Sunday, 3 June 2012

Water Music

The highlight of today's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London will be a pageant as a thousand boats take to the River Thames with the royal barge, the Spirit of Chartwell, at the centre of the flotilla.

This sort of royal pageant has a long history. The barge of George I famously took to the Thames soon after the king's accession to the British throne and a very famous piece of music was written to entertain him and his guests - and delight the spectators watching from the banks. Yes, Handel's Water Music was composed for the very same kind of royal spectacular as is being staged in London this very day.

The First Suite - the one in F major - opens to the stately, dotted tread of a French overture, its first section a beautiful, poised piece of writing, melodically and harmonically ennobling, which sounds like oars striking slowly through lapping waters, followed by a loose-limbed, festive fugue that barely feels like a fugue at all. An Adagio section sets a beautiful, flexible melody on winds over staccato chords from the strings. There are some gorgeous suspensions when the strings briefly take charge. (Other performances of the Water Music have a section here where an oboe leads the way in another Adagio, improvising over string chords.) The horns announce themselves royally in the famous Allegro that comes next, engaging with rousing exchanges with the orchestra and ringing out a simple but unforgettable tune. Woodwinds join in and engage in their own exchanges with the strings. This movement contrasts with the pensive minor-key Air that follows. This attractively pits oboes and bassoons against the strings. After a reprise of the Allegro, comes a  delicious Passepied - a triple-time dance of joyful tunefulness where the horns echo each strain. The strings alone  play its trio section.  Just as attractive is the second Air. This gentle, lilting invention has an especially lovely melody. The changes of orchestral colour throughout this movement add to its irresistible appeal. Horns ring out again and the start of the Minuet, which continues in a boldly melodic vein that can hardly fail to charm. The trio entangles two tunes, ever so pleasantly. The suite ends with a fast Bourrée and a robust Hornpipe, each constantly re-coloured. Some performances add a final movement in D minor, only found in some sources - as if to link the music to the Second Suite to come. It's a fine movement, full of rich part-writing, but it's not entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Water Music as a whole.

The Second Suite - the one in D major - opens with ceremonial swagger as trumpets and horns call to each other over dancing strings and drums, all to a bold, fanfare-like melody. The very famous Hornpipe follows. This is no less ceremonial in character and has a cracking tune - hence its wide appeal. A contrasting section foregrounds the strings, which dance like ripples on the Thames. A slow, proud Minuet is next and it too boasts a grand tune. A lovely Lentement with a pastoral triple-time lilt provides contrast. A forceful but jolly Bourrée brings this delightful suite to a close. 

The Third Suite - the one in G major - is the gentlest of Handel's suites. It dispenses with the horns, trumpets and drums. The loveliest of its movements is the opening one - a very French-sounding, melodically and harmonically winning number with the top line being given to first violins and flutes and gorgeous harmonies being provided by the other strings. A Rigaudon of engaging energy follows. Its tune may not be so catchy but its rhythms are so unpredictable and infectious that it's easily forgiven. The middle section moves into the minor. The following Minuet is simpler and contains a charming recorder-coloured trio that has a waltzing rhythm and an unusual tune. The suite ends with a pair of dances - the first perky, the second robustly folk-like and fun. 

Up here in Morecambe, there's plenty of water today too for our Jubilee celebrations - a party all along the promenade. Yes, it's absolutely pouring down with rain! Rain on bank holiday weekends is as much a British tradition as royal pageants!!

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