August 2009

Selections from the Water Music Suite

by George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, part of Brandenburg-Prussia (modernly known as Germany). Handel is often remembered as an English composer, though, and this is because he spent most of his career in Great Britain.

In the summer of 1717, King George I requested of Handel a concert while the royal barge was floating on the Thames (pronounced TAYMZ) River. For the concert, the musicians (about 50 of them) would play on a barge that would float close to the royal barge. Handel wrote three suites: one in F major, one in D major, and one in G major. King George is said to have like the music so much that he demanded all three of the suites to be repeated three times that day (much to the dismay of the exhausted musicians).

The actual order of the movements within the suites are uncertain. In fact, legend has it that softer movements were played when the royal barge drifted closer to the musicians, and louder movements were played when the barges drifted further apart. A common arragement (which is what I'm going to subject you to here) is as follows:

Suite No. 1 in F Major, HWV 348
1. Allegro
2. Air
3. Bourrée
4. Hornpipe
5. Andante
Suite No. 2 in D Major, HWV 349
6. Alla Hornpipe

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

When I was probably about 9 or 10 years old, my parents had just finished watching a movie on TV. While the credits were rolling, I heard the most delightful music, and it seemed very familiar to me. It turned out that it was the Alla Hornpipe from the second suite of the Water Music. Dad found a recording that they had of it, and I proceeded to wear it into oblivion. I have clear memories of my brother Jay and I listening to this record over and over again.


I think it would be best for you to be introduced to the Water Music Suite in the same style that I was. That means we start out with the Allegro (2:54) movement from the first suite. "Allegro" is a musical term meaning "cheerful or brisk", but it is often interpreted as "lively" or "fast".

Allegro from Suite No. 1 in F Major "Water Music" by George Frideric Handel

Next, we hear the Air (5:32) from the first suite. The term "air" is actually French for "aria". An "aria" in music usually describes an expressive melody.

Air from Suite No. 1 in F Major "Water Music" by George Frideric Handel

Next, we hear the Bourrée (0:48) from the first suite. No, it does not mean "hat". That's "beret". A bourrée is a lively French dance that was popular in the late 17th century.

Bourrée from Suite No. 1 in F Major "Water Music" by George Frideric Handel

Now, we hear the Hornpipe (0:57) from the first suite. A hornpipe is also a dance, but this one is British. Hornpipes were thought to have been invented in the 16th century on English ships. Many familiar sea chanteys (songs) are often in the style of a hornpipe.

Hornpipe from Suite No. 1 in F Major "Water Music" by George Frideric Handel

Next, we hear the Andante (3:49) from the first suite. In some recordings, this is referred to as "Andante espressivo". "Andante" means a "walking" tempo; keep the music at a steady pace, always moving forward. The "espressivo" at the end means "expressive". You'll hear that while this movement moves at a steady pace, it sounds sad. Perhaps it sounds like someone going on a long walk to ponder.

Andante espressivo from Suite No. 1 in F Major "Water Music" by George Frideric Handel

Finally, we hear the Alla Hornpipe (3:17) from the second suite. This is probably the most well-known part of all the Water Music Suites. This is used everywhere. "Alla Hornpipe" would mean "like a hornpipe" or "in the style of a hornpipe". This gives the composer a little more freedom (i.e., there's no need to rigidly hold the form to a particular dance).

Alla Hornpipe from Suite No. 2 in D Major "Water Music" by George Frideric Handel

For those interested, this recording is Nigel Simpson conducting the Royal Promenade Chamber Orchestra.

Jon's Interpretation:

The Water Music Suite, to me, is the quintessential Baroque masterpiece. The Baroque period describes music from the late 1600s and early 1700s. My favorite part of the suites is the Alla Hornpipe from the second suite. This just sounds very majestic to me. When I hear the French horns playing the main melody, I picture knights upon their steeds parading forward. There's something very majestically British about this piece. Not bad for a German, eh?

Extra Credit:

I certainly encourage you to seek out recordings of the entire Water Music Suite. Sir Neville Marriner has a good one. Instead of including that here, though, I thought I'd give you an example of how you might find a bit of the Water Music in modern culture. Here's a clip from "Homer the Great" (episode number 115, Season 6, first aired January 8, 1995). Homer joins a secret society (obviously a parody of the masons). Among his newly discovered special privileges is a secret passage to avoid traffic jams. The clip is brief, but pay attention to the music Homer listens to as he's driving in the secret passageway.

Clip from "Homer the Great"