Music performed by the H2O Orchestra
Something In The Water
Re-imagining Handel for the 21st Century
How many composers does it take to write a New Water Music suite? That may sound like the start of a joke, but for the eleven composers who rose to this auspicious challenge it was anything but.
The celebration of a Monarch’s Diamond Jubilee is truly a once in a lifetime event and an opportunity for a very English occasion. The glittering centrepiece of Her Majesty’s celebrations will surely be remembered as the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant on Sunday 3rd June 2012. The River Thames, flowing and sparkling beneath the hulls of a thousand vessels large and small, transformed into a great processional route as boats from across the commonwealth sail together in united celebration. With waving flags, rejoicing crowds and the sound of music ringing out, this jubilee flotilla – winding its way from Battersea to Tower Bridge – is the largest and grandest yet seen on the river.
Some of the music heard on the day is born of this crew of gallant composers, and a hand-picked band of nineteen musicians, as they endeavoured to present their collective take on one of Handel’s most famous works ‘al fresco’ on the deck of a special ‘New Water Music’ barge. It was always going to be an ambitious project, but as this recording alone shows, it was a rewarding one.
A bit of history…
It is of course not the first time such an event has been undertaken on the Thames, for the river has been privy to such pomp and ceremony before. Direct inspiration for this river pageant, however, comes specifically from that which took place in the Summer of 1717, when a flotilla was mounted for King George I. Something of a PR exercise for a Monarch who was apparently rather less than ‘flavour of the month’ with his subjects at the time, that balmy evening on the Thames saw gilded barges of noble folk take to the water, not to mention the premiere of a new music suite from a composer who seemingly needed to get back in favour with the King.
Before George was crowned King of England, he ruled as elected Prince at the court of Hanover, where Handel was also a court composer. Taking a rather extended leave of absence in order to soak up the sights, sounds and arts of London, the composer left court and never returned; instead gaining favour with Queen Anne’s own court in London. When Anne died and George took her place on the English throne, the composer surely had some explaining to do. The music of course did much of the talking and this particular commission perhaps sealed the deal; indeed the King enjoyed Handel’s ‘Water Music’ so much that he is reported to have commanded two further performances right then and there on the Thames. It’s easy to understand why it was so well received then and remains so popular today, for Handel composed a veritable chocolate box of themes and pieces, perfect for the occasion of an English summer’s evening on the river.
Filling Handel’s shoes…
The role of ‘court composer’ falls not to one composer then but eleven for this particular royal assignment, with Maestros Dudley, Fitkin, Goodall, Greenaway, Gunning, Johnston, Lunn, Nott, Pook, Warbeck and Wiseman joining the ranks of Handel, Henry Purcell, Hubert Parry, Edward Elgar, Arnold Bax and Arthur Bliss as composers by appointment. Only the latter three composers actually held the official post of ‘Master of the King/Queen’s Music’, England’s answer to ‘court composer’, but whether officially in post or not it is an undoubted honour to compose for a royal occasion. That sense is reflected in the music that these composers have written.
From joyful contemporary anthems and busy fanfares to summer calypsos, swashbuckling music for pretend pirates and beyond, the composers have each taken their lead from elements of Handel’s original – some more than others – and distinctly made their individual mark on this most special commission. What’s also striking is how very different each piece sounds from the other, despite everyone starting from the same brief. This ultimately speaks volumes for the talent of the group and their unmistakable voices as composers.
Different as they may be, when presented together they create a jubilant musical whole and a dedication befitting the sixty-year reign of a Queen whose unwavering devotion to her people inspires such pride and demands much celebration.
Long Live The Queen.