Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: about 60 minutes
Genre: Suite (usually divided into 3 suites)
Time of Creation: probably 1715–1717
World Premiere: July 17, 1717

Table of Contents

Handel's Water Music in 5 Sentences

George Frideric Handel’s Water Music was written to accompany a pleasure cruise by the English King George I on the Thames. Its character is correspondingly representative: it consists of 21 dances and an overture, which are often combined into three suites. Royal instruments such as trumpets, horns (supposedly George I’s favorite instruments) and probably timpani (not written down in the original) dominate the orchestration. Not only George I was enthusiastic about Handel’s Water Music, but also the entire English nation, so that Handel later reworked the work for use in the concert hall.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Handel's Water Music

Highlight 1: Suite 1, No. 3

A performance of Handel’s Water Music requires one thing above all: devilishly good horn players. Many passages of the roughly hour-long work are really not easy, certainly not when played on period instruments. A famous example is No. 3 from the first suite:

Highlight 2: Suite 1, Bourrée

This is an example of one of the many court dances in Handel’s Water Music. The bourrée was a fast dance that became popular throughout Europe starting in mid-17th century France. You can also hear the prominent role played by the wind instruments:

Highlight 3: Suite 2, No. 1

To our ears today, the second suite might be the one that sounds most “royal”. Famous, for example, is the first number, in which trumpets and horns engage in a dialogue:

Highlight 4: Suite 3, Conclusion

The third suite ends with music often referred to as “country dance” because of its somewhat coarse character:

3 Questions and Answers about Handel's Water Music

Question 1: How many movements does Water Music have?

Water Music consists of 21 dance movements and an overture. The individual movements are usually divided into three suites.

Question 2: Where was Handel's Water Music first performed?

Handel’s Water Music was first performed on the River Thames, where the English King George I took a pleasure cruise on a boat.

Question 3: What is special about the Water Music?

Since Water Music was premiered on a river, Handel had to prescribe a strong orchestration with loud instruments: The premiere featured horns, trumpets, timpani (not noted in the original) and a total of 50 musicians. Handel’s Water Music is also the earliest known English piece in which traverse flutes were used.

2 Recommended Recordings of Handel's Water Music

Recording 1: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (Studio, 1985)

With works from the Baroque period, it is always very exciting to compare older recordings with newer ones. This has to do with the fact that so-called “historical informed performance practice” has only become more popular in recent decades.

In historical informed performance practice, one tries to perform music with the means that were available at the time of its creation – that is, with historical instruments and historical playing techniques. In this way, one wants to make it possible to experience how the music sounded in the “original”.

One recording, for example, that does not use the means of historical informed performance practice is that of the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Riccardo Muti.

Recording 2: Akademie für alte Musik Berlin (Live, 2016)

Compare Muti’s interpretation with the performance of the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin. Here the musicians play on period instruments. You will surely notice right away how different the sound is:

1 Quote about Handel's Water Music

On Wednesday Evening, at about 8, the King took Water at Whitehall in an open Barge, wherein were Dutchess of Bolton, The Dutchess of New Castle, the Countess of Godolphin, Madam Kilmaseck, and the Earl of Orkney. And went up the River towards Chelsea. Many other of Barges with Person of Quiatly attended, and so the great Number of Boats, that the whole River in a manner was couver’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 Occasion, by Mr Hendel: which his Majesty liked so well, that he caus’d it to be plaind over three times in going and returning.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Larry Simons

    Is “Person of Quiatly” an accurate quote?

    1. Jonathan Stark

      Hi Larry, thanks for your sharp eye! 🙂 I can find several versions of this in several sources…”Person of Quiatly”, “Person of Quietly”, “Person of Quality”. This is quite often the case with sources that date back to a time when spelling and grammar were not standardized yet.

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