In today’s video, we’re going to take a closer look at Handel’s Water Music suite. We’ve looked at another composition by Handel before – the Hallelujah chorus from his oratorio Messiah, so definitely check that out if you want some more Handel.
In this video we’re going to break apart this set of dance suites, talk about each movement in turn, and listen to some audio clips.
Water Music on a whole is an hour-ish long, so if you’re wanting more after the short examples in this video, check out the full version on Spotify or YouTube.
Let’s get started!
Handel’s Water Music: Basic info
Water Music is usually published as three separate suites – HWV 348 in F major, HWV 349 in D major and HWV 350 in G major.
It was written for a fairly large Baroque orchestra since it was meant to be performed outside, and premiered on July 17th, 1717.
German-born Handel was a sensation in England, where he lived for most of his life. As such, he was in with English nobility, including King George I. King George I wanted an outdoor performance for reasons we’ll get into shortly, and not only that – a performance on the water (the river Thames).
Hence, “Water Music”.
Handel’s Water Music: Premiere and reception
Around 8pm on July 17th, King George I and some other aristocrats boarded a royal leisure boat and sailed up the Thames.
A second barge was full of 50 musicians performing Handel’s music. A huge amount of Londoners sat alongside the river to watch the concert – according to an English journal, “the whole river in a manner was covered” with boats and barges.
The king and his entourage sailed to Chelsea for supper, and then hopped back on the boat around 11pm for the return trip. He loved the music so much that the musicians repeated Water Music at least three times, both on the way to Chelsea and back to the starting point at Whitehall. The musicians played almost constantly between 8pm and midnight.
One rumor surrounding Water Music is that King George’s son was stealing the spotlight by throwing lavish parties. He was basically rebelling against his father’s long life and subsequent long reign. So King George I wanted to throw a big crazy party so London would remember he was still relevant, too.
Handel’s Water Music: Public reception
One thing that makes this performance so unique is that it was one of the only opportunities commonfolk would have had to see aristocratic music performed. Public performances didn’t really exist in the 1700s (at least not until the end of the century) – opera, concertos and other music was meant for aristocrats and were performed in aristocratic venues. The general public didn’t have access to this.
That’s the main reason why Water Music drew such a substantial crowd (as well as it’s sequel nearly 30 years later, Music for the Royal Fireworks). And of course, Handel was quite famous at the time!
Water Music: Structure
Handel’s Water Music was scored for trumpets and horns, oboes, bassoons and flutes, and violins and basses.
Suite in F major (HWV 348)
- Overture (Largo – Allegro)
- Adagio e staccato
- Allegro – Andante – Allegro da capo Aria
Suite in D major (HWV 349)
- Overture (Allegro)
Suite in G major (HWV 350)
These pieces are divided into three separate suites. The first suite, in F major (and D minor) features the new-to-the-Baroque-era French horns. The second suite in D major adds trumpets. The third suite in G is lighter with lots of flutes.
Water Music in F major (suite 1)
It’s the first suite in F that we’ll be looking at today – it’s the longest and has the most diversity. The thought is that this collection would have been played on the way to Chelsea, the third set indoors during the feast (the flutes wouldn’t have carried outside), and the second set on the way back home.
We don’t know for sure, since there’s the conflicting idea that the entire three sets were performed several times.
Again, we’ll be looking at several selections from the first suite, though the whole thing isn’t to be missed.
One movement we’ll be skipping, alla Hornpipe from the second set in D major, was one of my wedding music selections!
A good description of the Water Music suites comes from Professor H.C. Robbins Landon, who described them as “far more than the usual international flair; a remarkable fusion of solid German upbringing, Italian training and a thorough acquaintance with French tastes.”
French Overture (Largo-Allegro)
We begin with a French Overture, which was a common way to start a Baroque dance suite (see our video on Baroque dance suites if you want more background info).
It’s a simple two-part style with a slow introduction featuring lots of dotted notes, and faster fugal second half.
The feel of a French overture is very grand and stately, fitting for a royal entourage. Let’s take a quick listen to the beginning of Water Music!
Adagio e staccato
The serious first movement melts into a beautiful adagio movement, with a sweet and singing melody written by someone clearly experienced with vocal writing. The D minor sound carries through this movement, adding some sorrow and drama, but it never gets too dark.
It’s very gorgeous and adds a nice “rest” between energetic movements.
Allegro – Andante – Allegro da capo Aria
The third movement, Allegro-Andante-Allegro da capo aria, is one of my favorites from the set, so I had to include it for a brief listen-through.
It isn’t a specific dance – instead, this 3-part movement is marked by tempos. We have an allegro (fast) section followed by an andante (walking speed) section. It’s finished with a “da capo aria”, which was a common genres in operas and oratorios, in which Handel wrote many (likely over 1000).
Let’s take a listen to the beginning, the start of allegro. The grandness of the first movement now has some energy, and the mood is light.
The fourth movement is a minuet, one of the most common dance forms in a Baroque dance suite. The sixth movement is also a minuet, so I want to take a listen to them back-to-back.
We’ve talked about minuets on this channel before, but for those of you who don’t know – a minuet is a very simple dance in ¾ time. It usually has a really straightforward rhythm, graceful character and moderate tempo – not too fast, not too flow.
Minuets are some of the easiest Baroque dance pieces to begin learning on the keyboard, so if you’re a beginner and you don’t know what to learn, minuets are often a good starting point. Many easier works by Bach, Handel and other Baroque music masters are minuets.
The first minuet is very elegant and is written in 3/8 time. The start of each bar feels like a slow walk, typical of minuets. It’s simple and easy to follow. If you listen to the whole suite, there’s a great minor key section in the first minuet, but it’s short-lived.
The second minuet opens with horns in imitation and has a very playful character. There’s lots of back-and-forth. Like the first minuet, it’s very simple and easy to listen to, with a nice and dramatic B section.
The fifth movement of the first suite is an Air, which is basically the same thing as an aria. It’s a song-like composition – basically the Baroque equivalent to a modern pop ballad.
Bach wrote a really well-known air, “Air on the G string”, which was also a song in my wedding.
This air is earnest and a little romantic, maintaining the sunny disposition of this entire dance suite. One thing that Baroque music is known for is maintaining a mood or “affect” throughout an entire composition – and Water Music’s exuberance can be heard even in mellow movements such as these.
Bourree and Hornpipe
Then we have the bourree and hornpipe, both very fast and short. The bourree is in common time and starts with an upbeat (like bourrees are wont to do)
The bourree is the fastest movement in the suite, and was a staple in Baroque dance suites. Its origin is French, just like the overture.
Allegro and Hornpipe
The final two movements are an allegro and another hornpipe. We’ll take a quick listen to the moderately intense D-minor allegro movement.
It’s got a staccato feel and a very strict and simple quarter note rhythm. There’s some imitation in the B section – simple fugue writing.
One feature of Water Music as a whole is that it was written for all kinds of people to enjoy – not just aristocrats, but random folk on the river too. Handel’s writing is very straightforward enough for non-music-connoisseurs to enjoy, but nuanced enough for music snobs to appreciate.
If that isn’t sophisticated songwriting, I don’t know what is!
That concludes our tour of Handel’s Water Music. Be sure to check out the full version of all three suites, since we just touched on bits of the first suite in this video.
I find Handel’s suites very listenable to those just starting to get into Baroque music – they’re not as crazy-complicated and convoluted as some other Baroque music can be.
Bach is awesome, but some of his music requires a lot of effort to listen to for full effect! Handel simplifies things nicely for us.
Until next time,