied him with a copy of the manuscript and, when it arrived, Pont was amazed to discover that the handwriting was entirely that of the London harpsichordist and composer William Babell whose works he has studied for many years.
It is not known when Babell, who was of Norman descent, was born, but soon after Handel’s arrival in London in 1710 Babell collaborated with him and became the composer’s principal copyist for about 12 years.
Babell was not only a brilliant keyboard player but also a voluminous copyist of contemporary composers.
He gained free access to Handel’s music collection from which he made his copy of the Bergamo pieces, probably during the second decade of the 18th century.
By the time of his death in 1723, Babell had compiled a huge collection of manuscript copies including many of Handel’s early London operas and a lot of the composer’s other works, especially for the chamber.
Babell’s activities as a copyist and engraver of music had been completely forgotten until Pont first identified his distinctive but highly variable handwriting in 1995.
Handel in Italy
Pont reported his discovery in a long essay on Handel’s Keyboard Sonatas which was included as a chapter in a book entitled The Early Keyboard Sonata in Italy and Beyond.
This was edited by Rohan H. Stewart-MacDonald (who died a few months ago) and published by the Belgian firm Brepols in 2016.
From his study of the manuscript Pont concluded that it contained the most important additions to the corpus of Handel’s keyboard music since 1928.
The music in the Bergamo manuscript is certainly the work of the young Handel and most of it was probably produced before he left Germany in 1706, although he might have revised some of it during his sojourn in Italy (1706-10).
The Italians were astonished by Handel’s abilities as a composer and a keyboard player.
The two operas he composed in Italy, Rodrigo at Florence and Agrippina at Venice, were extremely successful and their composer came to be endearingly known as “Il caro Sassone”.
His keyboard playing was so exceptional that some of his auditors suspected it was the work of the Devil.
During his stay in Rome his patron Cardinal Ottoboni organised a “trial of skill” between Handel and the greatest Italian player, his close contemporary Domenico Scarlatti.
This competition in the art of creative improvisation was held at the Palazzo della Cancelleria in 1708 before a panel of judges.
According to reminiscence from Handel himself, their performances at the harpsichord split the judges – “some gave the preference to Scarlatti”; but “when they came to the Organ there was not the least pretence for doubting to which of them it belonged”.
Scarlatti himself declared the superiority of his antagonist, and admitted ingenuously that until he had heard him upon this instrument, “he had no conception of its powers” (Memoirs of the life of the late George Frederic Handel, London, 1760).
Baroque music now online
In 2016 Dr Pont sent a copy of the Bergamo manuscript to the Italian harpsichordist Fernando De Luca and his website-manager and technical assistant Marco De Gregorio.
They responded with great enthusiasm, no doubt while wondering how someone from faraway Sydney could have discovered such a little-known manuscript at Bergamo!
Fernando and Marco soon produced a world premiere recording on compact disc of all the unknown Preludes and Toccatas (Urania Records, LDV 14032).
This sensational production reveals the young Handel at the height of his powers at the harpsichord, his virtuoso style now revived in a convincingly authentic manner by a harpsichordist of outstanding ability.
Fernando and his colleagues have established the website La Sala del Cembalo del caro Sassone – The Handel Harpsichord Room.
This well-designed site offers on-line access to the world’s most comprehensive recorded collection of early keyboard music, not just of Handel but also of many other baroque composers.
In all there are about 350 hours of playing time – a must do for anyone seriously interested in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries.