On this day in history : 17th July 1717 – The premiere of Handel’s Water Music….written for an outdoor performance for King George I and is played on a barge whilst sailing up the River Thames….

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George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner – Public domain

“On Wednesday evening at about 8, the King took water at Whitehall on an open barge….where in were 50 instruments of all sorts, who play’d….the finest symphonies compos’d express for the Occasion by Mr. Hendel, which his Majesty liked so well, that he caus’d it to be plaid over three times in going and returning”…

It is rumoured the King felt he was being over-shadowed by his son, the Prince of Wales – who was constantly throwing lavish dinners and parties – and was stealing all the limelight…. So, King George decided to do something about it….

George Frederick Handel liked to use musical influences from all over Europe….France, Italy, Germany….and mix them all up…. For an English flavour to his Water Music he included ‘Alla Hornpipe’ – the Hornpipe Dance being ‘very English’ – associated with sailors and involving a lot of jumping up and down…. This lively dance would have appealed to an exhibitionist King who liked to show-off his dancing skills….

King George and his party, which included Dukes, Duchesses and his two mistresses, boarded the royal barge at 8pm on a summer’s evening at Whitehall Palace and travelled up the Thames towards Chelsea…. They were accompanied by another barge with 50 musicians – an orchestra that comprised of flutes, recorders, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, horns, violins, basses – and French horns – which the British had never seen before…. People lined the river banks to see and hear….and many other boats joined the flotilla, wanting to enjoy the music….

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Handel (left) and King George I on the River Thames – painting by Edouard Hamman – Public domain

At Chelsea the royal party left the barge but returned at 11pm for the return trip….and the music was played again…. In fact the King enjoyed it so much that the 3 suites of Handel’s Water Music were performed three or four times….each lasting for over an hour…. The only break the exhausted orchestra got all evening was the brief interlude when the royal party disembarked at Chelsea….

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