Handel’s Water Music – 300 Years in the Charts

July 17th 2017 marks the 300th anniversary of the first performance of Handel’s famous Water Music. The orchestral suites were written for a party on the Thames river in London, held by King George I, in 1717.

 

The music consists of the Suite in F major (HWV 348), Suite in D major (HWV 349) and Suite in G major (HWV 350). However, although many of the pieces became instant hits throughout London, none of them were published at the time. Extensive research by Samuel Arnold led to a 1788 edition of nineteen pieces that is generally accepted as the authoritative Water Music, but the original structure is unclear.

One of the best-known and most frequently performed movements is the Alla Hornpipe from the D major suite:

George Frideric Handel is known today for many compositions, and for his role as a court composer. Born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, he is one of the foremost composers of the Baroque era.

But he should never have been a composer in the first place.

Handel was born at a time when music and the arts flourished only in the highest echelons of society. His grandfather was a coppersmith, his grandmother was the daughter of a coppersmith. Handel’s own father was a barber, and his mother was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. Handel went to the gymnasium school in Halle. A gymnasium in the German education system is a selective school for the gifted. The headmaster at the school Johann Praetorius, was passionate about music, but many of Handel’s biographers record that he was withdrawn from the school because his father was implacably opposed to music education.

In fact, Georg Handel was alarmed by his son’s interest in music that he took every step to oppose it, even banning musical instruments in the house and forbidding Handel from visiting any house where they might be found. There is a story that Handel found a way to sneak a small clavichord into the attic of the house, and he would steal away to play it when the family were asleep. This tale is unsubstantiated, but for the fact that Handel was able to play the keyboard well enough to come to the notice of Duke Johann Adolf, who on hearing Handel play the church organ, persuaded his father to let him have music lessons.

 It’s quite incredible given this unpromising start that Handel is still a household name.

His Water Music was written for King George I of England. It consists of three orchestral suites, and was first performed on barges on the Thames. Its first performance as an integral part of a massive Royal shindig, was reported in Britain’s first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant.

The party was possibly an attempt by King George to win popularity (for various reasons, including a serious economic crisis in 1720, his refusal or inability to learn English and rumours about the treatment of his wife, the King was not well liked), and he turned to Handel to help him impress.

In 1710, Handel had worked as Kapellmeister to the German Prince George; the same Prince George who in 1714 became King of Great Britain and Ireland. Handel had left Germany to settle in England full time, which had angered Prince George at the time.

However, the Water Music is said to have allowed a reconciliation between King George and Handel. It was rumoured that the success of the music enabled the King to regain some of the London spotlight back from his son, Prince George, who was throwing lavish parties and dinners. The Prince did not get on with his father – a resentment that possibly began when King George dissolved his marriage to the young George’s mother due to ‘abandonment’, which meant that the children never saw their mother again (though the King did his best to ensure that his son had more choice when he was himself to be married).

The Courant records that at about 8pm on Wednesday, July 17th 1717, King George I boarded a royal barge at Whitehall Palace, along with several aristocrats, for an excursion up the Thames towards Chelsea.

A second barge, provided by the City of London, carried around 50 musicians who performed Handel’s music. Many other Londoners also took to the river to hear the concert.

According to the Courant, “the whole River in a manner was covered” with boats and barges.

The king enjoyed the music so much, he asked the musicians to play the suites at least three times over the course of the trip, both on the way up to Chelsea and on the return journey, with the orchestra playing from around 8pm until well after midnight.

In 2009 the BBC aired a documentary showing an ambitious reconstruction of the performance, with the Water Music played by musicians of the English Consort in full period costume.


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