Number 10 on our list of the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is George Frederic Handel’s “Water Music.”
I am willing to guarantee that most of you have heard at least some portion of the Water Music before. Like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Water Music has somehow been incorporated seamlessly into modern culture (think TV car advertisements and dentist-office background music). The video above shows a performance of Suite No. 1, but there are actually three suites that make up the Water Music. Suite No. 1 is by far the most popular, in part because it includes such a wide variety of musical styles and formats. It begins with a French Overture, progresses through Bourees, Minuets, and a range of other movements before ending with perhaps the most famous movement in the entire composition – the Hornpipe.
You’ll notice the prevalence of the brass in this piece. Most of the main melodic material is performed by the brass, and the strings function as background sound. This is because Water Music was written to be performed outside. In fact, King George I commissioned Handel to write music that would be played on his royal barge as he was rowed up the River Thames. Wanting to make sure the sound carried across the water, Handel orchestrated the Water Music with plenty of brass power.
But it gets a bit more complicated than that. As it turns out, the composition process for the Water Music had brought out the stylistic differences between Handel and King George I. After many disagreements, Handel was fired. Many historians believe the Water Music – which is stylistically quite different from the way Handel wanted to write at the time – was a peace offering to the King. In other words, there was a lot riding on this open-air performance.
The Water Music was so popular with the
King that he requested it be performed three times! That’s nearly six consecutive
hours of playing for the court musicians. Handel’s goal, however, was
accomplished. He had won back the good graces of King George I and, in the process,
had penned some of the most memorable melodies of all time.
Our music for this week is “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from George Frederic Handel’s 1748 oratorio Solomon. The entire oratorio is almost never performed, but “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” which was the opening interlude of Act III, is played quite often. It is a popular wedding recessional and is regularly featured as the background music for luxury car advertisements. It was even played as part of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
As its name belies, Solomon was written about the life and times of the biblical character King Solomon. During this time in history, King George II of England (Handel’s employer) wanted to hold dramatic presentations of biblical stories at his palace, but the Bishop of London disapproved of a public drama based on a biblical subject. Handel was therefore commissioned to write oratorios like Solomon as musical substitutes for the dramatic wishes of the King. They eventually became so popular that Handel stopped writing operas and focused entirely on oratorios.
Listening Tip: It can be helpful to sometimes take a step back and think about where a piece of music fits in the larger historical picture of the development of music. There are generally five periods of music that we will listen to: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, and Modern. This music is a perfect example of the Baroque period of classical music, which spans from approximately 1600 to 1750. Some of the primary characteristics of this era include (among others) (1) small ensembles, (2) minimal brass and timpani, (3) period instruments like harpsichords, (4) biblical or mythological themes, and (5) an overall light, airy sound. Other composers who lived and wrote their music during the Baroque era include Bach and Telemann. If you listen to their compositions and keep in mind the characteristics above, you’ll quickly see a multitude of similarities.
To conclude our series on great duets in classical music history, we will be listening to Passacaglia by Halvorsen, based on a theme by George Frederic Handel. The musicians are Julia Fischer and Daniel Muller-Schott.
Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist and conductor who was widely known through Europe in the early 20th century. He wrote the duet initially for violin and viola, and it has since been transcribed for violin and cello. The theme that Halvorsen used to create this duet was taken from George Frederic Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 7 in G Minor. (For those of you who are new to this whole classical music business, Handel is the composer who wrote the Messiah that we so often hear at Christmas-time). A passacaglia is a French dance form that starts with a simple melody and builds on it with a series of increasingly complex variations. This particular piece contains 12 variations in which the violin and the cello take turns carrying the dominant voice. You’ll see the performers plucking the strings (musicians call this pizzicato), playing complex sets of chords, bouncing the bow on the strings (musicians called this ricochet) and flying up and down the fingerboard with amazing dexterity. By the end of the piece, we will have experienced the full breadth of virtuosic capability in both instruments.