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-surgeonby his second wife, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor.
He showed an early interest in music, an activity notaltogether encouraged by his father, whose patron, theDuke of Saxe-Weissenfels, intervened in the boy'sfavour. His father died in 1697 but Handel's generaland musical education continued, allowing him, fiveyears later, to matriculate at the University of Halle,and to accept, a month afterwards, the position oforganist at the Calvinist cathedral. The following yearhe abandoned his studies and his native town in orderto embark on a career as a musician.
Handel's first employment was in the city ofHamburg. There he worked at the opera, at first as arank-and-file second violinist and then asharpsichordist and composer, establishing his firstconnection with England by giving lessons to the sonof the English Resident. In Hamburg he wasassociated with Johann Mattheson, a musician hissenior by four years, who was, rightly or wrongly, toclaim a share in Handel's education as a composer.
From Hamburg Handel travelled in 1706 to Italy, atthe invitation of Prince Ferdinando de' Medici, heir tothe Grand Duchy of Tuscany. He was to remain thereuntil 1710, spending time in Florence, in Venice, andin Rome, absorbing more fully the Italian style that hehad already attempted in opera in Hamburg, andimpressing audiences with his ability as an organistand harpsichord-player.
It was through his acquaintance with BaronKielmansegge, Master of Horse to the Elector ofHanover, whom he met in Venice, and perhapsthrough an earlier meeting with the Elector's brother,Prince Ernst August, that Handel found himselfoffered the position of Kapellmeister in Hanover, anappointment followed, according to prior agreement,by immediate leave of absence for twelve months.
In moving north Handel seems to have hadLondon in mind as a possibly rich field for musicalspeculation. England was under the rule of QueenAnne, the second of the daughters of the exiledCatholic King James II. The last of the Stuarts was tobe succeeded after her death in 1714 by the Elector ofHanover, who ascended the English throne as KingGeorge I. On his first visit to London Handel hadremained for eight months, seeing to the mountingearly in 1711 of his new Italian opera Rinaldo, with alibretto based on an outline sketch by Aaron Hill. Hethen returned to Hanover, but after fifteen months hewas back once more in London, with leave from theElector to stay for a reasonable length of time. Handelin the event settled in England for the rest of his life,whether with or without the approval of his patron isnot clear. He was, however, to enjoy royal patronageafter the accession of George I.
In London Handel was concerned to aconsiderable extent with the Italian opera, a riskyventure that was to undergo various changes offortune during the following decades. Later in hiscareer he was to turn to English oratorio, a form that,in his hands, had all the musical advantages of Italianopera without the disadvantage of a foreign language,lavish production costs or liability to native criticismon the grounds of improbability or incomprehensibility.
Handel wrote music for other occasions,for the church and for the pleasure gardens, andenjoyed immense popularity and esteem, his preeminenceserving to eclipse lesser talents. He died in1759.
The Water Music and the Music for the RoyalFireworks mark two chronological extremes ofHandel's career in London. The first was written inhis earlier years in England, presumably by 1717, toentertain a royal party sailing up the Thames, whilethe second was commissioned to celebrate the Peaceof Aix-la-Chapelle in 1749. Both occasions called foroutdoor music, a form in which Handel was todemonstrate particular skill during the years that heprovided music for the gardens at Vauxhall. Popularlegend has it that he had offended the Elector ofHanover by his prolonged absence without leave inLondon and that a reconciliation was brought aboutthrough the Water Music, composed to accompanythe new King's journey by barge from Whitehall toChelsea, to entertain the court during supper and toescort the royal party back again down the Thames.
The story, given early currency, is now generallydiscounted, since no overt reconciliation with KingGeorge seems to have been necessary. It is clear,however, from a number of contemporary accounts,that Baron Kielmansegge, whose wife, known as TheElephant, was the King's half-sister, paid for a bandof fifty musicians to play music newly commissionedfrom Handel to entertain the King during an eveningparty on the Thames on 17th July, 1717. Preciselyhow much of the music performed was by Handel andhow much of it is now preserved in the three suitesknown as the Water Music is not clear. It is reasonableto suppose that the collection represents much of themusic played in 1717, although the order ofperformance is unknown. Of the three suites arrangedby later editors the first has been described as a hornsuite, because of the prominence of those instruments,while the second is distinguished by its use of thetrumpets, with the third generally suggesting theindoor music to accompany the royal supper.
The Thames water-party of 1717 was successfulenough. The Royal Fireworks of 1749, however, mayhave achieved musical distinction but were apyrotechnic disaster. The fireworks display wasplanned for an April evening in 1749 in Green Park,to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle that hadended the War of the Austrian Succession in theprevious year, confirming the Empress MariaTheresia on the throne of Austria. Handel, although atfirst reluctant, was able to offer a public rehearsal ofhis Royal Fireworks Music at Vauxhall Gardens, acommercial venture in which he had been involvedsince 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 accompanimentto the King's prior inspection of the elaborate'machine' that was the centre-piece of the display.
The fireworks themselves were disappointing andduring the evening the pavilion to the right of themain structure caught fire.
The Royal Fireworks Music had alreadysucceeded admirably at Vauxhall. Handel was to addstring parts to the original score, which had, by royalcommand, been limited to a massive band of windinstruments, and to present the work as part of acharity programme given towards the end of May inaid of Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital, whichwas to benefit even more considerably from theoratorio Messiah. The five sections of the work openwith an overture in the usual French style, followedby a Bourree and two pieces suggesting the Peace andthe consequent Rejoicing. The suite ends with twominuets.Keith Anderson