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6.110115 - HANDEL: Water Music / Music for the Royal Fireworks
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George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Water Music • Music for the Royal Fireworks

George Frideric Handel was born in Halle in 1685, the son of an elderly and distinguished barber-surgeon by his second wife, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. He showed an early interest in music, an activity not altogether encouraged by his father, whose patron, the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, intervened in the boy’s favour. His father died in 1697 but Handel’s general and musical education continued, allowing him, five years later, to matriculate at the University of Halle, and to accept, a month afterwards, the position of organist at the Calvinist cathedral. The following year he abandoned his studies and his native town in order to embark on a career as a musician.

Handel’s first employment was in the city of Hamburg. There he worked at the opera, at first as a rank-and-file second violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer, establishing his first connection with England by giving lessons to the son of the English Resident. In Hamburg he was associated with Johann Mattheson, a musician his senior by four years, who was, rightly or wrongly, to claim a share in Handel’s education as a composer. From Hamburg Handel travelled in 1706 to Italy, at the invitation of Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, heir to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. He was to remain there until 1710, spending time in Florence, in Venice, and in Rome, absorbing more fully the Italian style that he had already attempted in opera in Hamburg, and impressing audiences with his ability as an organist and harpsichord-player.

It was through his acquaintance with Baron Kielmansegge, Master of Horse to the Elector of Hanover, whom he met in Venice, and perhaps through an earlier meeting with the Elector’s brother, Prince Ernst August, that Handel found himself offered the position of Kapellmeister in Hanover, an appointment followed, according to prior agreement, by immediate leave of absence for twelve months.

In moving north Handel seems to have had London in mind as a possibly rich field for musical speculation. England was under the rule of Queen Anne, the second of the daughters of the exiled Catholic King James II. The last of the Stuarts was to be succeeded after her death in 1714 by the Elector of Hanover, who ascended the English throne as King George I. On his first visit to London Handel had remained for eight months, seeing to the mounting early in 1711 of his new Italian opera Rinaldo, with a libretto based on an outline sketch by Aaron Hill. He then returned to Hanover, but after fifteen months he was back once more in London, with leave from the Elector to stay for a reasonable length of time. Handel in the event settled in England for the rest of his life, whether with or without the approval of his patron is not clear. He was, however, to enjoy royal patronage after the accession of George I.

In London Handel was concerned to a considerable extent with the Italian opera, a risky venture that was to undergo various changes of fortune during the following decades. Later in his career he was to turn to English oratorio, a form that, in his hands, had all the musical advantages of Italian opera without the disadvantage of a foreign language, lavish production costs or liability to native criticism on the grounds of improbability or incomprehensibility. Handel wrote music for other occasions, for the church and for the pleasure gardens, and enjoyed immense popularity and esteem, his preeminence serving to eclipse lesser talents. He died in 1759.

The Water Music and the Music for the Royal Fireworks mark two chronological extremes of Handel’s career in London. The first was written in his earlier years in England, presumably by 1717, to entertain a royal party sailing up the Thames, while the second was commissioned to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1749. Both occasions called for outdoor music, a form in which Handel was to demonstrate particular skill during the years that he provided music for the gardens at Vauxhall. Popular legend has it that he had offended the Elector of Hanover by his prolonged absence without leave in London and that a reconciliation was brought about through the Water Music, composed to accompany the new King’s journey by barge from Whitehall to Chelsea, to entertain the court during supper and to escort the royal party back again down the Thames. The story, given early currency, is now generally discounted, since no overt reconciliation with King George seems to have been necessary. It is clear, however, from a number of contemporary accounts, that Baron Kielmansegge, whose wife, known as The Elephant, was the King’s half-sister, paid for a band of fifty musicians to play music newly commissioned from Handel to entertain the King during an evening party on the Thames on 17th July, 1717. Precisely how much of the music performed was by Handel and how much of it is now preserved in the three suites known as the Water Music is not clear. It is reasonable to suppose that the collection represents much of the music played in 1717, although the order of performance is unknown. Of the three suites arranged by later editors the first has been described as a horn suite, because of the prominence of those instruments, while the second is distinguished by its use of the trumpets, with the third generally suggesting the indoor music to accompany the royal supper.

The Thames water-party of 1717 was successful enough. The Royal Fireworks of 1749, however, may have achieved musical distinction but were a pyrotechnic disaster. The fireworks display was planned for an April evening in 1749 in Green Park, to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle that had ended the War of the Austrian Succession in the previous year, confirming the Empress Maria Theresia on the throne of Austria. Handel, although at first reluctant, was able to offer a public rehearsal of his Royal Fireworks Music at Vauxhall Gardens, a commercial venture in which he had been involved since 1732. A hundred musicians were involved, playing to an audience of more than twelve thousand. Aweek later the music was performed in Green Park, a prelude to the event and a possible accompaniment to the King’s prior inspection of the elaborate ‘machine’ that was the centre-piece of the display. The fireworks themselves were disappointing and during the evening the pavilion to the right of the main structure caught fire.

The Royal Fireworks Music had already succeeded admirably at Vauxhall. Handel was to add string parts to the original score, which had, by royal command, been limited to a massive band of wind instruments, and to present the work as part of a charity programme given towards the end of May in aid of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, which was to benefit even more considerably from the oratorio Messiah. The five sections of the work open with an overture in the usual French style, followed by a Bourrée and two pieces suggesting the Peace and the consequent Rejoicing. The suite ends with two minuets.

Keith Anderson

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