John Christopher Smith is a famous name to Handel aficionados, but probably to nobody else. He is almost exclusively known as assistant to Handel, but as a composer he remains a largely unknown quantity. That is in part due to the fact that his music is written largely in Handel's style. Even in his own time he had not that much success with his music for the theatre. After the death of Handel audiences turned to the then modern galant idiom. If they wanted to listen to 'old-fashioned' music it was Handel's, not Smith's.
He was of German birth; his family had moved to London in 1720, joining John Christopher senior. In the booklet to the present disc he is called by his original German name Johann Christoph Schmidt in order to prevent confusion. For many years Schmidt was Handel's secretary, treasurer and principal copyist. He also played the viola, and his son followed in his footsteps. Smith enjoyed an extensive musical education, first by Handel, then by Johann Christoph Pepusch - another composer of German origin - and by the famous keyboard player and composer Thomas Roseingrave.
Soon he joined his father as copyist of Handel's works. When the latter's eyesight deteriorated, it was Smith who played an increasingly important role in performances of his oratorios. He often made alterations, probably at Handel's behest. Between 1760 and 1770 he performed three pasticcio oratorios: Tobit
. He used music from Handel's oratorios and added some of his own, at first only recitatives, later also arias.
There is every reason to be thankful to Smith, for two reasons. In 1754 he became organist of the Foundling Hospital in London and in this capacity continued the tradition of annual performances of Handel's Messiah
. He also played a crucial role in keeping the oratorio genre alive. The second reason is that he came into possession of much of Handel's music after his father's death and decided to hand them over to George III. That was "one of the epochal gestures in musical history", according to Handel scholar Percy Young. It resulted in Handel's works being preserved in the British Library as part of the Royal Music Library. Otherwise many of the manuscripts might well have become lost forever.
The present disc focuses on one aspect of John Christopher Smith's activities as a composer: his keyboard works. In 1732 he published his first collection of harpsichord suites as his op. 1. It was followed three years later by a second set of six suites. Only twenty years later op. 3 was published. This long interval was largely due to the fact that for many years Smith suffered from tuberculosis. This set was followed by two more which appeared in 1757 and 1765 respectively.
The 1755 set is called Six Suits
[sic] of Lessons for the Harpsichord
, but they have little in common with what is usually called a suite. Only four movements specifically refer to a dance, such as the allemande in Suite No. 3
and the gigue which closes Suite No. 6
. In his liner-notes Julian Perkins mentions several movements which show some similarity to the idiom of Smith's contemporaries, such as the representatives of the Empfindsamkeit
(in particular Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (for instance the minuetto with variations from Suite No. 5
). It is especially the influence of Domenico Scarlatti that manifests itself in these suites. Perkins sees them as a specimen of what he calls the 'Anglo-Scarlatti' style. Smith's teachers included Thomas Roseingrave, one of the main advocates of Scarlatti's music who even published a selection from the latter's sonatas. A good example of Scarlatti's influence is the last movement (allegro) from Suite No. 2
which is also notable for its chromatically ascending and descending figures.
There is little uniformity in the texture of these suites which could also be called 'sonatas'. The first four comprise three movements, whereas the last two have four. There is no fixed order of tempi. Suite No. 1
has the traditional sequence of fast - slow - fast, but Suite No. 2
opens with an andante, followed by two allegros. Suite No. 5
opens with a vivace, which is followed by two allegros, and closes with the above-mentioned menuet with variations. These suites are technically challenging in their written-out ornamentation. This shows not only a closeness to the style of Scarlatti but also to Handel's keyboard playing. That is demonstrated by the first item of the programme, Handel's own arrangement of the overture to his opera Riccardo Primo
Julian Perkins deserves praise for his initiative in bringing this music to our attention and so do those who have supported him financially and otherwise. Productions like this make much sense as they broaden our musical horizon and fill in the blank spots on the musical map. Many music-lovers will have heard the name John Christopher Smith but never any of his music. Rather than going by what is written by scholars they should listen for themselves in order to assess the quality of Smith's music. I have greatly enjoyed these suites. Yes, the influence of others is indisputable but they don't result in epigonism. Smith's suites have a character of their own. Perkins is a fine interpreter who brings out the qualities of these suites with great eloquence. He uses two beautiful harpsichords, copies of a French and an English instrument respectively. I found the English instrument especially interesting as this is a type of harpsichord one doesn't hear that often.
Johan van Veen