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The Water Music is a collection of orchestral movements, often published as three suites, composed by George Frideric Handel. It premiered on July 17, 1717, in response to King George I’s request for a concert on the River Thames.

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George I, King of Great Britain and Ireland. Duke and Elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover)

George I (May 28, 1660 – June 11, 1727) was King of Great Britain and Ireland from August 1 1714 and ruler of the Duchy and Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover) in the Holy Roman Empire from 23 January 1698 until his death in 1727. He was the first British monarch of the House of Hanover.

George Frideric Handel (born Georg Friedrich Händel; March 5, – April 14, 1759) was a German, later British, Baroque composer who spent the bulk of his career in London, becoming well known for his operas, oratorios, anthems, concerti grossi and organ concertos. Handel received important training in Halle and worked as a composer in Hamburg and Italy before settling in London in 1712; he became a naturalised British subject in 1727. He was strongly influenced both by the great composers of the Italian Baroque and by the middle-German polyphonic choral tradition. He would become a huge influence on classical composers such as Mozart and Beethoven.

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George Frideric Handel

First performance

The first performance of the Water Music is recorded in The Daily Courant, the first British daily newspaper. At about 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 17, 1717, King George I and several aristocrats boarded a royal barge at Whitehall Palace, for an excursion up the Thames toward Chelsea. The rising tide propelled the barge upstream without rowing.

Another barge, provided by the City of London, contained about 50 musicians who performed Handel’s music. Many other Londoners also took to the river to hear the concert. According to The Courant, “the whole River in a manner was covered” with boats and barges. On arriving at Chelsea, the king left his barge, then returned to it at about 11 p.m. for the return trip. The king was so pleased with Water Music that he ordered it to be repeated at least three times, both on the trip upstream to Chelsea and on the return, until he landed again at Whitehall.

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King George’s companions in the royal barge included Anne Vaughan, Duchess of Bolton, Harriet Pelham-Holles, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Evelyn Pierrepont, 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, Sophia von Kielmansegg, Countess of Darlington, Henrietta Godolphin, 2nd Duchess of Marlborough, and George Douglas-Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney.

Handel’s orchestra is believed to have performed from about 8 p.m. until well after midnight, with only one break while the king went ashore at Chelsea.

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It was rumoured that the Water Music was composed to help King George refocus London attention from his son and heir (later George II of Great Britain), who, worried that his time to rule would be shortened by his father’s long life, threw lavish parties and dinners to compensate for it; the Water Music’s first performance on the Thames was the King’s way of reminding London that he was still there and showing he could carry out gestures even grander than his son’s.