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Handel: Water Music No. 1

Handel: Water Music No. 1


608 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2014 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Water Music No. 1 in F major, HWV 348
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns, harpsichord, strings

Composed 1717. First performance: July 17, 1717, London.

I. Overture (Largo – Allegro)
II. Adagio e staccato
III. Allegro – Andante – Allegro da capo Aria
IV. Minuet
V. Air
VI. Minuet
VII. Bourrée
VIII. Hornpipe
IX. Allegro
X. Allegro
XI. Alla Hornpipe

It’s good to be king.

But sometimes you have to remind people of the fact, especially if your heir has been stealing the spotlight. That’s the problem King George I was facing in 1717. Prince George II was enjoying widespread popularity among the people of England, throwing extravagant parties, taking a widely publicized tour through southern England, and even allowing commoners to see him dine in public (how modern!). A dramatic assassination attempt at Drury Lane Theatre only served to seal his place in the people’s hearts, and the king realized he needed to do something to remind the nation who really sat on the throne (or so it was rumored… naturally, the monarch would never admit to such motives).

And so at 8pm on Wednesday, July 17, 1717, the most impressive public event in recent memory was produced along the River Thames. King George I and members of his court left Whitehall Palace and boarded a lavishly-decorated barge. Over fifty musicians were stationed on another nearby barge under the leadership of George Frideric Handel. As the tide rose, it took both barges upstream, displaying the grandeur of the royal court to thousands of Londoners who had gathered along the banks to catch a glimpse of the procession. The Prussian consul reported that the river itself was so crowded that “the number of barges and above all of boats filled with people desirous of hearing was beyond counting.” Naturally, it wouldn’t do to have such an extravaganza displayed to the sound of familiar tunes, so the entire spectacle was accompanied by the soundtrack of Handel’s newly-composed Water Music.

The music was an instant hit. The musicians continued to perform the movements of Handel’s new work continually throughout the three hour trip to Chelsea and the return trip after dinner, and it is said that the king enjoyed the music so much that he ordered it to be played again each time it concluded.

Water Music is a work as unique as the circumstances of its premiere. Without modern amplification technology, there was no way that a normal-sized orchestra could be heard in such a venue, so Handel scored the work for an enormous ensemble by contemporary standards. The work itself seems to have consisted of over twenty movements lasting more than an hour. However, this version of the score was never published. The earliest reliable version of the piece is a transcription for solo harpsichord by Handel’s copyist, John Christopher Smith, dating to the early 1720s. This arrangement divides the piece into three separate suites and, in an orchestrated version from 1788, has come to be the version accepted as standard today.

The music itself makes it clear that Handel had adapted quite nicely to his new home in England after moving from Germany. Gone are the North German seriousness and Italian delicacy of his earlier work. Hornpipes, airs, and the robust rhythms of English folk dances emerge naturally from the music as though he’d been hearing them his whole life, with hints of Purcell lingering in the background. It doesn’t take a musicologist to understand the immediate popularity of the work, and the catchy melodies have been employed over the years to accompany everything from The Frugal Gourmet to nighttime spectaculars at Walt Disney World.

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