Water Music

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Handel (left) and King George I on the River Thames, 17 July 1717; painting by Edouard Hamman
Westminster Bridge on Lord Mayor's Day by Canaletto, 1746 (detail)

The Water Music is a collection of orchestral movements, often published as three suites, composed by George Frideric Handel. It premiered on 17 July 1717, in response to King George I's request for a concert on the River Thames.

The Water Music is scored for a relatively large orchestra, making it suitable for outdoor performance.


The Water Music opens with a French overture and includes minuets, bourrées and hornpipes. It is divided into three suites:

Suite in F major (HWV 348)[edit]

  1. Overture (Largo – Allegro)
  2. Adagio e staccato
  3. Allegro – Andante – Allegro da capo Aria
  4. Minuet
  5. Air
  6. Minuet
  7. Bourrée
  8. Hornpipe
  9. Andante
  10. Allegro
  11. Hornpipe

Suite in D major (HWV 349)[edit]

  1. Overture (Allegro)
  2. Hornpipe
  3. Minuet
  4. Lentement
  5. Bourrée

Suite in G major (HWV 350)[edit]

  1. Sarabande
  2. Rigaudon
  3. Allegro
  4. Minuet
  5. Gigue

There is evidence for the different arrangement found in Chrysander's Gesellschaft edition of Handel's works (in volume 47, published in 1886), where the movements from the "suites" in D and G were mingled and published as one work with HWV 348. This sequence derives from Samuel Arnold's first edition of the complete score in 1788 and the manuscript copies dating from Handel's lifetime. Chrysander's edition also contains an earlier version of the first two movements of HWV 349 in the key of F major composed in 1715 (originally scored for two natural horns, two oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo), where in addition to the horn fanfares and orchestral responses, the original version contained an elaborate concerto-like first violin part.[1]

The music in each of the suites has no set order today.

First performance[edit]

The first performance of the Water Music suites is recorded in The Daily Courant, the first British daily newspaper. At about 8 p.m. on Wednesday, 17 July 1717, King George I and several aristocrats boarded a royal barge at Whitehall Palace, for an excursion up the Thames toward Chelsea. The rising tide propelled the barge upstream without rowing. Another barge, provided by the City of London, contained about 50 musicians who performed Handel's music. Many other Londoners also took to the river to hear the concert. According to The Courant, "the whole River in a manner was covered" with boats and barges. On arriving at Chelsea, the king left his barge, then returned to it at about 11 p.m. for the return trip. The king was so pleased with the Water Music that he ordered it to be repeated at least three times, both on the trip upstream to Chelsea and on the return, until he landed again at Whitehall.[2]

King George's companions in the royal barge included Anne Vaughan, the Duchess of Bolton, the Duchess of Newcastle, the Duke of Kingston, Madam Kielmansegg, the Countess of Godolphin, and the Earl of Orkney. Handel's orchestra is believed to have performed from about 8 p.m. until well after midnight, with only one break while the king went ashore at Chelsea.[3]

It was rumoured that the Water Music was composed to help King George steal some of the London spotlight back from the prince who, at the time, worried that his time to rule would be shortened by his father's long life, was throwing lavish parties and dinners to compensate for it. The Water Music's first performance on the Thames was the King's way of reminding London that he was still there and showing he could carry out gestures even grander than his son's.[4]


Legend has it that Handel composed Water Music to regain the favour of King George I. Handel had been employed by the future king George while he was still Elector of Hanover, before he succeeded to the British throne. The composer supposedly fell out of favour for moving to London during Queen Anne's reign. This story was first related by Handel's early biographer John Mainwaring; although it may have some foundation in fact, the tale as told by Mainwaring has been doubted by some Handel scholars.

Another legend has it that the Elector of Hanover approved of Handel's permanent move to London, knowing the separation between them would be temporary. Both were aware the Elector of Hanover would eventually succeed to the British throne after Queen Anne's death.[5]

Popular culture and the media[edit]

Many portions of Water Music have become familiar in popular culture.

From 1958 to 1988 this was featured as the theme music from the British network Anglia Television a brand by ITV.

From 1977 to 1996, Walt Disney World featured movements from both installments of Water Music as the background music for the Electrical Water Pageant, a parade of sea creatures lit up with electric lights off the coast of the Magic Kingdom.[6]

A performance of Water Music plays a major role in the movie The Madness of King George, in which King George III exhibits very erratic and inappropriate behavior at a concert, yelling at the orchestra to play louder (and eventually taking the place of the harpsichordist, playing very badly), culminating in a physical altercation with the Prince of Wales, leading to the Prince of Wales asking to be named Regent.[citation needed]


There are many recordings. The Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), composed 32 years later for another outdoor performance (this time, for George II of Great Britain for the fireworks in London's Green Park, on 27 April 1749), has often been paired with the Water Music on recordings.


  1. ^ Wassermusik [Water Music] (score) (in German), Germany: Bib BVB (the piece is given its German title in this edition by Friedrich Chrysander, Leipzig 1886).
  2. ^ The Daily Courant, 17 Jul 1717, pp. 76–77, cited by Burrows, Donald (2012), Handel (2 ed.), Oxford, p. 101.
  3. ^ Hogwood, Christopher (2005). Handel: Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-521-83636-4.
  4. ^ Handel's Water Music – Recreating a Royal Spectacular (documentary). 2005.
  5. ^ Wilkinson, Andrew, Simply Handel, Union Square, liner notes.
  6. ^ "Electrical Water Pageant Review", Orlando: Disney World, Fodors

External links[edit]