Handel’s Water Music Suite No. 1

Notes by TŌN oboist Shawn Hutchison

Composed in 1717, Water Music by Georg Frederic Handel is a collection of three suites for orchestra. The work’s title is derived from the original intended purpose of the music, namely to provide musical entertainment for King George I in a grand and opulent fashion by performing from the decks of barges on the River Thames.

Opening with a stylized and energetic French overture, the first Suite in F Major features an assortment of Baroque dance forms (such as the minuet, bourrée, and hornpipe) transmuted from their original functions into lively concert music. These forms were a key element in the compositional language of the late Baroque, and were employed broadly and with great success by composers such as J.S. Bach, G.P. Telemann, and G. F. Handel.

As an oboist, it is a particular joy to perform, as the second movement features a prominent oboe solo. This provides a wonderful opportunity for creative invention, as the solo line itself is sparsely notated so that the oboist may provide personal ornamentation in the rhetorical style. This creative license can be further utilized throughout the work in the form of altering articulation, dynamics, and even the instrumentation on subsequent repeated sections. These characteristics instill a recurring freshness and novelty to each interpretation of the work, lending it to repeated listenings and performances. While still performed outdoors on occasion, the collected suites have since migrated into the concert hall, and are frequently programmed to the enjoyment of audiences and musicians alike.