Piece of the Week: Water Music by G.F. Handel

Water Music

Originally written for a floating celebration on the Thames river, George Frideric Handel’s Water Music has remained a popular and familiar suite of tunes ever since. The piece was commissioned by England’s King George I, and had its watery premiere on July 17, 1717. As the famous story goes, King George was so pleased with Handel’s composition that he requested that the piece–which was actually three suites of pieces–be played several times in a row, both on the trip up river (with the rising tide) to Chelsea and then on the return trip back downriver to London. While this may sound like an eccentric royal stunt, music historian Anthony Hicks (writing in the Grove Music Online) points out that King George I’s river trip was a carefully staged political event that was intended to increase his visibility to his subjects. One can only speculate how much Handel’s beautiful music helped increase the King’s popularity and political power.

Handel originally scored this piece for a hefty fifty piece orchestra featuring strings and woodwinds, a surprising fact given that the ensemble performed on a barge floating on one of the busiest rivers in Europe. With three suites containing 21 individual pieces, Water Music is also large in its scope, which makes sense given the length of time Handel had to keep the king (and his many subjects lining the river) entertained. In this new concert band version from Alfred Publishing, arranger Douglas E. Wagner concentrates on three of the best-known pieces from the Water Music suite, including the famous Hornpipe movement, and sets all three in the key of Bb with no accidentals.

This arrangement is a perfect way to introduce your young band to this wonderful Baroque suite. The tunes are simple and sturdy, and the piece will sound good for beginning level students and beyond.

Audio Sample:

Audio provided by Alfred Music Publishing Co., Inc.

Composer biography:

George Frideric Handel was born on February 23, 1685, in Halle, Germany and died on April 14, 1759, in London, England. Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach are generally considered to be the greatest composers of the Baroque era (1600-1750). Like many musicians of his time, Handel learned the craft of composition in Italy. He became skillful in all the Baroque musical forms, including opera, oratorio, chamber cantata, concerto and sonata. The 93 volumes of his published works contain many pieces in these forms. Handel moved permanently to London in 1714 where his Italian operas, and later his oratorios, brought him great financial success. Handel is probably best-known for his oratorio “Messiah.” Like his many other oratorios, it combines soloists, chorus, and orchestra to tell a Biblical story. His most popular instrumental works include “Water Music,” written to entertain King George I as he sailed down the Thames river on a barge, and “Fireworks Music,” written for a royal fireworks display celebrating the Peace of Aachen. Handel was also a renowned keyboardist. Handel was a popular figure in his social circle and at court. Though he became virtually blind at age 68, he continued to compose and perform until his death, six years later. Unlike many composers, Handel was a wealthy man when he died, and left significant bequests to his servants, charities and friends.

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If you are an educator, musician, composer or student with a suggestion for a “piece of the week” blog post, you can email your suggestion to Griffin at gwoodworth at make music dot com. Please let me know the name of the piece, composer, publisher, and why this piece is special to you.

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