George Frideric Handel was one of the most influential and respected composers of his time. History has done little to diminish that appraisal. Handel was a man who always seemed to be a good judge of the temper of the times when it came to being at the forefront of popular music trends in society. Despite being born in Germany, he first gained fame by creating numerous operas while living and studying in Italy. Handel’s operas came to be regarded as the definitive version of what operas should be. He soon developed a reputation as being the western world’s foremost authority on operas. His fame was such that he was recruited to come and work in England by a man known as the Elector of Hanover. *(More about that in a moment). While in England, Handel composed several other popular operas, settling in nicely as a musical authority and celebrity. However, not long after arriving in England, Handel began to become aware of a growing sentiment within audiences that the standard opera form was falling out of favour. Operas were too long. They were too elaborate and showy. Rather than waiting to be left behind the times, Handel decided to acknowledge the feelings of those who came to observe and listen to his operas and listen by changing his compositional style completely. In doing so, George Frideric Handel abandoned operas in favour of oratorios. The difference between an opera and an oratorio is simply that an opera is a theatre production (with sets, actors and a story told on stage) while an oratorio is strictly a concert piece. Handel was very successful in launching this new trend in music. In fact, the most famous work of his career was to be the oratorio known as “The Messiah”. But it was at this time that the politics of England came into play. It was a political twist that had nothing to do with Handel, himself, which caused him to rise to the most powerful musical position in all of England and was directly responsible for the creation of his second most popular composition ever, “Water Music”. Here is the story of one of England’s most famous concerts in history and the man who created its soundtrack.
In order to appreciate the three suites of music that make up Handel’s “Water Music”, we must take a step back and put everything into historical perspective. First things first, I am no expert on the history of political machinations in England. I will try my best to accurately and simply connect the historical dots of this story for you. Here goes.
Politics is a high stakes game in many countries. England is definitely no exception. The added element in this particular story that bears note is that of religion. Without getting too deeply into this, the politics of religion in England really became a factor when King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church in 1534 by enacting an act of Parliament called The Act of Supremacy. This new law allowed the King to close Catholic churches and monasteries, seize their property and assets and add them to the country’s own treasury. One of the things that came out of this new law that directly impacted Handel centuries later was that Catholicism was dropped as the legally recognized religion of England. It was replaced by the Protestant-oriented Church of England with King Henry VIII as its head. Fast forward a century or so. In order to consolidate The Act of Supremacy, a new law was passed that was called The Act of Settlement. Politics being what they are, in the time since King Henry VIII outlawed Catholicism, there were many members of various royal families, all of whom had some sort of claim to the throne of England, who remained as practicing Catholics. Word was that if any of these potential heirs to the throne managed to actually assume the seat of power that they would abolish The Act of Supremacy and re-establish Catholicism to what, they claimed, was its rightful place as England’s legally recognized religious authority. The Act of Settlement codified into law the rule that to become the King or Queen of England you had to be Protestant. By passing this new law, a whole host of political rivals were shunted to the sidelines. Anglicans from the House of Stuart became the family members with the inside track to the Monarchy. Within the context of this music post, the person of greatest importance to this story was, as it turned out, the final member of the House of Stuart to ascend to the throne of England and that was Queen Anne. She became Queen of England in 1701. This is where Handel comes back into our story.
Not only was George Frideric Handel a very astute assessor of the prevailing moods of his countrymen when it came to the Arts, but he was also very aware of the many political intrigues that were going on in aristocratic circles in which he frequented. As faithful readers of these posts will know, many composers in the 1700s made a living through the gracious patronage of aristocratic families. In the case of Handel, he left Italy to come to England at the invitation of a man who held the position of the Elector of Hanover. In the 1600s, The Electorate of Hanover (In northern Germany) was part of a personal union that also involved England and Ireland which, in turn, was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Each principality that made up the Holy Roman Empire had someone who was designated as the Elector for that region. Thus, the Elector of Hanover was the person who ruled the area known as Hanover. That person also had a vote to elect the person who would serve as Emperor in the Holy Roman Empire that covered Central Europe at the time. So, when the Elector of Hanover contacted George Frideric Handel in Italy and invited him to come to England to live and perform, it wasn’t an invitation from any old aristocrat, it was an invitation from a man who enjoyed powerful political connections across Europe and into England. Being the clever opportunist that Handel was, he accepted the invitation and moved to Hanover.
For a while, Handel stayed in Hanover. But when Queen Anne ascended to the throne of England, things changed. She invited Handel to come to London to compose music for the royal court. This was the moment in which Handel rose to become known as one of the shrewdest political operators of his time. You see, Handel wasn’t just any composer of music. He was the pre-eminent composer of music in all of Western Europe. His rise to the top of the Arts world was made in part because of his amazing compositional talent but also because of his ability to navigate from one connected patron to another, climbing the ranks as he went. His willingness to accept Queen Anne’s invitation was a political move, as much as it was a cultural move. The astute part of his decision-making process was in knowing that Queen Anne was the last member of the House of Stuart. Handel knew that Queen Anne had no children who had reached the age of maturity (all either dying at childbirth, through miscarriage or as very young children) so there would be no natural heir to follow her. This meant that her heir to the throne would have to come from somewhere outside of her own family line. Surveying the political scene, Handel concluded that the most likely scenario of ascension would be that someone from the family line involved in the Electorate of Hanover would be next in line. Handel was correct. Handel’s original patron, the Elector of Hanover, turned out to be the man who eventually became King George I of England. Consequently, when Queen Anne asked Handel to come to England from Hanover and compose works for her, he was able to do so with the blessing of his patron because they both knew a reunion was probably in the offing. Ordinarily, leaving one patron for another would be seen as a betrayal, but in this case, both men knew exactly how this scenario was going to play out. When George ascended to the throne of England, he named Handel as Kapellmeister, or the person in charge of all music in England. Handel’s rise to the top of the Arts world was now complete.
In order to celebrate his own rise to the throne of England, King George I directed Handel to compose a new composition. It was King George’s vision that he, along with a selection of invited nobility, would sail on a barge down the Thames River. As they sailed, a second barge would follow behind the first. It would hold a full orchestra that would play Handel’s newest musical composition as everyone sailed along. The idea behind it all was that citizens would be invited to line the banks of the Thames and see their new King and celebrate with him as this new chapter in England’s history opened. Handel did not disappoint. He actually created three separate musical suites, each with multiple jaunty sections. Because of where this concert took place, these three suites taken together have come to simply be known as Handel’s “Water Music”. Like many famous compositions, I guarantee you that you have heard many of these separate segments at one time or another in your own life.
However, like many stories involving the English Monarchy, the centuries that followed the rise of George I remained filled with political intrigue, musical pageantry and religious ramifications. I will end this post with two, more modern examples of events that make more sense if you know the historical connections involved in the history of the English Monarchy. First of all, just prior to the start of WWII, Adolf Hitler had risen to power in Germany and had begun enacting a series of laws that would lead to the Holocaust and to the start of WWII. In the 1930s, many people warned the powers that be in England that Hitler was a dangerous man. Then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain infamously met with Hitler to gauge his demands and left that meeting with an agreement that he declared as having achieved “peace in our time”. That he was played for a fool has been revealed by the historical record. But a seemingly stranger meeting occurred when former King Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson, traveled to Germany to meet with Hitler. That visit was seen as a propaganda coup for the Nazis, who made sure to take many photos of the pair with Hitler and other top Nazi officials. In light of the events that followed once WWII started, the visit of Edward and Wallis Simpson was seen as a shocking national betrayal. It may have been a naive act on Edward’s part, for sure, but his desire to go and reach out to Hitler was made, in part, because of the longstanding ties between the countries of Germany and England as part of the whole Electorate of Hanover connection that dated back over two hundred years which, in turn, lead directly to the line of royal succession that caused Edward to be declared King in the first place. The second modern event that has direct ties to Handel’s “Water Music” concert on the Thames involves the most unlikely of sources, the legendary punk rock band, The Sex Pistols. In the late 1970s, The Sex Pistols released their one and only album called Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. On that album was one of punk rock’s most iconic songs, “God Save the Queen”. This song is a stinging indictment of the institution known as the Monarchy and, in particular, of the reigning Monarch at the time, Queen Elizabeth and her family. As her birthday was approaching, The Sex Pistols wanted to create a media storm in opposition to her rule by staging a live concert on a barge as it sailed down the Thames River. As they sailed, The Sex Pistols aimed to play their version of “God Save The Queen” for the citizens of London to hear. Police stopped that concert from happening. But The Sex Pistols, who always had a flair for theatrics and pageantry, didn’t come up with the idea for that concert on their own. They drew their inspiration directly from English history. And not just any historical event, either. They opted to replicate one of the most self-indulgent Monarchist moments in English history to make their point that the Monarchy is a complete waste of money and resources. *(You can read a previous post about The Sex Pistols and “God Save the Queen” here).
So there you have it. Who knew that one of classical music’s most loved and celebrated compositions had direct connections with Adolf HItler and The Sex Pistols, but there you go! “Water Music” by George Frideric Handel is really a lovely suite of music and is worthy of the praise it has received since it was first written. But, the lesson in today’s post is that the intertwining of politics, religion and the Arts often leads to all sorts of unforeseen consequences. That is certainly the case with Handel’s “Water Music”. There are many examples of art that has been created for the pure beauty of creativity and as a celebration of life. It is amazing to me to find a musical composition as beautiful as “Water Music” truly is that, because it was created on a foundation of political machinations, has evolved over time to connect to events involving war and anarchy which, to my mind, are the opposite of beauty. Be pure of heart, folks. Be pure of heart, please.
The link to the video for a performance of “Water Music” by George Frideric Handel can be found here.
The link to the official website for George Frideric Handel can be found here. ***This link takes you to a museum that offers quite a surprise! I encourage you to check this out for interest’s sake, if nothing else.
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