Handel Water Music Suite no.2 in D major

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Background on Handel

  • 1685 - 1759 (mainly in the Baroque period)
  • Born in Halle, Saxony
  • Travelled widely, including to Italy - learned composing Italian opera (mingled with Italian musicians such as Corelli and Scarlatti)
  • After a time in the Elector's Hanover court, he moved to London (good opportunities for composers of Italian Opera - popular among English aristocracy)
  • First opera RINALDO (1711) was successful - made Handel popular at court 
  • When Queen Anne died (1914), due to a strange Eglish law, the Elector of Hanover succeeded her as George I.
  • Handel stayed in London - became a british citizen 
  • By the time he died - almost considered a native English composer - during time tastes had changed to oratorios, of which Handel was the leading composer
  • Composed 42 operas, 23 organ concertos, 28 concerto grossi and 29 anthems among other works
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Background on set work

  • The new king George I and his entourage organised several royal boat trips along the River Thames to increase his popularity - delicate rule as a foreigner and only a remote relation of the queen Anne (succeeded as protestant).
  • Handel was commissioned to write three suites to be played
  • One of the boat trips, in July 1717 featured the three water music suites
  • The 'water party' travelled from Whitehall to Chelsea and back, with several barges carrying the king, his entourage and other important people. There was a separate barge carrying the musicians
  • All the suites were written in the baroque dance suite style, with all the movements derived from popular dances of the time
  • The Water Music Suite no.2 in D major has 5 movements, each with its own structure  
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Structure of Water Music Suite no.2 in D major

Five movements: 

1. Allegro (overture)   -   Antiphonal structure

2. Alla Hornpipe   -   Ternary form

3. Menuet   -   Binary form

4. Lentement   -   Ternary form

5. Bourree   -   Binary form

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Allegro (overture)

Key  D major              Time Signature  4/4

Tempo  allegro (stately). last 3 bars adagio    

Dynamics  none written but loud due to outdoor venue


Starts with a five bar rousing fanfare - trumpets stride up tonic chord followed by melodic flourish of  semiquavers on dominant. Strings and oboes play in unison down a D major scale. This is then copied an octave down , accompanied by bass instruments only. The horns stand out well, though not as bright as trumpets. There is a short 2 bar exchange in crotchets.

It features horns and trumpets but their limited melodic function limits the variety of harmonies that can be used. Handel uses simple tonic/dominant chords, forming the basis of most of the musical material. Alternating phrases continues throughout the piece. The two groups combine in a full tutti in bar 37 that is repeated - dotted crotchets (38-40) filled out with quavers driving towards cadence. This cadence is repeated with rests. last three bars change tempo and mood, suggesting a link to the next movement. Ends with an imperfect cadence into the relative minor (B) leaving the movement unresolved (phrygian cadence). Slow speed and rests between chords offer the soloist a chance to improvise.

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Instrumentation of the Handel

  • 2 oboes
  • 1 bassoon
  • 2 trumpets (in D)
  • Violins ( I and II )
  • Violas
  • Cellos
  • Double bass

The instruments would have been doubled in numbers to cater for playing outdoors (50+ musicians).

Stylistic performances typically add in a harpsichord and timpani as would have been customary at the time.

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Alla Hornpipe (movement 2)

Time Signature  3/2                  Tonality  D major/B minor                  Tempo  Bouncy

Structure  Ternary ( A - B - A )


The opening also sounds fanfare-like, although the trumpets and horns are silent until bar 11, in which the trumpets take up the theme unaccompanied, followed by the horns. The second half of the principal theme is heard throughout, antiphonally between trumpets/horns, tutti and in extended sequences, bouncing the music towards strong perfect cadences. Hemiolas are used (commoon feature of English music in triple time).

A substantial middle section follows (40) beginning with a reference to the rhythmic figure first heard in bar 5, but there is some additional syncopation and it has a very different character, in the relative minor key of B minor, with a modulation to F sharp major in bar 57. The first violins have a very elaborate part which the oboes can't always double. Third violin part added to thicken the harmony in the middle of the texture. Trumpets and horns are silent throughout.  the texture thins where instruments gradually drop out, in preparation for the return of the first section of the movement. There is a da capo, and the piece is therefore ternary A - B - A

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Minuet (movement 3)

Time signature  3/4                Tempo slow              


A minuet (English) of menuet (french) was a popular court dance,usually short and rhythmically straightforward. Almost all sources agree the piece was to be played 3 times: first with trumpets and strings, next with horns, obeoes adn bassoons. Lastly with the full orchestra.

It is in the tonic key, strong forward-moving rhythm, striding bass line and some brief moments of dissonance which also help to push it on. In bar 1 all the instruments repeat the tonic chord (except bassoons, cellos and basses (C sharp gives forward feeling)). In bar 2, the B changes the harmony to chord VI and in bar 4 the lower instruments hold a B against the upper parts' repeated tonic chord - decorated suspension eventually resolving upwards onto IVb in beat 3. The chords in bar 5 also form a strong progression initiating a II V7 I cadence. This striding bass line counteracts the otherwise static harmonies of the above parts. The harmonic interest continues in the second section, with passing notes in the upper parts. There is a drum-like rhythm in bars7, 11, 15 and 23. Bars 17-18 and 19-20 seem to invite a contrast of f and p. It was not normal practice, at the time Handel was working to notate dynamic markings, but an established convention of performing such contrasts was well understood (terraced dynamics)

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Lentement (movement 4)

Lentement isn't actually a title, but a french term for the tempo, meaning slowly.  It has been suggested that the dotted rhythm that  pervades the piece is a version of a french dance movement, a slow gigue called a loure. It is another ternary (da capo) piece.

It is unusual as its middle section begins in the relative key of B minor but ends in E minor. Calling this the supertonic minor makes it sound a remote modulation, but it is a related key as the relative minor of the subdominant key of G major. 

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Bourree (movement 5)

It has no official title, but is played three times. It is effectively another dance movement, having all the characteristics of a bourree. It has the defining rhythmic characteristics - 

  • quick
  • duple time
  • starts every phrase on the last crotchet of the bar

It doesn't modulate, but for such a quick piece, its harmonic rhythm is quite lively - 2 chords per bar, but sometimes a different one on each crotchet (e.g. bars 3 and 7)

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Characteristics of Baroque music

  • No firm format of orchestra - different occasions called for different instruments
  • String dominated orchestra - end of 17th century a set format for orchestra was established
  • Composers wrote music for a large number of strings in sections with basso continuo (corelli and lully)
  • Pairs of woodwind and brass were used according to what was available
  • Continuo with realisation of figured bass through embellishment
  • clarinets (in A) were in eraly stages and some unusual instruments (e.g. oboes / hunting horns) may have been available to some composers
  • Ornamentation
  • use of harpsichord
  • use of sequence - common way of extending and developing a melodic phrase
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