Still Making a Splash at 300

August 17, 2017

I’ll bet you forgot. Or maybe you weren’t even aware. When you headed out to spend a little time swimming, boating, waterskiing or playing at the beach did you bring along Water Music? No, I’m not talking about The Beach Boys, but rather the music that was first played by musicians you could call “the barge boys.”

According to Frederic Bonet, a Prussian living in London at the time, the music that accompanied King George I the evening that he and his entourage travelled on the Thames River in 1717 was written by George Frideric Handel and performed by about 50 musicians travelling on a separate barge. It’s said that the Thames was overflowing with barges that carried spectators as well. At the King’s request, the music was repeated 3 times that evening - twice before dinner and once after.

July 17th marked the 300th anniversary of that first performance of George Frideric Handel’s Water Music. We know Water Music from 3 suites or groupings of pieces that take about an hour to perform.  But  nobody’s really sure about which pieces were played that evening or in what order they were played, since there is no surviving manuscript in Handel’s writing. Handel never published the music either. So scholars have had to rely on a variety of sources in constructing the suites that have introduced listeners to Water Music over the centuries. 

One thing that is certain is that the music was a hit from the outset and that various arrangements of the music were made in response to its popularity. In fact, it was some of those arrangements that helped researchers compile the Water Music suites.

As you might have expected, there were celebrations on Thames River barges for the anniversary. One of those, sponsored by the Georgian Dining Academy and London Historians, included an authentic Georgian meal as a part of a cruise featuring Handel’s music. Georgian dress was optional, but encouraged.

Handel’s Water Music celebrates its tricentennial in a year in which Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz turns 150 and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker turns 125.  It also coincides with the 200th anniversary of the groundbreaking for the Erie Canal, which took place on July 4, 1817.

To commemorate that historic event the Albany Symphony sponsored a series of concerts called “Water Music New York.” They were presented on barges or outdoor stages in towns located along the canal. I understand from a report by Michael Cooper in the New York Times that thunderstorms, flash floods and tornadoes forced a stretch of the canal to be closed at the time. And even though the orchestra had planned to travel to the various towns via land, one of its planned barge concerts was moved indoors because of the weather.

As you may have guessed, the orchestra did perform selections from Handel’s Water Music. But it also performed newly commissioned works by young composers inspired by towns along the canal. As a part of the compositional process, they spent a bit of time with the residents of the various communities. Oh, and in case you wondered, one concert did feature a folk singer/balladeer who performed among other songs the legendary Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal.

While Water Music was making a big splash, conductors Herbert Blomstedt and Raymond Leppard celebrated their 90th birthdays on July 11th and August 11th.  Blomstedt, who has held top conducting posts with orchestras in Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Dresden is best known to American audiences for the 10 years he spent at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony. Leppard, a harpsichordist, early music specialist and composer as well as conductor spent 14 years as Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. His name, by the way, does not rhyme with that of the late American actor George Peppard. The accent is on the first syllable.

The late Kurt Masur, famous for his work with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig and the New York Philharmonic, would have been 90 on July 18th.  On July 11th, we remembered composer George Gershwin on the 80th anniversary of his passing.  Clarinettist Richard Stoltzman celebrated his 75th birthday on July 12th.  And Nicola Benedetti, the Scottish-born violinist, celebrated her 30th birthday on July 20th.

I went looking to see if any of those performers had any special public birthday celebrations planned, either on water or dry land. One of the major record companies just released a 40-CD set of Stoltzman’s recordings for his 75th.  And Nicola Benedetti was the soloist at one of the Proms concerts in London on the eve of her birthday.

Needless to say, all of them were celebrated on Classic Mornings.  And there are more celebrations to come. Tune in Monday through Friday from 9 to noon on FM 90.9 and online at will.illinois.edu.


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