The concerto grosso was one of two forms of concerto developed during the latter part of the seventeenth century. Credit for its invention is usually given to the immensely influential set of 12 works published by Arcangelo Corelli as his Opus 6 in 1712, but composed some years earlier. While the solo concerto, which evolved at much the same time, rapidly gained precedence in Italy, the concerto grosso soon became established as the favored form in England. There its combination of three (or four) fairly demanding solo parts (the concertino) with easier parts for the body of strings (the ripieno) made it an ideal vehicle for the rapid spread of professional and amateur music making that burgeoned during the eighteenth century.
Handel's contribution to this repertoire consists of two sets, one of six concertos (HWV 312-317), published in London by John Walsh in 1734 as Opus 3, the other consisting of 12 concertos (HWV 319-330), and also issued by John Walsh as Opus 6 in 1740. In addition, there is a further Concerto Grosso in C, composed by Handel to preface the second part of his Cecilian choral work, Alexander's Feast (HWV 318). All these works are scored for the standard concerto grosso forces of two solo violins and solo cello, with ripieno parts for the normal orchestral string disposition of two violins, violas, and bass continuo. The concertos of Op. 3 and HWV 318 also have parts for pairs of oboes and bassoons, while five of the concertos of Op. 6 (Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6) also include oboe parts, although the printed parts were considered complete without them. The Opus 3 set appears to have been issued by Walsh with only the tacit authorization of Handel, who appears to have played little or no part in assembling the concertos from previously composed material. With these works, which vary from two to five movements, the publisher was no doubt looking to extend the success he had enjoyed with the issue of similar works by Corelli and Francesco Geminiani. The Opus 6 concertos are a very different matter, at once Handel's most grandly conceived set of orchestral works, and unquestionably the finest of all sets of concerti grossi. All 12 were composed within the astonishingly short period of a month between September and October 1739 and issued by Walsh, who had just signed a new copyright privilege with Handel, as "Twelve Grand Concertos" on April 21, 1740. Handel's purpose in composing the concertos was to serve as interval music during his choral concert season of the winter of 1739 - 1740, a function previously also served by the organ concertos of Opp. 4 and 7, which the composer had himself played with enormous success between the acts of his oratorio performances. As with Opus 3, the number of movements varies, although most consist of five or six, opening with an imposing slowish section succeeded by an alternation of quick or moderate tempo sections.