10 pieces of classical music inspired by water | FEATURE

By Hannah Hutchings-Georgiu

Water has long fascinated artists and composers alike, from Debussy and Ravel to Justin Bieber and Florence Welch, and has inspired some of the most memorable musical works to date. Here are our top ten examples.

1. Handel’s Water Music (1712)

If you’re a king in dire need of displaying your royal might, what better way to show it than sailing down the Thames accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra in a barge. This was King George I’s thinking in 1712, after commissioning Handel to compose his now famous suite, Water Music. Pompous, august, yet spiritedly playful, Handel’s short orchestral pieces drew crowds for miles. 

A BBC documentary has attempted to recreate Handel’s Water Music, which is available to buy via Amazon

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2. 1513: A Ship’s Opera (2013)

Just over three hundred years later, a different kind of orchestra traversed the Thames. Created and composed by Richard Wilson and Zatorski + Zatorski, ‘A Ship’s Opera’ celebrated the power and ingenuity of sea-borne vessels (instead of their once royal passengers). Using the river as a stage and Tower Bridge as a curtain, each boat made a noisy entrance. Once all boats were assembled, a volley of whistles, bells, sirens, canon and horns were released to form a cacophonous collage. 

3. Grimes on the Beach (Aldeburgh Music’s Britten 2013 Celebration)

2013 was a year of water-side celebrations. Marking the centenary of Benjamin Britten, Aldeburgh Music held its first ever production of Peter Grimes  as you’ve never seen him before, storming the very shingle beach from which Britten and George Crabbe drew their inspiration. Taking Britten’s opera to its place of origin was a stroke of genius, allowing the protagonist to drift off into the actual ocean in his final hour. It’s hard to think of a more atmospheric setting for Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ than the very coast he had in mind when composing them.

Grimes on the Beach is also available to buy on DVD

4. Bregenz Festival, Austria (annually)

In Bregenz, libretto by the lake has been a tradition since 1946. Every year, close to 200,000 spectators gather at Lake Constantia to watch world-renowned operas on the seebühne, (Bregenz’s floating stage). Rising from its waters are fantastical sets befitting epics by Verdi and Puccini. During David Pountney’s run as artistic director, the festival produced Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, complete with an unforgettably large-scale sculpture of David’s Marat murdered in his bath. The cast abseiled down his face, jumped into the water and pirouetted on his arms. This year boasts a production of Bizet’s Carmen


5. Sasha Waltz’s & Berlin State Opera’s production of Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas (premiered in 2005; performed at Sadler’s Wells in 2007)

German choreographer, Sasha Waltz, and Berlin State Orchestra came together in 2005 to produce Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Waltz’s innovative production literalised Nahum Tate’s prologue by placing a water tank on stage. Dancers swam, dived and floated to Purcell’s music, with Dido and Aeneas locked in a watery embrace.  Immersed in water, the lovers’ various fates were pronounced: adventuresome Aeneas would soon take to the ocean, whilst Dido would be left to her tearful lament.

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6. Pina Bausch and Tanztheater Wuppertal, Vollmond (Full Moon) (2006)

Pina Bausch, together with her musical collaborators Matthias Burkert and Andreas Eisenschneider, was forever drawing on natural elements in her contemporary choreography. Vollmond, memorialised in Wim Wenders’ film Pina, revels in the sexy, slippery, playful potential of water. Under a full moon, dancing lovers come alive, their lunar antics deliciously dark and disturbing. At the climax, rain pours onto the stage. The piece closes with the dancers swimming and splashing, euphorically drenched.

Bausch’s Vollmond is partially shown in Wim Wenders film ‘Pina’

7. Hélène Grimaud’s album, Water (2016)

You don’t have to look further than the title of Hélène Grimaud’s 2016 album to find its unifying feature. The album boasts water-inspired piano works by Fauré, Berio and Janácek, with interpolated ‘Transitions’ by composer Nitin Sawhney. Grimaud’s goal for the LP was to ‘highlight humanity’s dependence on our planet’s most precious resource’. Accordingly, Grimaud recorded it in a flooded auditorium or ‘an endless field of water’, as her collaborator Douglas Gordon describes it.

Helene Grimaud’s CD, Water, is available to buy. deutschegrammophon.com

Read: Review of Helene Grimaud’s CD ‘Water’

8. Joel Cahen’s ‘Wet Sounds’ (on currently)

With ‘Wet Sounds’,  Cahen takes watery sonics to a new level. His series of underwater concerts has toured various swimming pools across the globe, with its most recent showing at East London’s Ironmonger Row Baths (February 2017). Composing his own abstract music, Cahen uses speakers to create three auditory spaces: one above the water, one below its surface and the liminal space between the two. In ‘Wet Sounds’, Cahen tailors sound to space, creating an atmospheric, ‘womblike experience’ for all. Lulling, calming and strangely enlivening, ‘Wet Sounds’ will make the usual lap routine seem dull.

Wet Sounds is continuous and updates its website for future events. wetsounds.co.uk

Read: Review of Wet Sounds

Read: Interview with Joel Cahen, Founder of Wet Sounds

9. Between Music’s Aqua Sonic (Touring now)

Picture five performers submerged in glass water tanks, with specially-made instruments and an almost superhuman ability to hold their breath for large amounts of time. With the tanks lit from beneath, the performers look like reanimated anatomy specimens singing a paranormal dirge. This is Aqua Sonic, a creation from the Danish ensemble, Between Music. Premiering at Opera Dagen in 2016, it was a sell-out success, albeit an eerie, macabre one. They are touring again this April.

Between Music will perform Aqua Sonic on tour this month (April 19th-22nd) and throughout 2018. betweenmusic.dk

10. Ludovico Einaudi & Greenpeace, Elegy for the Arctic (2016)

In 2016, Greenpeace led a petition for the Arctic to be saved. The result was ‘eight million voices’ translated into the poignant piano composition of Ludovico Einaudi, aptly titled Elegy for the Artic. Placed on a platform resembling a slab of ice, Einaudi floated amongst the frozen debris and flotsam of the Arctic, appearing as overwhelmed as his viewers were. Each chord echoed against the glacial surroundings. And with every stroke of the keys, drifts of snow and ice melted into the ocean.

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