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A Very Quick Guide to Handel's Water Music

Canaletto, Westminster Bridge from the North on Lord Mayor's Day
Canaletto, Westminster Bridge from the North on Lord Mayor's Day

A warm summer’s day in London, 1717. King George I, accompanied by a number of lavishly dressed courtiers, has just boarded the royal barge on the Thames at Whitehall. The royal party makes its way serenely upriver, carried on the tide towards their destination at Chelsea. A flotilla of boats accompanies the royal barge, for this is no ordinary expedition—from one of the craft an orchestra of fifty musicians begins to play a new piece by one of the most celebrated composers in Europe...

What’s it all about?

The music from the second barge was ‘Water Music’ by (then) German composer George Frederick Handel. The piece was commissioned by the King himself, who wanted musical entertainment on his journey. There is also a story that the whole spectacle was organised to distract attention from the King’s son (later George II), who, bored with waiting to succeed his all-too-healthy father, spent his time organising lavish parties that made him the focus of upper class society. The royal flotilla was therefore a way of reminding the population who was king.

An orchestra on a boat? Sounds like a logistic nightmare?

In contrast with Handel’s other great orchestral masterpiece, ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’, the premiere of which became a near disaster with several people injured and the stage catching fire, the day seems to have gone off without a hitch. The musicians fitted well enough onto the barge borrowed from the City of London and no-one sank, drowned or dropped their instruments into the Thames. So pleased in fact was the king that he asked for the music to be repeated a number of times, both on his trip upriver to Chelsea, and on the way back, the musicians playing from 8pm until after midnight.

What did the music consist of?

Handel’s 'Water Music' consists a series of lively orchestral movements, many of which are based upon dances such as the minuet, bourrée, hornpipe, sarabande, gigue and rigaudon. It is not clear what order these pieces were played in, but they are nowadays grouped together into three suites:

Suite no. 1 in F major (HWV 348)
1. Overture (Largo – Allegro)
2. Adagio e staccato
3. Allegro – Andante – Allegro da capo Aria
4. Passepied
5. Air
6. Minuet
7. Bourrée & Hornpipe
8. Andante

Suite no. 2 in D major (HWV 349)
1. Overture (Allegro)
2. Alla Hornpipe
3. Lentement
4. Bourrée
5. Minuet

Suite no. 3 in G major (HWV 350)
1. Sarabande
2. Rigaudon
3. Menuet
4. Gigue

That’s a lot of music. What are the best bits?

It is a lot—a complete performance lasts about an hour. All of the music is brilliantly written, full of liveliness, wit and energy, but there are definitely some movements that are more famous than others. The one most people have heard is the lively Alla Hornpipe from the Suite in D. It famously featured in the 1994 film ‘The Madness of King George’

and also as a theme tune for UK regional broadcaster, Anglia TV:

The restrained Air from the Suite in F is often heard at weddings, especially as the congregation gathers or during the signing of the registers:

The lively Bourrée, also from the Suite in F, featured as the theme music to the 90s television show The Frugal Gourmet:

Also well-known is the Hornpipe that immediately follows this movement:

Other famous movements include the Rigaudon and Menuet from suite number 3. The last movement of this suite, Gigue, was also used in a dance scene in the 2012 film ‘A Royal Affair’:

So it’s pretty famous, then!?

Certainly famous, and also, alongside Handel’s ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ his greatest orchestral piece. Alongside these appearances in popular culture the piece has been recorded countless times as well as making regular appearances in classical concerts. The pieces are also very easy to adapt for different instruments and combinations of instruments—be sure to check out our many available versions here on 8notes!

Official line: Excellent music, Herr Handel.

Out of line: It's going to be a splash hit!

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