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Water parties were almost as popular as opera in Baroque Europe. The fame of Handel's Water Music makes King George I's pleasure trip up the Thames aboard the royal barge on July 17, 1717, seem somehow exceptional, but that was hardly the case. Pleasure boats and water music abounded at the royal courts of the age; one ruler in German-speaking central Europe with an abundance of time on his hands and cash in his coffers built miles of canals for water parties and mock naval battles.
But, of course, none of these princes had a composer of Handel's stature in his service. Handel composed three suites of Water Music, just shy of an hour's worth of music in all, for the royal water party in 1717. One participant, Louis Frederick Bonet, the Prussian Resident in London, described the event in his diary: "At about eight in the evening, the king repaired to his barge. Next to the king's barge was that of the musicians, about 50 in number.... The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel.... His Majesty's approval was so great that he caused it to be played three times in all, twice before and once after supper, even though each performance lasted an hour."
The party arrived at Chelsea at one in the morning for supper and returned to London just before dawn. It used to be thought that the present Suite with horns, in F major (a.k.a. Suite No. 1), accompanied the trip up river to Chelsea, the Suite in G major (No. 3) was heard during the meal, and that the Suite in D major (No. 2) was played during the return to London, but most scholars now agree with Bonet's assertion that the music was heard three times in its entirety.
The Suite in F major begins with a French overture whose stately opening gives way to a vigorous fugal allegro. The improvisatory Adagio e staccato, with its extended oboe solo, acts as a bridge between the overture and the suite's third movement. This movement, in a three-part structure similar to that used by Handel in the arias heard earlier this evening, is one of his most festive creations, with thrilling writing for the horns lending the outer sections a celebratory atmosphere. The set of dances that follows includes a stately minuet (the second) introduced by the two horns alone. The suite's closing andante sounds almost antique in style alongside its exuberant predecessors, with its sighing writing for the strings and oboes. In the context of this program, it brings the survey of Handel's music full circle, back to the expressive world of "Se pietà" and "Falsa imagine."
- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator