Handel’s Water Music is made up of three orchestral suites, and was written 300 years ago for an outdoor performance for King George I on the Thames.
The suites are pretty easy on the ear and jauntily life-affirming. Exactly the sort of music you would like to waft you down the River Thames if you were a king with the weight of government on your shoulders; in fact, the king enjoyed the music so much, he asked the musicians to play the suites three times over the course of the trip down the river. The 1st performance of the Water Music suites is recorded in the The Daily Courant, the first British daily newspaper.
At about 8 p.m. on Wednesday, 17 July 1717, King George I and several aristocrats boarded a royal barge at Whitehall Palace, for an excursion up the Thames toward Chelsea. The rising tide propelled the barge upstream without rowing. Another barge, provided by the City of London, contained about 50 musicians who performed Handel’s music. Many other Londoners also took to the river to hear the concert. According to The Courant, “the whole River in a manner was covered” with boats and barges. On arriving at Chelsea, the king left his barge, then returned to it at about 11 p.m. for the return trip.
The king was so pleased with the Water Music that he ordered it to be repeated at least three times, both on the trip upstream to Chelsea and on the return, until he landed again at Whitehall. King George’s companions in the royal barge included Anne Vaughan, the Duchess of Bolton; the Duchess of Newcastle the Duke of Kingston; the Countess of Darlington; the Countess of Godolphin; Madam Kilmarnock; and the Earl of Orkney.
Handel’s orchestra is believed to have performed from about 8 p.m. until well after midnight, with only one break while the king went ashore at Chelsea. It was rumoured that the Water Music was composed to help King George steal some of the London spotlight back from the prince, who at the time, worried that his time to rule would be shortened by his father’s long life, was throwing lavish parties and dinners to compensate for it.
The Water Music’s first performance on the Thames was the King’s way of reminding London that he was still there and showing he could carry out gestures even grander than his son’s.