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Handel: “Water Music”

What exactly “Handel’s Celebrated Water Music” is, or was, is a question to which there are no certain answers. Royal barge progresses -in which the King, usually surrounded by ladies of material (and sometimes corporeal) substance, met the ships of visiting dignitaries, or traveled up- or down- river on holiday trips -were common in England under George I, and he delighted in having his musicians present to lend the necessary circumstance to such events.

The best documented of the water musics was heard on 17 July 1717, during a festivity described in the newspaper as follows:

On Wednesday Evening, at about 8, the King took Water at Whitehall in an open Barge, wherein were also the Duchess of Newcastle, the Countess of Godolphin, Madam Kilmanseck, and the Earl of Orkney. And went up the River towards Chelsea. Many other Barges with 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 (while the Barges drove with the Tide without Rowing, as far as Chelsea) the finest Symphonies, compos’d express for this Occassion, by Mr. Handel; which his Majesty liked so well, that he caused it to be plaid over three times in going and returning. At Eleven, his majesty went ashore at Chelsea, where a Supper was prepar’d, and then there was another very fine Consort of Musick, which lasted till 2; after which, his Majesty came again into his Barge, and return’d the same Way, the Musick continuing to play till he landed.

(The record does not show whether the doubtless exhausted players got a good meal and a few days off after this night-long service on behalf of the Royal Pleasure.)

Some years later, the publisher John Walsh, anxious to make a quick quinea, began to sell suites of what he called The celebrated Water Musick, and to include bits and pieces so designated in other collections. It appears, in short, that we are dealing here with three different suites organized by similarity of key and instrumental force; the three suites have been tentatively associated with river journeys of August 1715, the July 1717 evening, and April 1736, respectively. Even so, it is not always clear exactly how the movements are to be ordered. Thus the Water Music can be constructed in a variety of fashions, and the list of movements given above is but one of several possible solutions. A juicy and romantic version of the Water Music for full orchestra became popular some decades ago, and that most inauthentic of versions is still to be heard in the concert hall.

The First Suite begins with a brilliant French overture. Among the dances which follow are the famous Allegro with French horns in 3/4 (mvt. 3), which because of the scoring and the echoes has an appropriately nautical lilt, and the lovely air with dotted rhythms (mvt. 6), now as traditional at weddings as the marches of Wagner and Mendelssohn. The Second Suite has trumpets as well as te horns and oboes, and contains (as did the First), a fine hornpipe -that somewhat rustic dance generally associated with sailors at play. The Third Suite is more tranquil, with solo work for transverse flute and piccolo recorder. Nearly all the dance in the Water Music are glad-hearted and majestic, as befits a kingly evening out.

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