This week, in 1722, an audience at London’s Stationers’ Hall first heard the now-famous Baroque suite commissioned for a king’s ceremonial boat ride on the River Thames. WRTI's Meridee Duddleston listens to Handel’s Water Music...in winter.
Born in Germany, George Frideric Handel moved to Britain as a young man and spent his most productive years there. He enjoyed the favor of the German-born King George I, and became a naturalized British subject in his early 40s. Handel's Water Music stands alongside his Messiah and Music for the Royal Fireworks as the best-known works of a composer who went from operas to oratorios.
DUDDLESTON: Music is a living thing. Along with a conductor’s interpretation, the performance of a composition reflects the sensibilities of the times. A work can also grow in influence far beyond what it enjoyed during a composer’s lifetime. Water Music, so associated with George Frideric Handel, probably wasn’t an 18th-century blockbuster.
ZOHN: It would have been regarded at the time as kind of a relatively minor, obscure work by Handel. Nothing like it is today, where it’s one of Handel’s big hits.
DUDDLESTON: Temple University Music History Professor Steven Zohn, an expert on Baroque music, says King George I liked the hour-long work so well that he had the musicians play it three times. But five years later, when it was performed inside, no program survived; whether the audience heard all or just parts remains murky.
ZOHN: There was no full score for a long time. And, probably, Handel just kind of kept it close to his vest, you know, not wanting to let it out –because perhaps he had other ideas of how it could be used.
DUDDLESTON: Later, during Handel’s lifetime, the 22 movements in the original single sequence were grouped together by key and instrumentation. And today, parts have played a role in television, movies, and advertisements. But Zohn says an undated score discovered in London in 2004 reinforces that Handel first conceived the work as a single composition to accompany one long, languorous cruise down the river.