Handel’s Water Music with Richard Egarr
- December 1, 2018
Born into a musical family, Henry Purcell spent his boyhood in London as a chorister for the Chapel Royal. At 18, he was appointed to a position as a court composer, and two years later he became the organist for Westminster Abbey, a position he held until his death. Only in the last seven years of his short life did Purcell concentrate on the theater music for which he is best known today, including Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen.
Premiered in London in 1692 and revived the following year with additional new music, The Fairy Queen adapted A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a semi-opera. Shakespeare’s comedy, centering on the magical manipulations of the fairy queen Titania, offered ample opportunities for Purcell to intersperse fanciful interludes with singing and dancing around scenes of spoken dialogue.
This suite samples the vibrant music Purcell used to set each scene, including the opening Overture and the regal Symphony that introduced Act IV. We also hear a variety of dances that accompanied choreographed ballet numbers, from the sprightly Dance for the Fairies to the hearty Monkeys’ Dance. The suite closes with an instrumental rendition of a song from Act III that plaintively asks, “If love’s a sweet passion why does it torment?”
Aaron Grad ©2018
Matthew Locke was the leading composer of the Restoration, that period that followed the return of the British monarchy in 1660. In the instrumental music he composed in service to King Charles II, and also in his works for London’s theater scene, Locke integrated the older traditions of the string consort with new trends in musical drama. For a 1674 production of The Tempest, adapted from Shakespeare by the playwright Thomas Shadwell, Locke provided a suite of instrumental music, and they also collaborated the next year on Shadwell’s Psyche. The two productions were seminal examples of the genre of “semi-opera”—that mix of singing and spoken dialogue that would have such a profound influence on Henry Purcell and composers of future generations.
Locke’s music for The Tempest was exceptionally colorful for its time, above all in the Curtain Tune that played just before the curtain first opened. The Tempest begins with the storm that gives it its name, and Locke established that atmosphere with music that starts “soft,” becomes “louder by degrees,” and ultimately turns “violent”—performance instructions preserved in the first publication from 1675. The closing Canon demonstrates Locke’s grasp of the older, learned style of counterpoint.
Aaron Grad ©2018
Charles Avison was a British composer, organist and writer who worked mainly in the northern city of Newcastle. As the director of a local concert series, he had first-hand experience with the English craze for concerti grossi, those group concertos developed in Italy by Corelli and imitated by Handel and many others. Avison capitalized on the trend in 1744 by publishing a set of 12 concertos modeled on Corelli’s template: a solo group consisting of two violins and cello, accompanied by a larger string ensemble and basso continuo. Instead of composing new material, Avison adapted sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, whose popularity in England spiked after a major publication appeared in 1738. In merging Corelli’s ensemble structure with Scarlatti’s musical material, the relatively unknown Avison created a collection that easily surpassed his subscription target, and which remains active in the repertoire to this day.
The Concerto Grosso No. 1 in A Major draws from three different Scarlatti sonatas to stitch together the usual slow-fast-slow-fast structure of movements. Avison’s opening Adagio is not far off from the Grave treatment in Scarlatti’s original; the Amoroso third movement, on the other hand, is almost unrecognizable compared to the swift Allegro it borrows from. (There were not very many slow movements by Scarlatti in circulation at the time, so Avison had to get creative.) The concerto’s two Allegro movements maximize the counterpoint and textural contrast found within Scarlatti’s landmark keyboard sonatas.
Aaron Grad ©2018
Not long after Handel became Kapellmeister in 1710 to George Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, those two Germans found themselves making history in England. Handel, for his part, revolutionized the opera scene in London with Rinaldo from 1711, spurring him to settle there permanently. Meanwhile George became the unlikely heir to the British throne, as the closest living Protestant relative to Queen Anne when she died in 1714.
George fired the perpetually absent Handel from his Hanover position in 1713, but the two reconciled after George’s coronation and Handel became a trusted source of music for the royal court. In 1717, when a conflict with his liberal-minded son (the future George II) left the king in need of some good public relations, he organized an outing on the River Thames and asked Handel to provide orchestral entertainment. On July 17, 1717, the river filled with boats, including a barge loaded with some 50 musicians. The whole flotilla rode the tide upriver to Chelsea, stopped for supper and then returned to Whitehall, with Handel’s new Water Music sounding all the while.
This performance samples highlights from the three suites that comprise Water Music, each with slightly different instrumentation. To help the sound carry over the water, Handel leaned on the winds and brass, including the first use of horns in a British orchestral work—a sound that is especially prominent in the third selection from the First Suite in F Major.
The Second Suite in D Major emphasizes the brilliant tone of the trumpets. In both the Overture and the beloved Alla Hornpipe that follows, the horns have an echoing role, answering the trumpets in a mellower, lower register. The Third Suite in G Major is the most condensed section of Water Music, with its stylized dances using an orchestra without brass. From the First Suite’s regal Overture that begins this collection to the deft Bourree from the Second Suite that marks the end, the music consistently follows the French template of the dance suite. Handel may have been German by birth and British by allegiance, but as a composer his ability to imitate and outshine his predecessors knew no boundaries.
Aaron Grad ©2018
Please note: Selections from Matthew Locke’s The Tempest will not be performed Friday, November 30 at Humboldt High School.