The Baroque period saw the composition of musical works of the highest order, for some of the finest composers in history lived during this time. Among these was George Frederic Handel, a German by birth who travelled extensively throughout Europe and spent most of his adult life in England.
Handel’s music, like that of his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach, has endured for over 250 years since his death in 1759. He provided the Western culture with timeless ideas and melodies that are still found in music to this day. In particular, his “Hallelujah Chorus” from the oratorio Messiah is familiar to a vast majority of the Western population.
Another of his works for which he was famous in his day, and which continues to be among his most popular compositions, is the three-suite instrumental work Water Music (HMV 348-350) composed in 1717. Handel, by this time, had spent five years in London and was on his way to recasting himself as an icon of British music. Furthermore, the work was written specifically for a royal occasion – a performance on the River Thames to accompany a river trip by the court of King George I of England.
Because of the length of this work, I chose to analyze only the first part, Suite 1 in F major. This section of Water Music contains eleven movements and lasts around 26 – 28 minutes in performance. Here is a link to the entirety of Suite 1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABaYmjWQWSA&feature=related
(I should point out that the video at this link is adorned with an impressionistic painting of nudes. Some people find the art detracting, but some appreciate it. In any case, I used this link simply because it actually gives the entire work and not for any effect by the art on the music itself.)
To me, a lot of music of this period is serious and deep. I like this work because it maintains depth without being somber. Much of the suite is upbeat and quick, owing to the dance forms on which most of the movements are based. The music is very skillfully orchestrated and several sections place a lot of emphasis on the horn section. Because Handel was unable to incorporate a harpsichord or timpani into the work (limitations caused by performance on a boat) he had to make his string and wind sections work that much harder. I think he succeeded very nicely and I like his material a lot. It does not sound too dated.
This work has a direct and fascinating connection to royal influence. As stated above, the music was composed specifically for a royal occasion. However, there is no direct evidence that it was commissioned. Rather, it is thought to have been intended as a surprise demonstration to King George of Handel’s ability as a composer (and conductor, since he oversaw the river performance). Handel was interested in taking over the position of head of the Royal Academy of Music and he seems to have felt that this type of display of skill would tip the scales in his favor, as far as the royal benefactor was concerned.
An interesting (and probably apocryphal) twist in this story concerns the supposedly strained relationship between Handel and King George I. Handel’s German upbringing had made him a subject of the Duke of Hanover in Germany, and he is said to have settled in London in preference to service as a musician to the Duke’s court. Due to the passing of the British throne to the House of Hanover, the Duke was none other than the future King George I, and his arrival in London caused difficulty for Handel, or so the story goes. Whether or not there actually were any hard feelings, we may never know, but it is entertaining to imagine that Water Music may have also been something of an attempt to regain lost favor with an estranged benefactor.
In any case, the work served its purpose, and Handel went on to serve the British people as a royal composer for many years, before he turned to the composition of oratorios.
Whatever the intent behind its creation, Water Music is a fine example by a fine composer of the depth and genius of music in the Baroque period. It continues to be quoted in modern music and no doubt will be a much-played work for years to come.
Water Music, HWV 348-350 (Handel, George Frederic). Retrieved 18 June 2012 from http://imslp.org/wiki/Water_Music,_HWV_348-350_(Handel,_George_Frideric
Hogwood, Christopher. (2006). Handel: Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Cambridge University Press.
Handel-Haus, Center for the Fostering of Handel Studies Worldwide. (online)
Retrieved 18 June 2012 from http://www.haendel.haendelhaus.de/en/Biography/Biographic_Details/england/