f you ever browse through the classical CD racks at any large store, and go to the section allotted to George Frideric Handel, you will probably find the most recordings (with the possible exception of Messiah) to be discs combining Handel's Royal Fireworks Music with his Water Music, two of the most popular collections of music in the entire Baroque literature. Part of the appeal lies in the titles themselves, being picturesquely descriptive rather than something generic like concerto or sonata, but the wonderful qualities of Handel's music ultimately is what has kept these pieces popular for over two and a half centuries.
Unlike other water-themed music of this summer, Handel's Water Music is not "about" water, nor does it portray water or anything having to do with water. Rather, it was composed to be performed on water, by musicians on a barge accompanying a royal boating party.
Handel was always very perceptive and aware of the performing forces and setting of his music, and he adjusted his style accordingly. The Fireworks Music, being intended for an outdoor celebration featuring an elaborate display of fireworks, uses larger, bolder sonic strokes, as Handel realized most detail would be lost in an outdoor setting. Yet his Water Music, also intended for outdoor performance, is in many ways far more refined, at times even delicate. Why the discrepancy?
he answer lies in an acoustic property of water itself. If you've ever been at a quiet lake free of outboard motors and Jet Skis, you were probably made aware of the fact that even a normal conversation of fishermen can be clearly heard across the lake, since the water's surface is such an excellent acoustic panel. Loons, those curious waterfowl with the strangely haunting cries, take advantage of this; living widely spaced out-usually only one loon family per lake-they are able to call out to birds on other, nearby lakes, so efficiently does water reflect sound.
For many years during the 20th century, listeners were not so aware of the Water Music's delicacy. Baroque music, until the last few decades or so, was usually heard in arrangements for modern orchestras, and Handel's Water Music (as well as his Fireworks Music) were most familiar in versions re-orchestrated by Sir Hamilton Harty that played up the music's bombast. Starting in the second half of the 20th century, however, musicians began exploring the performance practices and sounds of authentic, 18th-century instruments. The result was that audiences became more aware of the subtle nuances of Handel's orchestral style. They also became aware that the Water Music comprised much more than the half-dozen movements that Harty had re-arranged.
"Complete" versions of the Water Music comprise over 20 movements, most of them various Baroque dance forms. Today, they are usually grouped into three suites, arranged by key signatures. These smaller groupings make much more sense of the often-repeated but probably apocryphal story of how the Water Music supposedly came to be composed. The legend is based on the fact that at one time early in his career, while the German-born Handel was in the employ of the Elector of Hanover, he took a leave of absence to visit London, where he scored a triumph with the first Italian opera composed for English audiences. So great was his success that after a brief return to Hanover, he again took leave to visit England-and never returned. By a twist of fate, however, the Elector of Hanover subsequently (in 1714) became the new king of England, George I, who (as the story goes) was understandably irritated with his truant Kapellmeister. To regain the new king's favor, Handel supposedly arranged to compose music for one of the king's boating parties. When the king, duly impressed by the music, asked who the composer was, he learned it was none other than Handel, whom he immediately forgave.
That story is no longer considered credible, partly since according to one account, the Water Music was performed (at the king's request) at least three times during the course of the water party, and to play the entire 20-plus movements that many times would have made for a very lengthy musical evening. There is documentation of a royal water party that took place in 1717, at which time Handel was clearly in favor at court-indeed, he most likely was never really out of favor at all-and scholars now feel that the massive set of pieces known collectively as The Water Music was actually separate suites composed for several different occasions.
Two of the most famous "original instrument" ensembles of our day will each present one of the Water Music suites at Ravinia this summer. San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, will perform the Suite in G major on June 5 and 6; and Toronto's Tafelmusik, led by Jeanne Lamon, will present the F-major Suite on August 13.
Essay by John Schauer Associate Director of Communications at Ravinia Festival Editor of Ravinia Program Magazine