|SOURCE: scan of Dirk Stoop's engraving Aqua Triumphalis (Aug. 23, 1662, preceding the wedding of Charles II) at the National Maritime Museum; available at http://www.historyextra.com/river|
Water Music fits into a long tradition of music for a social occasion; but as a musical structure itself, the work is shockingly innovative—an orchestral piece of unprecedented length and variety. Are there any predecessors to rival it? In a way, Water Music represents the first maturity of the orchestra—and, maybe except for occasional performances of Corelli concerti grossi, it must be the earliest music that can be said to fit into the established orchestra repertoire. While modern symphony orchestras have largely abandoned the Baroque, edged-out by their HIP rivals, Water Music is still performed by all sorts of ensembles, and seems to be a perennial crowd-pleaser. New recordings (and cheap reissues of old ones) emerge year after year, and twice in recent years (2003 and 2012) there have been conspicuous performances on the Thames itself—conspicuous enough for me to have noticed, anyway.
|SOURCE: Daily Mail image of the 3 June 2012 Jubilee flotilla on the Thames; the Academy of Ancient Music website has some entertaining videos concerning their part of the festivities.|
Probably the work seldom gets performed intact. The 22 movements that comprise what we call Water Music do not cohere in any traditional pattern, and that has caused problems for Handel scholars in the past. Lacking an autograph, it was assumed that the strange sequence of movements indicated that something had been garbled in transmission. Here is a handy index from Christopher Hogwood’s Cambridge Music Handbook:
|SOURCE: cropped scan of pp. 18-19 of Handel: Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks (2005)|
|SOURCE: scan first page of score (f. 2) of 1718 ms. |
in the library of the Royal Society of Musicians [no shelfmark];
scan from https://museums.eu/event/details/120375/handels-water-music
So what about that unusual sequence, now being restored to favor? It is a curious hybrid of suite and concertante forms, and it doesn’t even settle down to just one sort of suite. It opens with a French overture, interrupted before a final cadence by a solo oboe number; following that is really an Italian overture (fast-slow-fast) featuring the horns; then a series of conventional dances or dance-like numbers (menuets, bourrée, hornpipe, “Air”). After all the F major movements are done, there follows a d-minor number displaying Handel’s orchestrational technique at its most forward-looking—but which is hardly either a closing or an opening to a suite. Thereafter, in Hogwood’s words,
“From this point in the suite both the scoring and the changes of tonality become more varied, a strategy that seems designed to maintain attention through an hour-long performance—the length of time of a full act in an opera, but no other musical form to date.” [p. 35]The brilliant brass writing that follows is closer to Handel’s (subsequent) concerti a due cori than to anything else—in other words concertante writing again The remaining dances are diverse and diverting, but there is no conclusion as substantial as those of Telemann’s Tafelmusik; the “Trumpet Menuet” that de facto brings the whole thing to a close seems perfunctory, and to my ear the weakest part of the whole set.
I tried an informal experiment for this post: listening to a recording with the CD or MP3 player set on SHUFFLE, hoping to see if any resulting sequence of movements would be viable. It won’t, at least for me, but if we were to view the whole thing as a sort of compendium of music to keep the party going, a number of routes might work. A crucial difference is to have a musical intelligence making the decision, rather than just a mechanical randomization. In other words, it requires a deejay.