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Handel's Flood Of Melodies: 'Water Music'

A portrait of Handel.
Wikimedia Commons
A portrait of Handel.

In 1717, with England's King George suffering somewhat in the polls, his political advisors suggested that he do something big to get the people behind him. So they came up with the idea of a summer boating party on the Thames.

As the king's court composer, George Frideric Handel was commissioned to write music for this spectacle. The king and his favorites listened from the royal barge as an ensemble of 50 musicians played from another, while boats "beyond counting" crowded alongside.

Though the original scores have been lost, it's clear from the instrumentation and keys that Handel composed the Water Music in three suites: a large one in F with 10 movements, featuring two horns; one in D with five movements (among them the celebrated "Alla Hornpipe"); and one in G with seven movements. While the suites in F and D are clearly open-air music, meant to be played on the barge, the G major grouping was intended perhaps to accompany the king's meal down the river at Chelsea.

Well suited to its purpose, the Water Music is memorably tuneful and makes fashionable use of the dance forms typically found in the Baroque suite. In his resourceful scoring, designed to keep the royal ear from tiring, Handel combines festivity and finesse in perfect measure.

Gardiner's Horns With Horsepower

The recording heard here is a classic example of what has been accomplished over the past 30 years by the period-instrument movement. Conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington and Philippe Herreweghe, all specialists in period-instrument performance, have been able to make recordings of their repertoire — and they have done so well. As the instrumental techniques have improved, the accounts have become powerful, exciting and vibrant, and that's what you hear in this recording.

This group of English musicians — The English Baroque Soloists — is as good as any in the world in performing music on period instruments. Gardiner does not sit back; he is not a shy person. He gets out there and sees that he has all of this horsepower, and he uses it, letting the musicians stand out. This is the first English music to use French horns.

"I want you guys to play loud," Gardiner says, "and I want to hear the burr on the instruments," because that's one of the things that Handel is trying to do in this music. He's trying to use these things flamboyantly and colorfully. Gardiner understands that, and it comes across in this performance.

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Ted Libbey