The Triumph of Music Over Time: Handel and Charles Clay’s Musical Clocks

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© Matthew Hollow

You may be familiar with George Frideric Handel’s ‘Water

Music’ and ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’– but his ‘Clock Music’? Strange as it sounds, in the 1730s, the prolific London-based German composer found time to answer a commission from horologist Charles Clay to provide music for his clocks – ostentatious timepieces incorporating painting, sculpture and automata.

The manuscript score of Handel’s ‘Ten Tunes for Clay’s Musical Clock’ is par t of the latest exhibition at Handel House Museum (where the composer lived from 1712 until his death in 1759). ‘The Triumph of Time explores the composer’s collaboration with Clay. Being a great recycler, Handel wasn’t about to use up original tunes on a clock and so made arrangements of arias from his Italian operas, while borrowing a few ditties from elsewhere.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a magnificent Clay clock (on loan from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), which has a compass of three octaves and whose chimes and pump organs produce

complex sounds faithful to the composer’s intentions. Intriguingly,

this clock would have been the first and only time the baroque composer would had heard a recording of his music.

A Yorkshireman, Clay moved to London and became the Royal Clockmaker. His intricately made and beautifully decorated musical clocks were so highly sought after that he even sold tickets to the public to attend his home and see these wondrous creations and hear their reproductions of popular tunes by Handel and others. Now visitors can also step back into the eighteenth century and enjoy one of Clay’s clocks in similarly authentic Georgian surroundings.

Jonathan Lennie

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