G. F. Handel's "Water Music"


The position with regard to the history and sources of the "Water Music" is far from clear due to the facts that:   its date of composition can not be exactly ascertained, there is no complete autograph extant, and there is not even an authorized first edition.

There were three royal water excursions that Handel is believed to have been commissioned to write music for:  August 22, 1715;  July 17, 1717;  and April 26, 1736.  In actual fact, it is possible to distinguish three suites of water music, differing from each other in tonality, from among the surviving material;  they were undoubtedly written at different times.  They are:

1)  A suite in F major for strings, oboes, bassoons, and horns
2)  A suite in D major for trumpets, horns, bassoons, oboes, and strings
3)  A suite in G major for recorder, transverse flute, bassoons and strings
Examination of the extant sources reveals that Handel's Water Music consists of 22 separate numbers, divided between three separate suites; there are also 11 variants, of which at present only four have been proven to be authentic.

Handel's Water Music was conceived for open-air performance, as was also his later instrumental piece, the "Royal Fireworks Music" of 1749.


From the stylistic viewpoint, it incorporates elements of Corelli's concertante music for strings with the fashionable and idiosyncratic features of the high Baroque French dance suite.  The influence of English wind music is also felt, notably in the D major suite -- the trumpet parts of which remind one of Purcell.

Handel's achievement here, as so often elsewhere, is to have produced a synthesis out of disparate national styles; he also shows his unique ability to compose music entirely suited to the capabilities of the instruments available.  His imaginative treatment of the horns, trumpets and oboes shows that he had little to learn from Rameau's fashionable brand of instrumental color.

It is believed that originally there was no continuo part.  Harpsichords would scarcely have been audible on a barge gliding downstream.  We know that Handel rearranged the later Fireworks Music for the purposes of normal concert performance.  It is therefore to be assumed that at least parts of the Water Music were also later performed under Handel's direction in the concert hall, and with a continuo.

(See also The Instrumental Suite)