Tune of the Day: The Harmonious Blacksmith
“The Harmonious Blacksmith” is the popular name of the fourth and final movement, “Air and variations”, of George Frideric Handel's Suite No. 5 in E major, HWV 430, for harpsichord. This instrumental air was one of the first works for harpsichord published by Handel
There have been a number of explanations proffered as to why this movement was called “The Harmonious Blacksmith”. The name was not given by Handel and was not recorded until early in the 19th century, when the movement became popular on its own.
One story is that Handel, when working at Cannons between 1717 and 1718, once took shelter from the rain in a smithy, and was inspired to write his tune upon hearing the hammer on the anvil. A variation on the story is that he heard the blacksmith singing the tune which would later become the Air; this explanation fits in nicely with Handel's general technique of borrowing tunes. Neither story is true. The legend began three-quarters of a century after Handel's death with Richard Clark in his Reminiscences of Handel (1836). Clark found an old anvil in a smithy near Whitchurch, Edgware and fabricated a story to identify William Powell as the fictitious blacksmith, when, in fact, he had been the parish clerk. They raised a subscription for a wooden memorial to him, and in 1868, the people of Whitchurch subscribed again for a grandiloquent gravestone, which is still standing. However, Handel had written his harpsichord suites of the 1720 publication before he lived at Cannons, probably when he was at Adlington Hall in Cheshire, or even earlier still.
Another possible story concerns William Lintern, a blacksmith's apprentice from Bath who later took up music and so was The Harmonious Blacksmith. The piece came to be called after him, probably because he published it under that name for reasons outlined by William Chappell in the following extract from 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.
The present arrangement for two flutes appeared in Blake's Young Flutist's Magazine, published in Philadelphia in 1833.