January 21, 2021

The More Things Change…

Water Music. Edouard Hamman

The More Things Change…

300 years ago this week…

One of my favorite pieces of classical music has an interesting political background. In fact, it’s an early 18th century example of a politician using the “media” to advance his own popularity and diss his opponent.

Tom Huizenga told the story yesterday on NPR’s program, All Things Considered.

So what do you do if you’re a recently crowned Head of State and you’re already facing opposition—even from within your own family? One answer is optics. Make a big, public splash; throw a lavish party with A-list musical entertainment. That’s just what happened in London – 300 years ago today.

In July, 1717, King George I of England was feeling heat from an opposing political faction gathering around his son, the Prince of Wales. The King must have thought: “How can I turn the spotlight back on me?” What about a boating party along the Thames? With an orchestra!

The King’s boating blowout gave birth to a smash hit – Water Music, composed by George Frideric Handel for his majesty’s royal ride up the Thames.

“This was a new thing,” says conductor Nicholas McGegan, “to have quite such elegant and organized music in a barge towing behind the royal one, where the King sat with his two mistresses and watched the world go by.”

Here’s a description of what that day was like:

On 17 July 1717, Water Music premiered on a royal barge travelling from Whitehall Palace to Chelsea. At 8pm, the King and his companions boarded a royal barge propelled by the rising tide. The City of London provided a larger barge for about fifty musicians, who played Water Music until midnight with only one break when the king went ashore at Chelsea. The king loved the piece so much that he demanded it be played at least three times during the trip. It is said that on this night the Thames was filled with boats and the banks were packed with Londoners desperately wanting to listen to Handel’s performance.

Knowing this background will not harm my enjoyment of Handel’s Water Music. In fact, I think it will bring a knowing smile to my face when I think that even some of the world’s most beautiful music was commissioned and played by flawed humans for less than the noblest of purposes. It is so like us.

Can’t you just picture the fawning crowds? The proud, beaming king and his court waving to the throngs and delighting in his clever marketing coup? Can’t you just hear the jubilant strains of “Alla Hornpipe” resounding over the water, thrilling the people and swelling their hearts with patriotic fervor?

Media-savvy ain’t nothin’ new, huh?

• • •


  1. Poetic justice won in the end – I’m sure far more people nowadays know about Handel and his Water Music than have any real knowledge of George I. 😉

  2. flatrocker says

    I’m sure far, far more people know about neither.

  3. That’s supposedly George the musician on the left in the red coat (probably Photoshopped in) talking with George the king, presumably both speaking German. Look to me like aging boomer rock stars and somehow this all makes me think of Ernie Kovacs. Handel was born the same year as our friend, Big John Bach. King George was despised and ridiculed by his subjects, perhaps unfairly, and his main qualification for office was not being Catholic. Modern type government in England got going during his reign and his grandson gave us America.

    • While in London last month, I took pictures of a painting of Charles II and another of William III and posted them on Facebook with the question, “Members of an 80s metal band or former kings of England?”

    • Heather Angus says

      George the First was always reckoned
      Vile, but viler George the Second,
      And what mortal ever heard
      Any good of George the Third?
      When from the earth the Fourth ascended,
      Thanks be to God, the Georges ended.

  4. Heather Angus says

    Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks are among my best-loved pieces of music, too, Chaplain Mike. Thanks for filling in the details of the WM first performance. I agree that it’s pleasant to know that “even some of the world’s most beautiful music was commissioned and played by flawed humans for less than the noblest of purposes.” The same goes for art, I’m sure; the grand cathedrals and stunning stained glass windows of the middle ages were doubtless put together by flawed people for every variety of motives, including but probably not limited to piety.

  5. The “Water Music” is some of my most favorite Handel music.

  6. “I don’t often sit with my mistresses on a barge and watch the world go by, but when I do … I listen to ‘Water Music’
    /s/ The most interesting king in the world.”

    Early blurb (rejected), intended to spur lagging sales of Handel’s sheet music.

  7. Klasie Kraalogies says

    I haven’t listened to Handel’s Water Music in awhile – but to be honest, I lost my taste for much of the “overdecorated” Baroque music. Music by tortured souls (Beethoven), Sturm und Drang, the sounds of the cold North (Grieg etc), the fanfare of the South (Bizet) – I guess the 19th century (and 20th!) had much delights for my taste than those over-refined 18th century fellows…

    But then there is Bach.

    • Generally, I’m with you Klasie. But it is summer, after all! More summery sounds explored on Saturday.

    • I’d generally say I’m with you there, but spending more time in the renaissance has softened my ears to a deeper appreciation of Baroque. Of course, this could also be related to the fact that I spend a good deal more time working with pieces by Buxtehude, Praetorius, Pachelbel, and Telemann. I find it much easier to appreciate the style of the period when you really get your hands on it.

      Of course, the irony is, if you like Classical-Romantic period stuff, people of those times generally considered Baroque music to be annoying and irritating, until Mendelssohn came along and resurrected Bach’s repertoire.

      But oddly enough, it was the later romantic stuff that led me back to early renaissance vocal music, so this stuff kinda works in circles. I enjoy dramatic flair and emotional extremes as much as the next guy, but I suppose my professional interests in the spiritual application of music have been drawing me a bit more towards the even-keel stuff.

  8. Michael Bell says

    We used Water Music for our wedding recessional. Kind of ironic given the provided context here.

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