Handel: Water Music Suite No. 3 in G Major │ Music for the Royal Fireworks

Water Music Suite No. 3 in G major
Music for the Royal Fireworks

George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany, on February 23, 1685. He was baptized under the name Georg Friederich Händel, but long before his death, in London on April 14, 1759, he had adopted the English version of his name. He composed at least part of his Water Music for a performance the night of July 17-18, 1717, although portions may date from the years immediately preceding. The first US performance of music from the work as a whole was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with William Gericke conducting, in December 1885. Selections from the Water Music were first performed by the San Francisco Symphony in March 1929, with Alfred Hertz conducting; the most recent performances of the Suite No. 3 were given in April 2008 under the direction of Harry Christophers. The suite played here uses an orchestra of flute (doubling piccolo), two oboes, bassoon, harpsichord, and strings (two violins, viola, and a bass part that may be played by a combination of cellos and double basses). Duration: about ten minutes.

The Music for the Royal Fireworks had its official premiere on April 27, 1749, in Green Park, London, through no fewer than 12,000 persons had attended the public rehearsal in the Spring Garden at Vauxhall six days earlier. Theodore Thomas conducted the first US performance at the Central Park Gardens, New York, on October 21, 1868; Alfred Hertz led the first performances by the San Francisco Symphony in March 1928; most recently, in March 2001, the music was heard here under the direction of Harry Bicket. The scoring is for three oboes, two bassoons and contrabassoon, three horns, three trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, and strings. Duration: about twenty minutes. 

Not least among Handel’s gifts was his fluency in ingesting the traits of various national styles popular in the music of his time. In his Water Music we hear a Handel who seems ever so English, spinning out Purcellian hornpipes and country-dances as if he had heard them since he was in the cradle. Possibly this strikes us more forcefully than it did the listeners of Handel’s time, thanks to the fact that certain details of Handelian style were so forcefully embraced in Great Britain that they continued to inform that nation’s compositions for generations, effectively defining “the British sound” as being, at heart, Handelian.

The Water Music is the most famous of Handel’s instrumental works, but the documentation of its origin leaves quite a few unanswered questions. There is no doubt that this music—or at least a good deal of it—was performed for the first time to accompany King George I and his entourage during a Royal cruise up and down the Thames on the night of July 17-18, 1717. Friedrich Bonet, the Prussian consul in London, reported: “About eight in the evening the King repaired to his barge, into which were admitted the Duchess of Bolton, Countess Godolphin, Mad. de Kilmanseck, Mrs. Were and the Earl of Orkney, the Gentleman of the Bedchamber in Waiting. Next to the King’s barge was that of the musicians, about 50 in number, who played on all kinds of instruments . . . . The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel . . . . His Majesty approved of it so greatly that he caused it to be repeated three times in all, although each performance lasted an hour—namely twice before and once after supper. The evening was all that could be desired for the festivity, the number of barges and above all of boats filled with people desirous of hearing was beyond counting.

Unfortunately, Handel’s original score does not survive apart from two movements that are clearly his later elaborations of original Water Music items. The source material therefore goes back only to manuscripts (not in Handel’s hand) and printed editions that appeared between 1722 and 1743. A transcription of the Water Music for solo harpsichord, written out in the 1720s, lays out the music in three suites, gathering the pieces in F, G, and D into separate suites. Because that manuscript happens to be in the hand of Handel’s amanuensis and copyist John Christopher Smith, this ordering commands considerable authority, and the ordering of that manuscript was preserved when the Water Music was first published in full orchestral score, in 1788. In that arrangement, the three suites are further marked by distinct instrumentation: woodwinds, two horns, and strings in the F major Suite; trumpets, horns, woodwinds, and strings in the D major Suite; and woodwinds and strings in the G major Suite.

There are no absolute answers to inform a modern performance of Handel’s Water Music, and the fact that Handel himself didn’t bother to codify the score during his lifetime gives today’s interpreters considerably leeway in which to operate. There are many satisfying “solutions” to the ordering of the movements and the formulation of suites, although we are not likely ever to know whether they reproduce what George I heard from his barge.

In October 1748 England and France signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, ending the War of the Austrian Succession. The war actually involved Austria and Prussia, but Britain was an ally of Austria while France, in an uncharacteristic moment, was in league with the Prussians (as was Spain). In any case, the treaty ensured that the war was about to conclude. To celebrate, an immense structure in Palladian style was built in London’s Green Park, meant as a launching pad for a spectacular fireworks display to celebrate the peace. Handel was the man to supply the music.

Mirroring the graciousness towards a former enemy expressed in the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, Handel here writes music “in French.” The French overture style, as codified by Lully and adapted in the eighteenth century by Rameau, had provided a model for many composers outside France. Structurally, it involved a slow, often pompous opening section, followed without break by rapid music marked by considerable imitative counterpoint. Handel generally follows that plan here, inserting a brief modulating passage between the two parts of the overture. But he adapts the classic models in a way that is entirely his own. Notice, for example, how far the opening music transcends mere pomposity, achieving a noble, hymn-like feeling. And who but Handel would have gone the extra distance to harmonize that opening material in three different ways as it recurs in the movement? The composer is similarly idiosyncratic in the Allegro section, which is based on fanfare figures and their echoes, and which keeps the ear alert through constant variation of instrumental groupings.

A French dance follows, a merry Bourrée for two upper parts plus bass. The next two movements reflect the import of the occasion: a gentle siciliano titled La Paix (Peace), and a martial movement called La Réjouissance (Rejoicing). The latter is to be played three times through: the first time featuring trumpets, woodwinds, and strings; the second by horns and woodwinds; and the third with all the instruments together. The cumulative effect is wonderful; a listener might imagine the music being played by a military band marching on a drill field, facing first one direction, then another, then turning to address the audience head-on. To end, Handel lines up two minuets in succession—the first full-toned and ebullient, the second restrained--and then repeats the first to round out the finale.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: For the Water Music Suite—Martin Pearlman conducting Boston Baroque (Telarc)  |  Robert King conducting the King’s Consort (Helios)  |  Charles Mackerras conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (Telarc)  |  The conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Jordi Savall leading Le Concert des Nations (Alia Vox, also includes the Royal Fireworks Music

For the Royal Fireworks Music—Roger Norrington conducting the London Classical Players (Virgin Classics)  |  Jordi Savall leading Le Concert des Nations (Alia Vox, also includes the three Water Music suites)

Reading: Handel: The Man and his Music, by Jonathan Keates (Gollancz)  |  Handel, by Christopher Hogwood (Thames and Hudson)  |  Handel Concertos, Stanley Sadie’s BBC Concert Guide, which covers Handel’s instrumental music (University of Washington Press)  |  Handel: The Orchestral Music, by Alfred Mann (Schirmer Books)