George Frideric Handel

’s Water Music Essay, Research Paper

George Frideric Handel’s

Water Music

George Frideric Handel’s Water Music

Not only is George Frideric Handel’s Water Music extraordinarily beautiful, it also helped to establish the orchestral suite as a legitimate art form. Written to be performed outside instead of in a theater, it remains one of the most outstanding compositions in Handel’s catalogue. Even though it is somewhat overplayed, the Water Music continues to be a very popular work of art. By nature of the venue this great work was to be performed in, Handel had to be very original in orchestration. His strong usage of woodwinds and percussion influenced countless composers such as the wind music of Mozart, Holst, Strauss, Beethoven, Vaughn-Williams, and even Stravinsky. Handel’s music proved that he was not only one of the greatest Baroque composers, but he was and is a giant in the history of musical evolution.

To fully understand the importance of this work, one must first examine the period and life of the composer. In Europe, the Baroque style dominated from 1600-1750. This particular time focused on the excess of all the arts. Examples of this can be seen in the architecture of this period in countries such as Vienna, France, and England where churches are resplendent and magnificent. Another prime example of the extravagance of this time period is the paintings of William Hogarth, but the most evident excess of style appears in the music of this time frame. During these times, the church had grown extremely powerful and influenced virtually everyone. This was true especially for composers. While secular music had always been written, a composer of this period spent most of his time writing for the church. The most dominant composer of this time is now considered to be J. S. Bach but was doubtfully that in his day. He achieved slightly more than minimal fame. Other composers of the time such as Vivaldi, Telemann, Purcell, and Lully also share a great respect for the educated musical world. George Frideric Handel is generally considered the second most important Baroque composer after Bach. Unlike Bach’s nearly complete focus on church music in Germany, Handel more openly embraced the French, Italian, and English secular music. Also unlike Bach, Handel did not come from a long line of musicians. When he was born on February 23, 1685, Handel’s family had no idea that he would rise to a legendary status in music. Handel’s father began to see his son’s desire to compose at an early age and violently objected. His mother was responsible for nurturing and continuing his musical education. At the age of seven, Handel was asked to give an organ recital for the Duke of Sachse-Weissenfels. The Duke was very impressed and awarded the family with a generous amount of money. This event persuaded his father to allow Handel to pursue his musical career. When his father died in1697, Handel was freed from his father’s will. He studied with numerous organists and gained minor fame.

In 1703, he moved to Hamburg. There he met Telemann and began to have many of his works performed. He then traveled to Rome and numerous European capitals until he settled in England in 1714. He remained a world traveler his entire life which was a main contributing factor to his originality and probably was responsible for his well-known habit of “borrowing” music of other composers and taking credit for it. Handel focused most of his attention on opera and is still remembered mainly as an opera and oratorio composer. Before his death in 1759, Handel had achieved world fame and his oratorio Messiah is the single most performed choral work of all time.

Although he was primarily considered an opera composer, Handel displayed great originality in the orchestral suite. This is especially apparent in his Water Music. This work, divided into three separate suites, was written over a period of twenty years in the service of King George I of England. The king had planned a procession down the Thomas River and needed a floating orchestra to perform on barges. Because of this situation, Handel had to experiment with the orchestration.

The first suite, written in 1715, is scored for oboes, horns, bassoons, and strings. This orchestral arrangement worked well and was greatly received. The suite opens with an overture for strings and solo oboe. It is a very subtle opening and contrasts with the fanfare-like atmosphere of the rest of the suite. One movement from this suite “Air” remains the best-known part of the suite. During this suite, the horns play contrary to the strings and woodwinds. This particular orchestration balance dominates the suite.

The second suite, written in 1717, is much more adventurous in orchestration. Not only are trumpets and kettle drums added, the individual instruments are treated differently as well. It opens with an Allegro labeled “Alla Hornpipe.” This is the most popular out of the three suites. The opener begins with a melody in the trumpets and then in the horns. To do such a thing during this time period was considered odd and unusual. This suite not only contains more dance movements than the first, it is also much louder than the first suite. This proves that Handel was attentive to his music’s performance situation and attempted to solve some of the problems with orchestration and mood.

The last suite contains only short dances. Completed in 1736, it reverses some compositional changes between the first and second suites. Recorders or French flutes are added as well as German flutes and a continuo part. During this suite, the music is treated much more delicately, and the orchestration never presents the brass with the melody. Speculation is that this suite was supposed to be performed indoors. Whatever the reason, this suite is much more different than the other two. All three suites were very well reviewed, and did very much to keep Handel in the good graces of King George.

Perhaps the greatest trait of the Water Music is its ability to influence other composers. When these suites were accepted into the music world, other composers were freed to explore the orchestral suite as a legitimate art form. Bach’s great orchestral suites are a prime example of this. Handel’s treatment of brass and woodwinds also opened many doors for works such as Mozart’s wind serenades. The incorporation of dance movements also helped to create the latter form known as the “symphony.” Famous composers such as Beethoven and Haydn owe much to Handle for this innovation. Even modern composers such as Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky owe much to the expansion of winds and brass explored by Handel. In closing, one cannot help but examine just how important a work like Handel’s Water Music truly is.

1. Score

Handel, George Frideric. Water Music. New York:

Pro Art Publications

2. Mann, Alfred Handel: The Orchestral Music

Ed. George B. Stauffer. New York: Schirmer Books

3. Gammond, Peter Classical Composers New Jersey:

Crescent Books

4. Schonberg, Harold C. The Lives of Great Composers

3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company


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