The Water Music dates from Handel’s first years in England, where he arrived in 1710, officially on leave from recent employment in the Elector of Hanover’s court. He returned again in 1712 and stayed permanently after ingratiating himself with Queen Anne, who awarded him a lifetime pension of 200 pounds a year — enough to live on. In 1714, the Elector of Hanover became George I of England on Anne’s death and, far from showing displeasure with his ex-employee, doubled Handel’s royal pension.
Indeed, Handel was faring better than the king was. George, who never learned to speak English and brought with him a German inner circle and two German mistresses, was roundly disliked as a foreigner more interested in Hanover than in England. His way of softening the English power structure’s harsh, if essentially accurate, view of him was to entertain it with barge parties.
We know there were royal parties on the Thames in the summers of 1715, 1716, and 1717. Handel probably provided music for those occasions, but the only account that actually mentions him is a letter from Friedrich Bonet, a Prussian diplomat, describing a party on July 17, 1717:
“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 – trumpets, horns, oboes, German [i.e, transverse] flutes, French flutes [i.e. recorders], violins, and basses, but no singers. The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel, a native of Halle and his Majesty’s principal court composer. His Majesty’s approval of it 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 evening was as fine as could be desired for this occasion and the number of barges and boats full of people wanting to listen was beyond counting.”
Though Bonet’s account describes the length and instrumentation of the Water Music more or less as we know it today, the earliest surviving score of “the celebrated Water Musick” dates from the 1730s, after Handel had been using the music in his theatrical presentations just as he used concertos, likely making changes for those occasions as was his practice. As we now know it, the Water Music consists of the two suites on this program – the “horn” suite in F and the “flute” suite in G – and a “trumpet” suite in D.
Typically for Handel, the suites don’t fit any particular mold. The G-major Suite consists of movements that are dances in all but name (Handel did not give them all titles). The F-major Suite is a sort of extended modified French suite, with a stately Lullian beginning to its Overture and some dance movements interspersed with non-dance movements. Handel’s striking use of the horns would have been all the more remarkable in 1717, when horns were rare in orchestras. As far as anyone knows, neither Handel nor any English composer had used horns before, but they have a more prominent role in the Water Music than the solo violins in the concerto that opens this program.