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The Water Music is a collection of orchestral movements, often considered three suites, composed by George Frideric Handel. It premiered on 17 July 1717 after King George I had requested a concert on the River Thames. The concert was performed by 50 musicians playing on a barge near the royal barge from which the King listened with close friends, including Anne Vaughan, the Duchess of Bolton, the Duchess of Newcastle, Countess of Darlington, the Countess of Godolphin, Madam Kilmarnock, and the Earl of Orkney. The barges, heading for Chelsea or Lambeth and leaving the party after midnight, used the tides of the river. George I was said to have enjoyed the suites so much that he made the exhausted musicians play them three times over the course of the outing.
The instrumentation varies depending on the movement, but the requirements in a complete performance are a flute, two oboes, one bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, strings, and continuo: this instrumentation is effective in outdoor performance. (Some of the music is also preserved in a contemporary score written for a smaller orchestra: this version is not suitable for outdoor performance, as the sound of stringed instruments does not carry well in the open air).
There is evidence for the different arrangement found in Chrysander's Gesellschaft edition of Handel's works (in volume 47, published in 1886), where the movements from the "suites" in D and G were mingled and published as one work with HWV 348. This sequence derives from Samuel Arnold's first edition of the complete score in 1788 and the manuscript copies dating from Handel's lifetime. Chrysander's edition also contains an earlier version of the first two movements of HWV 349 in the key of F major composed in 1715 (originally scored for two natural horns, two oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo), where in addition to the horn fanfares and orchestral responses, the original version contained an elaborate concerto-like first violin part.
The music in each of the suites has no set order today.
Legend has it that Handel composed Water Music to regain the favour of King George I. Handel had been employed by the future king before he succeeded to the British throne when he was Elector of Hanover. The composer supposedly fell out of favour for moving to London in the reign of Queen Anne. This story was first related by Handel's early biographer John Mainwaring; although it may have some foundation in fact, the tale as told by Mainwaring has been doubted by some Handel scholars.
Another legend has it that the Elector of Hanover approved of Handel's permanent move to London, knowing the separation between them would be temporary. Both were allegedly aware the Elector of Hanover would eventually succeed to the British throne after Queen Anne's death.
Many portions of Water Music have become familiar. Between 1959 and 1988 a Water Music movement was used for the ident of Anglia Television. The D major movement in 3/2 meter subtitled "Alla Hornpipe" is particularly notable and has been used frequently for television and radio commercials, including commercials for the privatisation of the UK water companies in the late 1980s. The "Air" and "Bourrée" from the F major "suite" have also become popular with audiences, with the latter being the theme music to the popular PBS cooking show The Frugal Gourmet.
There are many recordings. The Music for the Royal Fireworks, which was also written for outdoor performance, is often paired with the Water Music on recordings. Together, these works constitute Handel's most famous music for what we would now consider the orchestra. Older recordings tend to use arrangements of Handel's score for the modern orchestra, for example the arrangements by Hamilton Harty and Leopold Stokowski. More recent recordings tend to use historically informed performance methods appropriate for baroque music and often use authentic instruments.