Both George Frederic Handel & Georg Philipp Telemann each wrote a notable musical body of work known as ‘Water Music’—but for very different purposes. Both composers are considered monumental figures of the Baroque Era, & both hailed—at least originally—from northern Germany. Here is a brief look at their ‘Water Music’.
Handel’s Water Music
The music that came to be known as “Handel’s Water Music” is an orchestral collection comprised of 3 suites. George Frederic Handel specifically composed (or assembled) & premiered this music for King George I of England, in a unique concert setting that was held on the evening of July 17th, 1717—while floating along on the Thames River. There were 2 main boats: the Royal Barge—for the royal audience (the King & his noble guests); & a 2nd barge—for the 50 or so performing musicians. However, London-commoners were also permitted & even encouraged to listen in—by boarding along in their own boats, which they did in vast numbers!
The actual purpose of this concert however was deceptively not just for leisure. Rather it was a sort of P.R. ploy: to help regain popular favor for & restore confidence in King George I—as the Londoners were increasingly preferring his son (the Prince, George II) as a hopeful future ruler.
The Power of Music…& of Water!
The King is said to have liked the music so much, that he ordered it to be repeated 2 more times (each time took 1 hour) during that round trip boat ride (to a royal supper in Chelsea). News of this hallmark concert spread quickly throughout Europe, & it soon became referred to as “Handel’s Water Music”. Although Handel tried to keep the music quietly to himself, people would not forget the legacy of this incredible concert-music, & by 1722, the demand for it became so great that it became necessary to be performed again, & with actual frequency. There was also public demand for its sheet music, & it was finally published: in segments (1725, 1729 & 1734); in full (but for harpsichord only, 1743); & finally for full orchestra (1788—well after Handel’s own death).
Unlike his later “Music for the Royal Fireworks” (1749)—another suite of music, & by that time, for King George II—Handel’s original scoring of the ‘Water Music’ did not include the instrumentation of keyboards (harpsichord) or percussion (kettle drums) as these instruments would have been difficult to utilize on a listing sea-vessel with limited space. It did however introduce French Horns into an English orchestra for the very 1st time.
An aside note: Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks
In 1748, England had signed a peace treaty—ending the War of the Austrian Succession. To commemorate it, a grand fireworks display was planned. King George II agreed to having music commissioned by G.F. Handel to accompany the show, however he wanted it performed only on ‘warlike instruments’ (wind & percussion). Handel insisted on including string instruments as well. For the performance, Handel assembled a band of about 100 musicians—at least 40 of which were string players. Against Handel’s wishes, the work was publicly rehearsed (tickets were even sold to it for 2/6pense) at Vauxhall Gardens about 1 week prior to the actual main event. Roughly 12000 people attended—causing carriage-wheel gridlock in London for nearly 3 hours!
At the actual performance—which took place in London’s Green Park on April 27th, 1749—part of the building structure intended to house the musicians, specifically designed & constructed for just the occasion, caught fire. The weather also did not cooperate & was ‘rainy’…but Handel’s music was a hit & again became legendary!
The finest recordings of these 2 Handel masterpiece-works (which are often considered closely associated to one another) that I know of & could recommend, would be those by The English Concert—under the direction of Trevor Pinnock. In my humble opinion, that ensemble actually captures the entire Handel catalog better than any other I have ever heard or studied.
If interested in more on G.F. Handel, please see my blog,
In 1723, Georg Philipp Telemann was also commissioned to write a “Water Music” suite. It shared some similarities to Handel’s ‘Water Music’—they were both composed as instrumental music intended for outdoor orchestral performance, & they were actually both written within only a few years of each other. But unlike Handel’s—which was for the Royalty of London England—Telemann’s suite was for the Admiralty of Hamburg Germany; it was also intended to be performed from ON LAND.
The purpose of the intended festive occasion was to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Hamburg’s Port-Controlling Department & to honor the fine job they (the Admiralty) had done in securing & regulating Hamburg Port (situated along the Elbe River) as one of the most important harbors in maritime trade, business-Europe. The centenary was marked by a banquet for merchants, sea captains and the city’s mayors and councilors. As part of the festivities, the ships fired their cannons and flew pennants. A local schoolteacher wrote a poem-serenade which Telemann set to music, & then Telemann also supplied this brilliant suite of instrumental “Water Music”.
Back then, there were no overhead projectors, video screens, laser shows, or PowerPoint presentations, etc, so the music served as tone-paintings—with a theme: to help depict figures & events of ancient world mythology that were somehow tied to or connected with the sea…& by setting them to popular French style dance rhythms of the day:
1. The sleeping goddess Thetis—in a Sarabande;
2. Thetis awakening—in a Bouree;
3. The amorous god Neptune—in a Loure;
4. The jovial god Naiads at play—in a Gavotte;
5. The sportive god Triton—in a Harlequinade;
6. The blustery wind Aeolus—in a Tempest;
7. The pleasant wind Zephyr—in a Minuet with Alternativo;
8. The ebb and flow of the tride—in a Gigue;
9. Jolly sailors—in a Canarie.
It began with an opening Overture represented the waves of the Sea. Then, as stated in #8, the suite also included paying respect & homage to the ebb & flow of the tide (nautical matters)—important not only to the harbor, but also for regularly cleansing & purifying the extensive network of the drainage canals in the inner city.
The music is said to have made the occasion all the more noteworthy & festive. And again as similar to Handel’s own ‘Water Music’, this instrumental suite too displays great expertise in writing for different string and wind instruments, together and in dialogue. It has also withstood the test of time; & continues to draw awe from the future generations of curious listeners & critics alike. It is said to be incredibly ‘balanced’, which is consistent with Telemann’s own motto; “Give to every instrument its due; the player will be pleased, & so will you.”
The finest recording of this Telemann masterpiece-work that I know of & could recommend, would be that of Musica Antiqua Köln—under the direction of Reinhard Goebel, entitled ‘Wassermusik’.
If interested in more on G.P. Telemann, please see my blog,
“ Telemann the Artisan” at this link:
The audio recording portion (only) of this above video is copyrighted by Peter J Blume, © 2013. It is of the ‘Air’ from Handel’s ‘Water Music’, arranged for 2 trumpets & both parts performed by Peter J Blume.
For more info, please visit my website at:
Thank you for listening…& for your interest.
The Titanic’s Violin
I dedicate my humble performance here of this Handel masterpiece to Wallace Hartley, fallen bandleader aboard the RMS Titanic. As we all know, the English-born luxury ship sank during it’s maiden voyage from England to America in 1912, after hitting an iceberg; over 1500 people died because it was believed that the ship was unsinkable & thus because, there were not enough lifeboats.
Before the ship went down, Hartley & his fellow musicians from ship’s band had performed on deck to keep everyone calm; he & his band-mates went down with the ship while performing a hymn “Nearer My God to Thee”. Before he drowned though, Wallace had strapped his violin to himself. When rescuers found his lifeless body floating in the water 10 days later, they also recovered the violin.
It was sent back to his young girlfriend, Maria Robinson—who had actually given the violin to Hartley as a present on their recent engagement. She kept it in her attic & it was eventually forgotten about. After she died, many of her items were donated to the Salvation Army—including the violin. Like the story of ‘The Red Violin’, it then passed through many hands; eventually it wound up in the possession of a music teacher, who in 2006, came to realize that this might be the actual famous violin.
After 7 years of authenticity testing, most experts recently came to agree that this is in fact the real Titanic’s violin! In October 2013, the violin went to auction—expecting to fetch between $3-&-400K; it sold for more that $1.6M! While there have been many other more expensive violins that this, it is interesting to note that the Titanic’s Violin is not even playable anymore—having been exposed directly to 10 harsh days of the elements & salt water. And even when new, its quality was never considered to being that of a concert grade violin; it was more of a memento given to Hartley by his girlfriend/fiancé. He had others—better ones, but chose to bring this violin on the historical 1st voyage of the Titanic—in appreciation to his girlfriend.
– researched & essayed by Emily & Peter J Blume, 2013