Water Parties, Fireworks, and Royal Public Image: Re-evaluating Handel's Instrumental Music in London

Peter Kohanski, University of North Texas

In this paper I explore the circumstances around the composition and performance of two of Handel's most enduring orchestral pieces, Water Music (1717) and Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) in order to identify the new role instrumental music took on relating the British monarchy to the public in the early eighteenth century. Drawing on Christopher Hogwood's analysis of the music (2005), I close read a number of musical elements in the two works, including specific orchestrations, military and pastoral topics, and rhetorical gestures, to reveal how Handel's music supported the public image of two Hanoverian kings -- George I and George II -- at turbulent moments during their respective reigns. The overtly political elements of Handel's compositions thus signal how the pieces contributed to the representational culture, as formulated by T.W.C. Blanning (2002), of two monarchs in the burgeoning British public sphere.

I argue that the flourishing of public concerts prompted the use of instrumental music as a medium for such representation, previously expressed primarily through opera seria or, particularly in Britain, sacred vocal music (Feldman, 2005, Burrows, 2003, 2005, 2013). Instrumental works at the intersection of sovereign power and public performance neither supplemented drama and socialization nor sounded divorced from the representational culture that produced them. My research shows how instrumental music conveyed political meaning, an emerging function that contributed to the genre's growing prominence among the fine arts.