On Wednesday 17 July 1717, in the evening, there occurred in London a royal event of great splendour. King George I and a large gathering of the English nobility boarded open barges on the river Thames at Whitehall and sailed up river to Chelsea, where they took supper. Such was the success of the evening that the party did not leave until three o’clock in the morning, the King arriving back at St James’s Palace at about half-past four. One of the river barges (according to a report in the Daily Courant of 19 July) ‘was employ’d for the Musick, wherein were 50 instruments of all sorts who play’d... the finest Symphonies, compos’d express for this Occasion, by Mr Hendel: which his Majesty liked so well, that he caus’d it to be plaid over three times in going and returning’. The Prussian Resident in London, Friedrich Bonet, also reported the event privately to his masters in Berlin and gave more information about the music. The instruments employed included trumpets, horns (‘cors de chasse’), oboes, bassoons, German (transverse) flutes, French flutes (recorders), violins and basses, and each of the three performances lasted an hour. These details leave little doubt that what the royal party heard that evening was the suite of movements that soon became known as Handel’s Water Music.
Bonet also noted that the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King George II and Queen Caroline) took no part in the festivities — a reminder that the event had
considerable political significance. For some time a rift had been developing between the King and the Prince. By 1717 the Prince had gained several influential followers and was able to command sufficient support in Parliament to be a serious hindrance to the King’s ministers. In consequence the King cancelled plans for a visit to Hanover in the summer and instead decided to display himself more conspicuously to his subjects than had previously been his custom. The party on the Thames, held two days after Parliament had risen for the summer recess, was the prelude to three months of festive activity, mainly marked by a series of lavish receptions at Hampton Court.
The provision of the Water Music may have been Handel’s way of showing that in the conflict between the King and the Prince of Wales his first loyalty was to the King — an important gesture, for at Hanover Handel had been a particular favourite of the Prince and Princess. No attempt to publish the Water Music seems to have been made at the time of its original performance — Handel may have wished to keep the work to himself — but the music that had given so much pleasure to the King could hardly be forgotten. Within a few years it was to be heard frequently in London’s concert halls and theatres.
In 1725 Handel’s publisher Walsh included the Water Music overture (in F major) in his Third Collection of Handel’s overtures — the first appearance of any of the music in print — and arrangements of several movements were included in a collection of Handel’s minuets published by Walsh in 1729. In 1734 Walsh issued a set of orchestral parts for what he called the ‘Celebrated Water Musick’, but in fact the publication contained only about half the movements. A complete version of the suite in the form of a transcription for solo harpsichord was issued by Walsh in
1743. Arnold’s edition of 1788 was the first to present all the numbers in full score. This erratic publication history, coupled with the unfortunate loss of the original autographs, leaves several aspects of the Water Music open to question. Contemporary manuscript copies suggest solutions to some problems, but their evidence is sometimes contradictory.
Any further discussion must begin with an attempt to clarify how the Water Music came to be composed. Though the Daily Courant and Bonet both say that Handel wrote the music specifically for the water party of 1717 it seems probable that some parts of it had been composed earlier for other purposes. It is difficult to believe, for example, that the overture, with its delicate writing for two solo violins, could have been conceived with outdoor performance in mind. The Water Music may have started life as two independent orchestral suites or concertos scored for woodwind and strings only. In 1717 Handel could simply have combined these and added the movements with horns and trumpets, which are obviously suited to outdoor performance.
The music itself provides a brilliant conspectus of the full range of Handel’s style in the period of his first opera for England. As ‘occasional’ music combining quality with immediate appeal it was not rivalled until Handel provided his Music for the Royal Fireworks of 1749. It seems that Handel, always ready to exploit a new orchestral effect, introduced French horns into an English orchestra for the first time in the Water Music, immediately perceiving how to make the best use both of the bright F horns — on their own, in conjunction with the oboes — and of the lower pitched D horns — reinforcing the trumpets or antiphonally echoing them. The very English ‘Country Dance’, with the main tune presented in the middle of the harmony, is a charming tribute to the country in which he chose to settle, and like all the tunes in the suite cannot now be heard without happily evoking Hanoverian England in its most genial aspects. -- Anthony Hicks
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