Water Music Tercentenary

This being the time to reflect on, or taking parting shots at, the year just passed, I remembered just this past week that there was something I’d been wanting to post about, of which which I’d only recently been reminded:

2017 marks the three-hundredth anniversary of the premier of the Water Music by George Frideric Handel.  Here is an excellent version, performed by Jordi Savall and the Concert des Nations , on period instruments and according to historically informed performance practices:

I first heard tell of the Water Music over fifty years ago, just after discovering the Fireworks Music by the same composer.  At first, however, I thought it was called “The Waterworks Music” or “Music for the Royal Waterworks” – which made sense, in a way.  I figured it was celebratory music for the opening of some kind of water treatment plant in London, of for some new group of fountains – or something like that.

I was quickly disabused of such suppositions as I read up a bit on the subject.  It was actually called “The Water Music”,  tout court, and was composed to be played for the King and his entourage on a boating excursion up and down along the Thames.  Water treatment plants only came about in London many years later, and fountains were definitely out of the picture for that occasion.

It was a further good thing that I got clued in to the real name of this piece, since “waterworks” is a (mostly) British euphemism for the human genitourinary tract – as in, “My wife is having a problem with her…er…waterworks.”  The term can also mean tears…

Listening to the Water Music today, I continue to be dazzled by the sheer melodic inventiveness it embodies, which I believe to have been Handel’s greatest gift.  The Water Music is like a stream of beautiful melodies flowing one after another, some of extreme simplicity, some of a complexity just as extreme.  And just when you think “Handel can’t possibly top that, or even keep this up.  He’s bound to run out of ideas and the next thing is going to be something of a letdown”, a new melody appears that’s equal to, or even “better” somehow, than anything that’s come along so far.  And these are more than just pretty tunes – there’s a lyricism to them, a moving-ness, something beyond the delight to the senses they so obviously are, something that touches, indeed stirs, the heart.

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For those interested in this sort of thing, there are a good many possible versions of the Water Music – which is actually a collection of twenty-one short movements of considerable variety, many based on the dance music of the times, and usually grouped into three suites, with no set order within each suite.  Conductors and/or music directors then pick and choose their favorite order, and even, I’m sure, “mix and match” things up with movements from the three suites to their hearts’ content.

For more curious listeners, there are plenty of versions of the Water music currently up on YouTube, which one can access by clicking here.  In my cursory research along such lines, I was particularly intrigued by this version by the German group Akamus – deploying about as large an ensemble as is possible without a conductor .

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All the best in 2018!

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