Uchida Mozart WM

February 8 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
February 9 – Friday at 8:00 p.m.
February 10 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

Water Music: Selected Movements

George Frideric Handel   (1685-1759)
composed 1717

At a Glance
Handel most likely wrote his Water Music in 1717, although some movements may have been written earlier or derived from earlier pieces. The first documented performance took place during a “water party” for King George I on the Thames River, near London, on July 17, 1717.   Handel probably directed the musicians, who sat together on a river barge. A total of about 20 movements were eventually published, arranged (eventually) into three suites, but the grouping and ordering of movements was determined for publication and does not necessarily reflect how Handel performed them. Modern performances often choose from among the suites, ordering the movements to create a pleasing set or suite.

The suite of selected movements being performed for this weekend’s concerts runs about 20 minutes in performance — and are taken from the published scores for Suites Nos. 1 and 2. (The full Water Music of all three suites runs about 45 minutes in performance.) Handel’s scoring is usually interpreted for a modern orchestra of 1 or 2 flutes (sometimes with one player doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, harpsichord, and strings. Some related wind instruments, such as recorders, were probably used in performances during Handel’s lifetime.

The specific movements for this weekend’s performances are:
1. Suite 1, mvt 1: Overture
2. Suite 1, mvt 3: Allegro
3. Suite 1, mvt 2: Adagio e staccato
4. Suite 2, mvt 1: Allegro
5. Suite 2, mvt 2: Hornpipe

The Cleveland Orchestra first presented selections from Handel’s Water Music in 1926, and has presented selections many times since, on public concerts and at education concerts for students — most recently in 2015 at Severance Hall.

 About the Music

Excepting only the perennial oratorio Messiah, Handel’s Water Music is this composer’s most familiar work. It was created for a truly royal entertainment, an excursion by barge on the Thames hosted by England’s King George I.

Handel’s earliest biographers stated that the composer was in disfavor with the monarch until the composition of the Water Music restored him to His Majesty’s graces. This seems at least plausible. When Handel took up residence in England, in 1712, he still held the post of Kapellmeister, or music director, back at the court of Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover. He had obtained leave to visit London with the understanding that he would return to Hanover within a reasonable time. But his rising fortunes in England gave Handel little incentive to leave, and his stay in London became a matter not of weeks or months but of years.

We do not know whether the truant Kapellmeister ignored calls to return to Hanover or, indeed, what the state of his relationship with Georg Ludwig was during his prolonged absence from Germany. If, in fact, it was strained, Handel may well have felt some apprehension when, in August of 1714, Queen Anne died without an heir, and the English crown passed to the House of Hanover. His situation might have become acutely uncomfortable in September of that year, when his nominal employer from Hanover arrived in London as King George I of England.

Handel was, supposedly, afraid to appear at court until the King’s delight with the music he produced for a river party in August 1715 at last effected a reconciliation. Although this story has acquired the force of legend, there is little evidence to support it and a good deal to contradict it. George I certainly had more urgent concerns than holding a grudge against a mere composer. Moreover, he attended performances of Handel’s works shortly after arriving in England and readily renewed the stipend Queen Anne had granted the composer before her death.

Most important, we have no account of the barge excursion that is supposed to have taken place in 1715. But we do know that much, if not all, of Handel’s Water Music was heard during a river trip on July 17, 1717.   From available evidence, this seems to be when much of this music was first played — and it was most likely for this “water party” that the work was written.

This occasion in July 1717 has been amply documented in letters and other accounts. One report offers these details: “Next to the King’s barge was that of the musicians, about fifty in number, who played on all kinds of instruments. . . . The music had been composed specially by the famous Mr. Handel . . . [and] His Majesty approved of it so greatly that he caused it to be repeated three times in all.”

Precisely how Handel grouped the movements that comprised his aquatic serenade, and in what order, is not known. The Water Music was published in bits and pieces over the course of the next half century. Various factors suggest an arrangement of three suites, and these are used, together or separately, as the accepted norm for presenting this music today.

This weekend’s suite of five movements is taken from the published Suites Nos. 1 and 2.   Suite No. 1, in the key of F major, is sometimes called the “horn suite” for its prominent use of that instrument, and the third suite, in G major, substitutes flutes for horns and trumpets. Suite No. 2 is in D major, a key quite congenial to the valveless trumpet in use during the Baroque period, with this suite using that tonality and the bright tone of trumpets to splendid effect.

The Water Music consists mostly of movements based on dances of the day. These pieces provide a variety of tunes and sonorities, but Handel further enriches the complexion of the work through other types of movements.

The opening Overture begins gently and broadly, before gaining speed in an almost fugal effect. The “overture” for Suite No. 2 is used here as a middle movement, consisting entirely of elaborate fanfares featuring the brass instruments. Dances comprise the other movements of this weekend’s suite, featuring characteristic rhythms well known to the composer’s listeners. Much of this music is ideally suited for outdoor performance — although it works wonderfully well indoors, too. One can delight in imagining how it must have sounded to its first audience, floating on the Thames on that warm summer evening in 1717. Paul Schiavo © 2018