Composer: George Frederic Handel (1685-1759)

Piece:  Alla Hornpipe from The Water Music

Date: 1717

Form: Baroque Suite

Structure: AABA (Binary Form)

In the sixteenth century, instrumentalists played a good deal of dance music. Dances became an important and popular diversion in courtly life, and the dancing master was considered to be equal to the court musician or the chapel singer.

When instrumentalists were asked to play music for non-dancing occasions, they often naturally resorted to playing the dance music they knew so well. As the 17th century wore on demand for instrumental music grew, and instrumentalists began to collect groups of dances, all in the same key.

These groups of dances, eventually known as "suites", began to be published sometime during the middle of the century. Suites of this time might have anywhere from five to twenty-five different dances, and were not necessarily intended to be played in their entirety. Instead, instrumentalists would select dances from a suite and play them in whatever order they wanted.

By the time of Handel the suite consisted of four standard movements, plus several other optional ones, including the hornpipe. Each of the standard movements is based upon a dance type from a different country. Also, each of these movement types has different metrical and rhythmic characteristics, and a distinct mood. The basic movements of the Baroque Suite were allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. Composers would then add other movements, such as the menuet, hornpipe, gavotte, air, bouree, polonaise, and prelude, to complement these basic movements.

Instrumental suites were played by a variety of instruments: many were written for keyboard (mostly the harpsichord), but suites for solo lute were also popular. Some suites were written for groups of instruments equivalent to our modern orchestra. Both Bach and Handel wrote many such suites.