Suite from The Water Music
George Friderick Handel (1685-1759)
George Friderick Handel epitomizes the Baroque period of music in England. His masterwork oratorio Messiah may be the most frequently played piece of classical music in the English-speaking world. However strongly associated with England his music might be, however, his heritage was German. His father, intent on a legal career for his. son, forbade young George from studying music (he was forced to practice in secret on a clavichord in his family’s attic) until the prodigy was fortunate enough to play before the Duke of his region in Germany, who was so impressed that he convinced the elder Handel to allow young George to follow his heart. Once enrolled in music school, he made rapid progress on organ, harpsichord, violin and viola, and would probably have become a performer except for his developing love for creating the music he played. His early career took him from Hamburg to Italy to Hanover, as he supported himself by playing, teaching and a little composing. All the while, though, his reputation was growing, and – to use a modern term- his greatest success of all might have been “networking.”
His networking earned him an invitation to London, where he made such an impression with his opera Rinaldo (in the Italian style that was just becoming trendy) that he thought his own best future would be in a country where he couldn’t even speak the language. Alter a year or two back in Germany, he returned to London for good in 1712. His earliest successes were for the stage (he wrote more than 30 operas and sets of incidental music), as well as concerti for solo instruments. However, he wrote comparatively little purely orchestral music. Clearly The Water Music and the Royal Fireworks Music were his greatest successes, and are his only orchestral compositions to establish a place in the modern repertoire.
The complete Water Music was a set of pieces commissioned by the King of England to be performed as background music for a royal ceremonial procession on the River Thames in 1717. The music was so successful that Handel extracted three shorter suites, which he published. The suite of six pieces in D presented here is the most famous, and most listeners who have any love for classical music will recognize most, in not all, of its melodies. The vigorous opening statement may have been the most effective orchestral usage of a quartet of horns ever written at that time, and the lyrical melody of the Air is probably Handel’s most famillar music outside of the Messiah.
The arrangement played today is by Sir Hamilton Harty, a noted Irish conductor who was one of the most important musical figures in England in the first part of the twentieth century. (His orchestra, the Halle Orchestra of Manchester, was one of the finest in the British Isles during the 1920’s) and he was knighted for his contributions to the arts. Although a composer of many fine works in their own right, Harty is best known for his championing of the works of others. Handel’s Water Music had been relatively neglected for years until he brought it back to public attention by this arrangement, which was for many years the standard version of the Water Music Suite, and it is still the most frequently played.
Concerto In B-flat for Bassoon and Orchestra, K. 191
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Today, because of the movie Amadeus, most people have some appreciation for the course of Mozart’s life. There is still speculation whether or not he died of natural causes. Admittedly, the film deliberately fostered an ambiguity regarding his death and the superstition that he was writing a Requiem on commis-sion for a mysterious – perhaps supernatural – stranger, knowing full well that it was his own requiem he was striving so urgently to complete. The film was correct in most of its background, including the fact that most of his great compositions (except for the operas) were written from economic need, not to establish his greatness for posterity.In Mozart’s age. few musicians could support themselves by their craft, no matter how good they were. As a composer, the best bet was to either acquire a permanent wealthy patron (as did Haydn) or hope to hit it big with an opera. This would provide a modest income for as long as it remained popular and stayed on the stage. Early in his career neither option was available to Mozart, and he became a musical itinerant, writing works for himself to perform or on commission from a patron.
This was especially true of his concerti. The solo instrumen-tal concerti were almost always done on commission for a performing artist – sometimes great virtuosi, sometimes aristocratic dilettantes – rather than to establish his own place in musical history. Even his piano concerti were written for economic reasons, as he needed ever-fresh material to support his own performing career as a piano virtuoso. In addition to concerti for piano and violin, Mozart wrote solo concerti for all the instruments of the woodwind quintet: oboe, flute, clarinet, bassoon and horn (as well as a Sinfonia Concertante that used four of the five). Of these, the first he completed was the Bassoon Concerto, quite possibly the most difficult to adapt to solo presentation because of its dark sound timbre.
Though some of his other works may have been written for aristocrats with marginal performing skills, the Bassoon Concerto was clearly intended for a virtuoso performer. Mozart refused to accept the Baroque use of the bassoon as a clumsy, doubling instrument, added to the orchestra to add variety to the tonal color. Instead, he wrote melodic lines that demanded grace and agility, and which are at their best only when played by a performer capable of producing a beautiful tone in all parts of the instrument’s register. This is very evident in the Concerto. The bassoon’s initial statement in the first movement is a simple straightforward melody, but the very next entrance almost aban-dons the melody in favor of a virtuosic display of trills, rapid tonguing, fast scales and large leaps from low notes to high range and back. The pattern carries through the entire movement, which is pure pyrotechnic display for the soloist. (The orchestra, for the most part, simply stays out of the way.)
The quiet and serene ambiance of the second movement demands a different sort of musicianship. In addition to a couple of passages that are nearly as technical as the first movement, this movement calls for beauty of tone and sensitive interpretation that frequently disappeared behind the spectacular technical skills needed previously. The third movement Rondo returns to the technical virtuosity of the first, with its emphasis on a perfectly regulated agility. As usual in a Rondo structure, the orchestra is given much of the melodic framework, while the solo instrument gets to show off in spectacular variations. Though it was among Mozart’s earliest major works for wind instrument, this concerto reveals his mature craftsmanship. And even though it was written to help him keep the body alive, his genius makes it food for the soul as well.
Symphony no.7, op. 92
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Beethoven is almost certainly the most admired composer of serious music in the Western cultures, and the symphony is frequently acclaimed as the loftiest goal towards which a composer might strive. Beethoven’s symphonies, therefore, just might be considered (subconsciously or otherwise) as the epitome of classical music by more people than any other category of compositions. Many musical scholars consider the Seventh the most formally correct of his symphonies. Is it, therefore, possible that we may be listening to the perfect composition here tonight? Everyone has his own personal favorites, but from a strictly musicological point of view the idea has merit. In this work, he returned to the general structure of the Classical symphony perfected by Haydn and Mozart, but retained his own sense of expanded scope and dramatic import.
Certainly, the attention to detail in this work is incredible, even by Beethoven’s meticulous standards. Even though the work employs only a small number of different melodies in each movement, the things he does with those limited elements are almost incredible in their diversity. For example: in the middle of a melodic line in the first movement, he suddenly throws in a fortissimo chord for contrast, to make an emphasis. Then, when that very same melodic structure appears later, it is played by a different combination of instruments. And just when the audience remembers the previous occurrence – and subconsciously prepares for the fortissimo emphasis – he keeps the music at a pianissimo throughout. The absence of the statement becomes the emphasis. If Beethoven had simply written the repeat in the same form as the original statement, it might still have been pretty music, but would have seemed somehow to lack “depth.” The symphony abounds with such attention to detail, which was beyond the skills of any other composer of his time (and which was not equaled again until Brahms and – in a different way -Mahler). Interestingly, Beethoven never heard the results of his craftsmanship, as he was almost completely deaf when he com-posed this work. He invented all of these nuances in his mind alone, without benefit of hearing musicians “try them out to see how they might work..” Genius!
Alter a slow, dramatic introduction the first movement revolves around a single rhythmic device: the asymmetric triplet pattern of the words “Amsterdam” or “Rotterdam” (or – as was favored by a certain great German conductor – “Kiemperer”). Its forward-driving impetus gives this movement an implacable sense of motion, the renowned “irresistible force.” The sense of repose in the second movement is in distinct contrast to the frenzy of the first. It begins with the simplest of slow melodies. This recurs frequently, usually set off against a contrasting counter-melody line played by a different instrumental group. Sometimes the main melody (which starts out with a single note repeated over and over before resolving at the end of the phrase) is featured, producing a dramatic march with the same irre-sistibility as the first-movement rhythm, but slower. Other times the counter melody is featured to give a flowing effect, with the repetitive line fading into the background.
The third movement Scherzo returns to the fast, hard-driving feel of the first (although this time using a simple triple rhythm instead of the “Amsterdam” pattern). This is contrasted by a slow melody that gradually grows into a statement of solemn nobility featuring full brasses, before returning to the driving scherzo. This alternates with the majestic slow section once again, until the movement ends with a sense of finality. The final movement is a furious allegro, marked vivace (which stands here for “vivacious” perhaps more so than in any other fast movement by the composer) which pushes on to the end with practically no pause or respite. All sections of the orchestra are continually pushed towards their limits of endurance by the dynamic writing. The audience, senses exhilaration rather than exhaustion as the work rushes to its conclusion, with the horns blaring like trum-peting elephants above the strings, whose stampede must remain ever under control, even though its momentum cannot possibly be diverted. A virtuoso work for the orchestra, it never fails to rouse excitement in its audiences.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly