The More Things Change…
300 years ago this week…
One of my favorite pieces of classical music has an interesting political background. In fact, it’s an early 18th century example of a politician using the “media” to advance his own popularity and diss his opponent.
So what do you do if you’re a recently crowned Head of State and you’re already facing opposition—even from within your own family? One answer is optics. Make a big, public splash; throw a lavish party with A-list musical entertainment. That’s just what happened in London – 300 years ago today.
In July, 1717, King George I of England was feeling heat from an opposing political faction gathering around his son, the Prince of Wales. The King must have thought: “How can I turn the spotlight back on me?” What about a boating party along the Thames? With an orchestra!
The King’s boating blowout gave birth to a smash hit – Water Music, composed by George Frideric Handel for his majesty’s royal ride up the Thames.
“This was a new thing,” says conductor Nicholas McGegan, “to have quite such elegant and organized music in a barge towing behind the royal one, where the King sat with his two mistresses and watched the world go by.”
Here’s a description of what that day was like:
On 17 July 1717, Water Music premiered on a royal barge travelling from Whitehall Palace to Chelsea. At 8pm, the King and his companions boarded a royal barge propelled by the rising tide. The City of London provided a larger barge for about fifty musicians, who played Water Music until midnight with only one break when the king went ashore at Chelsea. The king loved the piece so much that he demanded it be played at least three times during the trip. It is said that on this night the Thames was filled with boats and the banks were packed with Londoners desperately wanting to listen to Handel’s performance.
Knowing this background will not harm my enjoyment of Handel’s Water Music. In fact, I think it will bring a knowing smile to my face when I think that even some of the world’s most beautiful music was commissioned and played by flawed humans for less than the noblest of purposes. It is so like us.
Can’t you just picture the fawning crowds? The proud, beaming king and his court waving to the throngs and delighting in his clever marketing coup? Can’t you just hear the jubilant strains of “Alla Hornpipe” resounding over the water, thrilling the people and swelling their hearts with patriotic fervor?
Media-savvy ain’t nothin’ new, huh?
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