Arts Blog

300th Anniversary of Water Music

It’s one of his most famous works, but the origins of George Frideric Handel’s Water Music are something of a mystery.

In 1717 King George the first of England asked Handel to perform a concert aboard the royal barge as it traveled along the the river Thames. On July 17th, around 50 musicians embarked in a boat for the unique performance. The unusual location presented challenges.  The musicians struggled to keep their balance and Handel had to include extra horns and winds to compensate for the open-air acoustics. In fact, this was the first English music to use French horns. The performance was one of the first of its kind – a public concert meant not for the wealthy elite, but for the crowds that had gathered along the river’s banks.

Few other details of this historic event can be verified. There is no record of the 1717 performance and thus no concrete answer as to what Handel played. The first published work of Water Music was in 1740. The manuscript of Handel’s Water Music is also nowhere to be found.

The works is comprised of 22 movements divided into three orchestral suites of contrasting dances. Suite number 1 had actually been written in 1715 for an earlier river trip. The amount of pieces, and with no concrete evidence, has led to an array of interpretations.

Handel was perhaps a little disorganized, as movements in the larger editions of Water Music had already appeared in other works which makes it hard to pinpoint the origins. “It’s hard to tell if they were made popular by the Water Music and then used elsewhere or if they were published as separate works of Handel and added to the Water Music when the composer put it together for performance or publication” (Smith, p. 62).  

Some theorize that Handel wanted Water Music to be one long sequence, while others speculate that it was meant to be heard as separate suites.  It’s not clear in what order Handel wanted the movements to be performed. Even more confusing, Handel didn’t title his suites.  

The most common interpretation of Water Music is to separate it into three suites with the keys G, D, and F.  Water Music’s 22 movements might not have been separated into different suites for the first performance. Handel could have revised the movements over the years as most music written in the Baroque era was to be performed once.

Water Music consisted of sets of movements that most likely weren’t written for the river concert. Perhaps Handel wanted each suite to be performed on its own.

Since then, Water Music has remained a favorite. 300 years later, Handel’s Water Music stays afloat.



Hopkin, Owen. “Handel – Water Music.” Classic FM. N.p., 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 05 July 2017.

Smith, William C. “The Earliest Editions of Handel’s “Water Music”.” The Musical Quarterly25.1 (1939): 60-75. JSTOR. Web. 5 July 2017.

Mordden, Ethan. “A Guide to Orchestral Music.” Google Books. Oxford University, 1980. Web. 01 July 2017.

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Intern: Summer 2017


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