George Frideric Handel’s Water Music is one of the composer’s most popular instrumental works. It was composed for the royal excursion of King George I and his guests on July 17, 1717, when they traveled by barge on the Thames to Chelsea. Although this dedication was well documented, we do not have extant copies of either the composer’s manuscript or dependable first editions of this collection of pieces known to us as the Water Music. Therefore, we are not certain that it actually contains all the pieces that were composed for that royal occasion, and in what order the pieces were played. Water Music was first published as a single suite, in spite of the fact that it contains pieces in three different keys and instrumentations, but was soon superseded by its publication as three separate suites, grouped according to the three tonalities: F Major, D Major, and G Major, a customary eighteenth-century compositional practice of grouping pieces of the same tonality as a suite.

The suite in F, which calls for oboes, horns and strings, is the most substantive and instrumentally the most colorful of the three suites. In addition to the French Ouverture, consisting of a slow majestic introduction and a fast fugal section, it also contains four dance movements and four non-dances. Of the non-dance movements, the second and final movements, as well as the middle Andante section of the third are in the key of D Minor, the relative minor of F Major. Although the dance movements are in binary form, each half of the piece is repeated three times instead of twice, and each repeat is played by a different combination of instruments.

The suite in D calls for trumpets in addition to oboes and horns with strings, an instrumentation more suggestive of music for the open air, and is the most brilliant of the three suites. All the pieces, except the last Bourrée, feature frequent antiphony between the trumpets and the horns, and fanfare sonorities.

The suite in G calls for only flute, two oboes, and strings, an instrumentation more appropriate for intimate house music. It is conceivable that this suite of French dances was intended for an indoor gathering, perhaps a ball or a banquet before or after the main excursion. The last three movements are pairs of dances in da capo form.

Georg Philipp Telemann’s Water Music was intended for performance indoors. It was composed for the festive banquet at the centennial celebration of the founding of the Admiralty of the city of Hamburg on April 6, 1723. In other words, it is tafelmusik for an official event. Clearly it was this occasion that inspired Telemann to compose pieces that bear the names of mythological gods, goddesses, and nymphs of the sea. The titles after the overture, in translation, are:

  • The sleeping Thetis (mother of Achilles, a sea nymph who became the spouse of the mortal Peleus)
  • The awakened Thetis
  • The enamored Neptune (the god of the Sea)
  • The water nymphs at play
  • The jesting Triton (son of Poseidon, described as having the head and upper body of a man and the tail of a fish, and who lived on the bottom of the sea)
  • The violent Aeolus (the god of the winds)
  • The pleasant Zephir (the west wind)
  • Ebb and flow
  • The jolly sailors

With its highly descriptive music and poetic titles, this Water Music suite, also known as “Hamburg Ebb and Flow”, became an instant success. The nine dances following the French Ouverture can be seen as four pairs of contrasting dances describing the different moods or action of various subjects. The pair of Sarabande and Bourrée depicts the sea nymph Thetis asleep and awake. The Gavotte and Harlequinade contrast the light and playful dance of the sea nymphs with the buffoonery of the dance of Triton. The turbulence of the storm of Aeolus and the pleasant Minuet of Zephyr form the third pair. And finally the rise and fall of the tide on the Elbe River and the description of the jolly sailors are represented by the fast moving figures of the triplets of the Italian Gigue versus the boisterous dotted rhythm of the Canarie, a fast French Gigue. The Loure depicting Neptune in love stands alone. After all, what possible companion could there be for an enamoured God of the Sea?

John Hsu