HANDEL’S “WATER MUSIC” by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, March 8, 2007
Handel’s Water Music
Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre

About 8 in the evening of July 17, 1717, during the third year of his reign, King George I of England, boarded the royal barge on the Thames which was covered with boats filled with ‘persons of quality’. This river party, which included a barge holding 50 musicians, floated with the tide down to Chelsea where the King and his party were served dinner, returning to St. James Palace at 4:30 in the morning. During this time, the King commanded his musicians to play the hour-long large-scale orchestral suite we know as Handel’s “Water Music” three times, “twice before and once after supper.” Imagine!

Thanks to the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra directed by Jeanne Lamon, Toronto audiences are privileged to share the delight of royal and noble persons of so long ago. Since that time, Handel’s suite of 18 sections arranged in 3 movements has continued to delight widely. The D major movement in 3/2 meter subtitled “Alla Hornpipe” has been used frequently for television and radio commercials. The “Bourrée” from the F major “suite” has also become popular with audiences, particularly as theme music for the cooking show “The Frugal Gourmet.”

The excellence of Tafelmusik’s playing is so well established, it needs no elaboration here. What might be of interest would to speculate on what it is we are enjoying when we listen “Water Music” in a performance that transports us back to that fairy tale setting. What do we have in common with the people in that royal flotilla?

To answer these questions, I invite you to follow this look at the context in which the music was originally heard. How did a German composer connect with an English Monarch? How did the Elector of Hanover happen to become an English Monarch? What was the atmosphere in England when the ‘premier’ of this music occurred? In other words, what are some of the connecting realities that sustain the image we have of this serene, elegant, marmoreal music so suited to the tastes of a party of lords and ladies floating as if without a care in the world down the Thames on a midsummer night? And what do these realities have to do with us?

Handel and George Louis

While traveling in Italy looking for patronage contacts, Handel, a native of Brandenburg in Germany met a countryman, Prince Ernst August of Hanover. The Prince gave Handel hope of a position in the court of his royal brother, the Elector of Hanover, George Louis. In 1710, Handel showed up in Hanover and got himself appointed Capellmeister to the Elector. Since traveling composer/musician is a good cover for a spy, Handel was packed off to London to mingle with the court of George Louis’ second cousin, the English Queen Anne, who did not appear to be leaving a child as her successor.

The Queen had been pregnant at least eighteen times; thirteen times, she miscarried or gave birth to stillborn children. Of the remaining five children, four died before reaching the age of two years. Her only son to survive infancy had died at the age of eleven. Her sole relative to win the legitimate survivor lottery was George Louis of Hanover. Within months of Anne’s death, he moved to the front of the line of the fifty-two possible heirs to the throne of Great Britain. Handel was his man in Westminster.

Handel’s personal contact with the Queen’s physician, Dr. Arbuthnot, and his musical flattery of Anne by his composition of a “Te Deum”, a “Jubilate” celebrating a diplomatic victory, and an ode for the Queen’s birthday, won Handel royal favour. The Queen granted him an annuity of £200, and Handel also received assurance the salary would continue to be paid in the event that George succeeded to the throne. The success of “Water Music,” confirmed Handel’s place at the English court. By the age of 32, Handel had struggled to a success that Mozart, more than a half century later, would pursue his whole life without success.

England around the time of the Water Party.

George I was an unpopular king. He often visited his home in Hanover, and occupied himself with Hanoverian concerns. He spoke poor English, preferring his native German, or French. Since many believed that he was not fluent in English, George I was ridiculed by his British subjects, and many of his contemporaries thought him unintelligent.

The early years of his reign were turbulent if not exactly unstable. The personal resistance many English felt against him was joined by the serious political intrigue, resistance and rebellion in England and Scotland by the Jacobite party that still fought for the soveriegnty of heirs of the Stuart line. A rebellion in Scotland was put down in the second year of Geroge’s reign. Several years later, Spain sent out an invasion force that was defeated both in battle and on the seas by stormy weather.

His domestic political scene was disturbed by conflict between the Whig party George empowered over the Tory party that had been in power during Anne’s reign. This led to considerable infighting and was instrumental in bringing the economy near to collapse when the South Sea Bubble burst. During George’s reign, the powers of the monarchy diminished and actual power was held by a defacto Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.

Perhaps, when we enjoy a performace of Handel’s “Water Music” such as this one given by Tafelmusik, we are sharing in the power that music has to let us float along in company with many other people like us and not like us, above the turbulence where we compete for survival. It may indeed be, as William Congreve wrote: “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.”

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