Organ Concerto in F (No. 13), “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” (HWV 295) – George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

This text, written Steven Ledbetter, gives context to the Organ Concerto that will be performed on Sunday, November 24, 2019, by the Toronto Mozart Players, led by conductor David Bowser, and some talented guests.  Tickets and information here.


The years 1738‑1739 marked the great change in the focus of Handel’s creative attention from Italian opera to English oratorio. He had produced oratorios before, almost always with signal success, but for a long time his heart remained in the opera house, despite the fact that tastes were changing in England and that few operas were popular or even understood. Throughout the 1730s Handel had kept writing opera, but with steadily decreasing commercial success, though often with stunning artistic accomplishment.

In the spring of 1738 Handel produced two operas, Alessandro Severo and Serse. But during the latter part of the same year he composed, to an English text, a musical study of power and its corruption, one of the great musical dramas of all time, the oratorio Saul. This was first performed in January 1739, followed a few months later by the stunning choral fresco Israel in Egypt (a review of the performance commented that, in addition to the oratorio, the program had “several Concerto’s on the organ, and particularly a new one”).

The new one begins with an overture, a relatively brief one, that runs into a lively Allegro, of a tuneful, dancing character with sometimes surprising phrase lengths. Following some cheerful back-and-forth echoing of orchestra and the soloist, an extended passage for the organ alone is surely responsible for the work’s nickname:  the organ begins a series of descending thirds that everyone will recognize at once as “cuckoo calls.” After the orchestra responds with the opening thematic material, the organ continues with another solo passage, this time presenting the warbling gesture associated with nightingales.

After the second movement, Handel asked for an organ improvisation. Handel was a famous improviser, and he very probably inserted a quick fugue, quite possibly reimagined at ever performance. But beyond the note calling for something ad lib., there is no indication of what it was.

The third movement is gently rocking slow movement in 6/8 time with a feeling of triplet motion, echoing back anad forth between soloist and orchestra. The finale is the most vigorous and lively movement, an Allegro that brings the concerto to a cheerful end.

© Steven Ledbetter