Water Music

On Wednesday Evening [17 July 1717] at about 8, the King took Water at Whitehall in an open Barge… And went up the River towards Chelsea. Many other… Persons of Quality attended, and so great a Number of Boats, that the whole River in a manner was cover’d; a City Company’s Barge was employ’d for the Musick, wherein were 50 Instruments of all sorts, who play’d all the way from Lambeth… the finest Symphonies, compos’d express for this Occasion, by Mr Handel; which his Majesty liked so well, that he caus’d it to be plaid over three times in going and returning.
Daily Courant

After his accession in 1714, George I wanted to cement the Hanoverian line into British history. He needed a large, spectacular occasion to impress his English subjects. He turned to Handel for help, and requested a concert to be performed while he travelled down the Thames. Thus, Handel composed Water Music for this occasion. On 17 July 1717, Water Music premiered on a royal barge travelling from Whitehall Palace to Chelsea. At 8pm, the King and his companions boarded a royal barge propelled by the rising tide. The City of London provided a larger barge for about fifty musicians, who played Water Music until midnight with only one break when the king went ashore at Chelsea. The king loved the piece so much that he demanded it be played at least three times during the trip. It is said that on this night the Thames was filled with boats and the banks were packed with Londoners desperately wanting to listen to Handel’s performance.

The earliest available score is from 1718, which was rediscovered in 2004; before this scholars relied on scores from the 1730s. Because the original score has not survived, musicologists have had to look to these later versions of the score to ascertain its form and instrumentation; they are all slightly different. In fact, the way in which the 22 movements have been split into 3 suites, has led to some argument that perhaps the suites are for 3 separate water parties, suggesting that they were not all played for the King in 1717.

There is also debate as to whether the 22 movements were actually separated into suites at all for the first performance and it is also possible that some of the 22 movements were added later. In truth, Handel wrote most of his music to only be performed once, as was the baroque norm, and he famously edited, re-constructed and tailored his compositions at later dates to suit subsequent occasions. Therefore it is difficult to tell exactly what the King heard from his royal barge in 1717. This is particularly exhibited through the wealth of differing recordings and scores that have been produced for Water Music over the years.

It is generally accepted that Water Music is made up of 3 Suites:

Suite in F Major
(HWV 348)Overture (Largo-Allegro)
Adagio e staccato
Allegro-Andante-Allegro da Capo
Suite in D Major (HWV 349)Overture (Allegro)
Alla Hornpipe
Suite in G Major
(HWV 350)Allegro

It was written for a very large orchestra probably made up of flutes and recorders, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, horns, violins, violas, cellos and bass. The orchestra, made up of around 50 players, was so large because the sound had to carry across the busy Thames river and because the first performance was on a boat, there is no harpsichord scored for Water Music at all.

Among the 22 movements of Water Music, there are fast and vivacious Bourées, graceful Minuets in 3/4 and 2 Hornpipes that form lively country dances in triple meter. Handel calls upon the rhythmic and energetic French style, the lively and dynamic English country dance style and the rich Italian string style to offer a varied and engaging programme of music; all within one piece!

‘Alla Hornpipe’ is perhaps the most famous movement of Handel’s Water Music and is a very good example of the loud and pompous nature of the piece with piercing trumpet fanfares and jubilant strings.

Suggested recording:

LE CONCERT DES NATIONS, directed by Jordi Saval, Haendel: Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, 1993