Movement 1: Ouverture: Largo – Allegro
Movement 2: Adagio e staccato
Movement 3: [Allegro] – Andante – [Allegro]
Movement 4: [Menuet]
Movement 5: Air
Movement 6: Menuet
Movement 7: Bourrée
Movement 8: Hornpipe
Movement 9: [Andante]
Movement: Allegro in F
At about eight in the evening the King repaired to his barge. Next to the King’s barge was that of the musicians, about 50 in number—trumpets, cors de chasse [horns], oboes, bassoons, German flutes [traverse flutes], French flutes [recorders], violins and basses, but no singers. The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel, a native of Halle and his Majesty’s principal Court composer. His Majesty’s approval of it was so great that he caused it to be played three times in all, twice before and once after supper, even though each performance lasted an hour. The evening was as fine as could be desired for this occasion and the number of barges and boats full of people wanting to listen was beyond counting. In order to make this entertainment the more exquisite, Madam de Kilmanseck had arranged a choice supper at the late Lord Ranelagh’s villa on the river at Chelsea, where the King went at one in the morning. He left at three o’clock and returned to St James’s at about half past four. The concert cost Baron Kilmanseck £150 for the musicians alone.
The Daily Courant reported similar details of this extravagant event two days later. One barge ‘was employ’d for the Musick, wherein were 50 instruments of 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’.
There can be little doubt from these two sources that the assembled company heard the collection of movements which was in due course to become known as Handel’s Water Music.
1717 was a bad year for the English monarchy. A rift between George I and his son (the future George II) was escalating: Bonet noted in his diary that the son and his wife, the future Queen Caroline, were conspicuously absent from the water party. The elder George appears to have attempted to cover the growing rift by increasing his public profile with a series of summer events, many held at Hampton Court. Thus his vast water party of July 1717, the largest recorded and held just two days after Parliament had risen for the summer recess, seems to fit this plan. (The dispute eventually rumbled on until November, when a major quarrel resulted in the ejection of the Prince of Wales from the King’s palace.)
Though both Bonet and The Daily Courant suggest that Handel wrote music especially for the water party, it is possible that some movements were recycled from earlier works. Scholars have suggested that the Water Music may even have started life as two orchestral suites or concertos, to which Handel added movements with horns and trumpets. No autograph manuscript survives, but the work re-emerged in a variety of forms and performances in London over the next thirty years. But published editions were elusive: Walsh’s parts for the ‘Celebrated Water Musick’ of 1734 contained only around half the movements, although he published a transcription for harpsichord in 1743. It was only in 1788 that Arnold presented all the movements in full score. So it is to two manuscript harpsichord transcriptions from the early 1720s, one by Handel’s faithful copyist J C Smith the Elder, that we have turned to try to gain the most likely original performing order.
Handel’s scoring is especially colourful. The inclusion of two baroque horns presents the first known instance of Handel writing in London for the instruments. He holds them in reserve during the Ouverture (whose ‘indoor’ scoring, especially in its concertino grouping of two solo violins and the glorious oboe solo of the Adagio e staccato, suggests that these sections may well have been recycled by Handel), but thereafter they establish themselves as the dominant instrumental colour of the F major Suite. Handel is nonetheless careful to rest both the ear of the listener and the lips of the players from too much of the horn sound; some of this ‘intervening’ music is especially delicious. The contrast of wind trio against tutti strings in the Andante, capped by the colour of high bassoons used as a tenor instrument, produces glorious sonorities, and the sparing use of the horns to form a descant to the now famous Air presents another remarkable colour. Two brief dance movements, a Bourrée and a Hornpipe, with their instruction ‘three times’, allow tutti strings to contrast with an ‘outdoor’ wind band before Handel produces another lyrical ‘link’ movement. Although the function of this movement is to modulate from F major to the trumpet’s D major, Handel produces some of the most ravishing of all his instrumental writing—the now-gentle winds contrast with strings, and both are complemented with the colour, once again, of high bassoons.
The D major Trumpet Suite is, not just by its scoring but also by its extrovert nature, much more suited to outdoor performance, contrasting lively movements such as the Hornpipe and the Bourrée with more stately dances such as the Menuet and the Lentement. That could hardly be said for the G major Flute Suite, whose movements come interspersed with those of the Trumpet Suite. The Flute Suite’s predominantly delicate textures suggest that the musicians’ barge must have been moored very close to that of the King. Here there are wonderfully inventive pieces of writing and varied orchestrations: the delicate scoring of the flutes’ Menuet, the insistently lively rhythms of the Rigaudon (with its prominent upbeat, borrowed from its French origins), the scoring of two highly contrasted movements for flauto piccolo (soprano recorder)—one almost Viennese in its delicious poise, the other, the first Country Dance, fast and lively, and a vehicle for Handel’s recorder player to show his virtuosity—and, a trick which still never fails to bring a broad smile to the faces of both players and audiences, the gutsy scoring of the second Country Dance, with bassoons, second violins and violas giving their rustic best in a splendid imitation of English folk music.
A large orchestra was present on the musicians’ barge at Chelsea in 1717. There would clearly have been a good-size string section, but Handel’s music seems also to demand a substantial wind presence, especially for the dance movements where the winds engage in dialogue with the strings. The sound of a baroque wind band, with nine or ten reed players, produces a magnificent sonority, both on its own and in binding the tuttis. Similarly, a colourful continuo presence on the river seems equally right. The rhythmic impetus of a pair of baroque guitars—an instrument far more favoured in baroque times than is sometimes assumed—combined with the colours of two harpsichords lends the music a vital danceband-like rhythm section, much in keeping with the King’s colourful intentions for his evening’s entertainment!
from notes by Robert King © 1997