This 1st movement of Handel's Water Music Suite 1 may take some time to load; please wait
Handel picture

Program notes by Brandon W. Fitch

Water Music By George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

For seventeenth and eighteenth century Londoners, there was nothing more pleasurable than going on a boating excursion on the Thames. With some cheese and bread, and a bottle of Port or even Burgundy, a pleasant afternoon was in store. This idyllic pastime was enjoyed by such figures as Samuel Pepys, the diarist, and William Hogarth, the artist, and was meant to be a simple affair. Yet, boating parties could be vastly more elaborate, even monstrous. These were the royal boating parties that consisted of vast barges with gilt decoration and huge flags fluttering and filled with courtiers and hangers-on and included sumptuous meals as well as light, decorative music. Hence - Handel’s Water Music.

A certain whiff of legend surrounds the Water Music. George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was nominally a servant of George Louis, The Elector of Hanover (1660-1727), a rather surly and arrogant ruler of whom it was said that he had two mistresses, one with a pretty face but a negligible figure, and one who was quite voluptuous but had a homely face. Handel made a contract with The Elector that he would be free to pursue his studies in Italy and London as long as he eventually returned to his post in Hanover, Germany. In 1714, Queen Anne of England passed on and the staunchly protestant English wanted to be sure they would have a new monarch with good protestant credentials. They fastened onto George and invited him to claim the crown of England (something they would come to regret.) This put Handel in a bind as he had spent four years in London, a city he had come to love, and certainly must be out of favor with The Elector because he had never returned to Hanover. Handel approached the coming of his old master with some trepidation. A certain Baron Kielmansegge suggested to Handel that he compose some “water music” and play it on one of the King’s outings. Thus he could regain favor.

What is certainly true is that there was a royal boating party that went from Whitehall to Chelsea and back on July 17, 1717 for which Handel created a musical confection to please the King. These would be his three suites known as the Water Music, and these lovely strains won him the King’s approval. From then on, Handel would become the doyen of the London musical scene and become one of the most successful composers in history; he made the most of it, leading an extravagant lifestyle.

Handel’s Water Music is essentially three suites, which are usually a sequence of dances meant for listening. In some ways they prefigured the Classical symphony. Handel follows this conventional pattern. It is reported that the first suite was performed for the voyage to Chelsea and the third for the voyage home, with a second suite being a setting for the supper party. This was a lengthy affair with the royal party not getting back until two in the morning.

What you hear is an excerpt, just the first movement. It is relatively brief. In the full suite, there are several dances mingled with some abstract movements. In fact, the first two movements are the Allegro and Ouverture from the first suite. This music is gracious and magisterial and the other movements are not imbued with as much dignity as these.

Were you to hear the rest of the suite, these movements would be followed by the ubiquitous Air, one of Handel’s greatest hits. Then a snappy Bourrée which is a French dance in quick time. This movement might be familiar as it was the theme music to the long running PBS series “The Frugal Gourmet”. This suite ends with a Hornpipe, which is a lively English dance and will be familiar to those who listen to Irish and Scottish folk music.

The second suite begins with a lilting Allegro followed by another Hornpipe. This swatch of music has become, perhaps one of Handel’s most popular melodies up there with the Hallelujah Chorus from his oratorio “The Messiah”.

This is followed by two parts of the third suite, a Sarabande and a congenial Minuet. The Sarabande is a slow and stately dance while the Minuet is more vivacious.

It concludes with a reprise to the second suite, just two brief movements, a Lentement and a Bourrée, both of which bring a solemn but triumphant conclusion to a piece of entertainment that has become so much more than mere background music.

Handel is sometimes called the ‘Colossus of the Baroque’. He and Bach, both Germans, were the driving force in musical progress for the first half of the eighteenth century. Yet, as Bach chose to remain provincial, Handel was a man of the world, involved in the theater and an integral part of the social whirl. By his demise, he had accrued a vast estate.

No one better than another German, writing after the fact, could best proclaim the importance of Handel. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) adored Handel and considered him to be the greatest composer ever. Beethoven was heard to remark of Handel that “I bend down before him on bended knee” and in his last days, as he lay dying, he was given a copy of Handel’s scores, a “glorious gift” in his words that gave him much solace. With his Handel to enjoy, he could finally rest in peace.

Handel would go on, never quite falling into obscurity like his colleague Bach. Handel’s music is just too grandiloquent and splendid. Handel was an extrovert and that made him so fluent in the musical language of the day. What you hear is only a fraction of his genius. I hope that you will explore his music, a boundless treasure from the “Prince of the Baroque”.

Program notes by Brandon W. Fitch