The year was 1717. Britain’s King George I wanted to create a spectacular event that would forever etch his name (and his dynasty’s) in the history books. So he turned to his good friend, and one of Europe’s most popular composers, to help him out: George Frideric Handel.
The plan was hatched: the King and company would float down the Thames on a barge from Whitehall Palace to Chelsea and back again, followed by another barge with an orchestra playing music composed just for the occasion.
It was a beautiful summer night that July 17th. At about 8 PM, King George, his entourage, and the orchestra of about 50 players began the journey down the river, buoyed by the rising tides. Contemporary accounts say the banks were lined with loyal Londoners, and the river was filled with boats following the procession. The King was delighted by the music—some reports say the orchestra had to encore Handel’s music three times at his request. In fact, the orchestra played for almost four hours, so there were certainly repeats.
Interestingly , the original score did not survive—perhaps there was water damage? A score from 1718 was discovered thirteen years ago, but a debate continues on over which movements were actually used, and in what order they were played for this floating concert. Some musicologists have even suggested that the Water Music wasn’t originally divided up into the three suites that are such concert hall standards today. Handel was a notorious recycler, often editing and reusing his pieces for other projects, so some of the pieces as we know them today, might not have even made the cut 300 years ago.
But, no matter. The response on that summer night was, both from the royalty and from the commoners, overwhelmingly positive. Handel’s Water Music is now one of our most beloved and iconic works, and King George I did indeed cement his name in the annals of time. Mission accomplished.
Tune in on Monday, July 17, as Brenda, Julia, and Mona each play a suite from Water Music—you’ll be able to revel in all of Handel’s masterpiece, sounding as vital as it did 300 years ago. You'll hear Part 3 during the 9 AM hour with Brenda; Julia will bring you Part 1 during the 1 PM hour; and Mona will round out the celebration with Part 2 during the 4 PM hour.
There are many excellent recordings of Handel’s Water Music. If you’d like to add one to your collection, you might want to consider one of these:
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has a clean, full-sound with its interpretation on the Deutsche Grammophon label.
John Eliot Gardner and the English Baroque Soloists give a robust reading.