Picture it: a long, narrow barge sailing down a river, with an orchestra playing on it, on its way to surprise the king. It sounds like something from a fairy tale, but it really happened. George Frideric Handel wrote some special music for King George I, hired 50+ musicians, and took it to him in this very special way.
As it happened, the new King George had been Handel’s employer in Germany and had given Handel a year’s leave of absence to learn English in London. However, Handel ended up staying in England for three years — until his former employer became king, in fact. Concerned that there might be some awkwardness about his having skipped town, Handel wrote his “Water Music” and brought a bargeful of music alongside King George’s boat in hopes that the king would be understanding — or at least distracted.
My Name is Handel tells the story of how Handel became a favorite English composer, even though he was born in Germany. The London Philharmonic plays Handel’s beautiful music beautifully, and the narration tells the story not only of Handel’s sojourn in London, but also of Handel’s opera Rinaldo. There is a discussion of Handel’s music, plus a song that begins “My name is Handel,” complete with a singalong version, and a recording of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah. There is also an alternative explanation of Handel’s lengthy visit to London.
Along with the recording there is a nicely illustrated pamphlet with a lot of useful resources:
- a brief biography of Handel
- the composition of an orchestra in Handel’s day (check out Artsedge’s Perfect Pitch interactive activity to learn about the orchestra at different periods of time)
- drawings of the churches where Handel played, including the one where he was buried, Westminster Abbey
- sheet music to “My Name is Handel”
- information about the harpsichord and organ, instruments which will be less familiar to students than the piano
- a timeline of the trip of “Water Music” down the river
- information about transportation at the time
Handel had an interesting life, and the “Water Music” episode is certainly very interesting. Handel, Who Knew What He Liked is our favorite book about Handel for kids, unfortunately out of print, but you might be able to find it in your library.
The entire recording fills a complete academic hour, and you won’t want to listen just once straight through during music class and be finished. Here’s a suggested lesson plan for using My Name is Handel in your classroom.
- Ask whether anyone is familiar with the Hallelujah Chorus — many will be, if only with the opening bars. Ask whether anyone knows who composed it.
- Listen to the story. Ask students to tell their parents about this unusual event.
- Read a little more biographical information about Handel to older students. You can hear some more music at that link, too. Ask students to retell the story of “Water Music.” Ask older students to research the question of why Handel really went to London and decide which story they find more convincing.
- Have students draw the barges on the Thames. Visit Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant and Barges to get an idea of what these boats might have looked like. Once students have finished their designs, have them fold the paper so that the bottom of the barge is on the fold, and cut out the boat. Partially close the ends of the barge with tape, and let the boats sail on a river of blue plastic wrap. Play “Water Music” while students work on their boats.
- Listen to the section called “About the Music.” Have students create word cards for the special musical terms they learn, such as “overture.” Individually or in groups, students can write definitions to match the new words they’ve learned. Have older students practice note taking.
- Learn and sing the song “My Name is Handel,” using the singalong track. This will help student recognize the “Hornpipe” from “Water Music.”
For older students, consider these writing prompts:
- Handel had money troubles throughout much of his life, and the businesses he was associated with failed a number of times. Yet he was an exceptional composer and a hard worker, and he had many opportunities and successes in his lifetime and continues to be one of the most celebrated musicians in the world. Write some business or financial advice for Handel.
- The story goes that the King of England, upon hearing Messiah for the first time, was so moved that he stood up during the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Since no one was allowed to sit in the presence of the king unless he was sitting too, everyone in the audience had to stand up as well. Many people still stand during this piece of music. What pieces of music make you feel that way, and why?
- A Diamond Jubilee Pageant is planned on the River Thames for June 3rd, 2012. This is part of the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. Read the information about how to register your boat for this event, and write an essay explaining why your (perhaps imaginary) vessel should be considered.