Handel’s Water Music Celebrates Its 300th Anniversary

For a great water party that was to take place on a July evening in 1717, King George I wanted a barge full of some 50 musicians to travel alongside his royal barge as it sailed on the River Thames from Whitehall to Chelsea. Upon arrival at Chelsea, the royal party was entertained at Ranelagh House (built in 1688-89 by the then late Richard Jones, 1st Earl of Ranelagh), where they had supper until early in the morning of the next day.

George I had been monarch for nearly three years, but Handel had yet to compose works specifically for him. Here was the opportunity to flatter the King with music that has since found its place among Handel’s most well-known and beloved compositions, the Water Music suites. Indeed, the King was exceedingly pleased.

The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day, circa 1746, by Giovanni Antonio Canal “Canaletto” (1697-1765)

The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day, circa 1746, by Giovanni Antonio Canal “Canaletto” (1697-1765)

Two contemporary chronicles give us a good sense of the experience of the water party on July 17, 1717 [yes, that’s the palindromic 7-17-1717 by our modern American style date convention]:

“On Wednesday evening, at about 8, the King took Water at Whitehall in an open Barge, wherein were also the Duchess of Bolton, the Duchess of Newcastle, the Countess of Godolphin, Madam Kilmanseck, and the Earl of Orkney. And went up the river to 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.”

“The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel, a native of Halle, and His Majesty’s principal Court Composer. His Majesty approved of it so greatly that he caused it to be repeated three times in all. The weather that evening was all that could be desired for the festivity, the number of barges and of boats filled with people desirous of hearing was beyond counting. In order to make this entertainment the more exquisite, a choice supper had been arranged in the late Lord Ranalagh’s villa at Chelsea on the river, where the King went at one in the morning. He left at three o’clock and returned to St. James’ Palace at about half past four.”

The Water Music suites, as we know them today, are collections of mostly dance movements—preceded by typical “overture” introductions—and draw on English, French, German, and Italian compositional styles. Handel cleverly included a number of nautically related dance movements for the King’s waterborne entertainment, in particular the hornpipe and rigaudon. The hornpipe was a dance that appeared in a variety of meters ( 3/2, 4/4, 9/4, or 9/8 ) and was characterized by stereotypical gestures that depicted raucous sailor antics or basic sailing activities such as looking out to sea (with alternating hands to the forehead), etc. The rigaudon was similar to a bourrée with its quarter-note upbeat, but was played at a much quicker pace with rhythmically simple phrases of even bar lengths; overall, quite straightforward.

While there is substantial documentation of the barge excursion, no complete autograph score of the music survives. It is only through reconstruction and a process of unediting the various contemporary (meaning, from Handel’s time) arrangements of the music that we can cull accurate and logical materials from which to assemble the three distinct suites in the keys of F major (for horns, oboes, bassoon, and strings), D major (for trumpets, horns, oboes, bassoon, and strings), and G major (for recorder, flute, and strings). Friedrich Chrysander (1826-1901), the editor of the first complete edition of Handel’s works, preferred to organize them in just two suites, combining the music in D major and G major into one set.

In consideration of these points, there may well be no absolutely correct order in which the various movements of Water Music must be played; rather, almost any combination of movements will suffice. But a deeper look at the sources supports the order of movements that is usually presented in concerts. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge houses a full score of the Water Music that, although it has no inscribed date, clearly had been made in Handel’s lifetime, but probably without his authority. In 1743 John Walsh published an edition of that music, arranged for harpsichord solo, that contains all but two movements from the full score in Cambridge. The movements follow the same order as the full score. Therefore, it seems logical that something resembling today’s version of Water Music must have existed by no later than the 1740s.

But most music historians agree that the entirety of the Water Music was probably not originally conceived as three (or even two) independent suites. Rather, the almost identical order of movements found in the few manuscript (not autograph) sources presents a completely agreeable progression of keys and tonal centers in a way that supports the notion that all of the suites were assembled by Handel with a deliberate contiguousness in mind. The music in F major (including horns) ends with a substantial concerto grosso style movement—featuring the oboes and bassoon as soloists—in D minor (the “relative minor” key to F major), which would have progressed easily and logically to the grand music in D major, featuring trumpets. And the D Major portion, while employing trumpets all the way through the final movement (a bourrée), nevertheless does calm down, so to speak, and again easily transitions to the key of G major. Some hypothesize that the delicate texture of the music in G major (and G minor) would have been appropriate only for an indoor setting—its gentle orchestration for strings with flauto traverso and recorder (two rather quiet instruments) would hardly have been audible at the distance between the King’s barge and the musicians’ barge—and accordingly may have been performed either before or during the dinner at Ranelagh.

There is no evidence that the Water Music as presented by Handel in 1717 ever had a reprise performance during his lifetime. However, Handel did arrange the first two movements of the D major portion—an Allegro and a Hornpipe—as a two-movement concerto that had its first performance nearly six years later on March 20, 1723, in London’s Drury Lane Theatre. That transcribed version is in F major, and replaces the trumpets of the Water Music version with horns. The existence of that music has tempted performers—including us!—to include those two movements as a kind of “encore” added finale to the music in F major, altogether more satisfying than ending the F major/D minor organization without them.

Several movements from the Water Music have become as popular and recognizable as any among the top hits from the Baroque era. The endearingly loping stride of the Air, the perkiness of the Bourrée, and uncontainable vivacity of the Hornpipe have brought smiles to the faces of listeners for ages.

© Jeffrey Thomas, 2017