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1717: A year in music

Illustration of Handel Presenting Water Music to King George I - Credit: Bettmann Archive

SOPHIA DEBOICK on one of the most spectacular musical performances ever staged

The first years of Georgian England were ones of political intrigue against a background of beauty and grandeur. As the musical baroque reached its apotheosis, and new ways of thinking emerged, Europe stood on the threshold of the Enlightenment and the age of revolution, but the immediate political picture was also an unsettled one.

The conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession, and the putting down of the Jacobite rising of 1715, had hardly dampened Europe’s power struggles. The arrest of the Swedish ambassador in January 1717 over a fresh plot to restore the House of Stuart to the throne, and the Prince of Wales setting up a rival court to that of his unpopular father proved the continuing threats to George I’s reign. Despite the signing of the Triple Alliance against Spain, the Spanish would invade Sardinia in August, seeking to regain territories lost in the recent war, and they would back another Jacobite rising two years later.

But even as the Hanoverian king struggled for supremacy, and conflict and political manoeuvring dominated events in the rest of the world too – the Russian Empire was exerting increasing influence over the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Tatars invaded Transylvania, and the war between the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire ended with Turkish losses – it was the economic transformations wrought by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonial exploits of European states that impacted human society most profoundly.

Not only did trade have the unintended consequence of giving rise to the classic Caribbean pirate, as the Bristolian sailor gone rogue, Edward Teach, pulled off some of his greatest raids and gained the moniker ‘Blackbeard’ in this year, but it had made Britain an economic powerhouse, with thriving urban centres and port cities.

London in 1717 was the beating heart of this economic success, but the city’s intellectual capital was perhaps lagging behind the continent’s. John Locke was some 10 years dead and his thought was then doing its most significant work in the mind of François-Marie Arouet, who found himself confined to the Bastille in May for writing a satirical poem that was just a bit too biting – he would emerge a year later with the text of Oedipus, his first play, and the pseudonym Voltaire. But London’s thriving coffeehouse culture was nevertheless fostering free-thinking, and there were hints of religion losing ground to science. As the Bishop of Bangor delivered his famous sermon to the King in March, invoking John 18:36 – ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ – to undermine ideas of ecclesiastical authority, court favourite Lady Mary Montagu, wife of the ambassador to Constantinople, observed local smallpox inoculation practices, had her five-year-old son inoculated, and encouraged the practice back at home some 80 years before Edward Jenner.

London was finding not just new ways of thinking but new ways to organise itself socially, from the June founding of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, to the Druid revival ceremony held by Irish freethinker John Toland on Primrose Hill on the autumnal equinox, but above all it was musical performance that was a primary focus of communal activity and vital to the public life of the city.

Opera had long since ceased to be the preserve of European court audiences, as the December opening of the Teatro Regio Ducal in Milan proved, and the art form had already been embraced in Britain, with Thomas Clayton’s Arsinoe at Drury Lane in 1705 having been the first Italian-style English language opera. By 1717, ballet too was crystallising as a serious, formalised form of performance on the same level as opera. In March 1717 the dance master and performer John Weaver staged a spectacle key in the development of ballet in Britain, his The Loves of Mars and Venus, also staged at Drury Lane, telling the story through mannered dance alone. Along with the various, less exalted forms of musical performance to be found on London’s grimy streets, it was a city alive with music.

Handel had been living in this city of dizzying vibrance for five years when the King commissioned him to put on the public musical performance to end them all. On Wednesday July 17, 1717 the King and his court boarded the royal barge at Whitehall Palace and sailed towards Chelsea. During a pleasure cruise of over four hours, they were serenaded by a huge company of 50 musicians performing Handel’s spectacular three-part suite Water Music. As the river swarmed with smaller vessels carrying Londoners flocking to watch the spectacle, this was a show of unrivalled splendour intended to eclipse the lavish parties that the Prince of Wales was throwing to rally political support, but it was also an assertion of authority over the capital by dominating its aural space.

Handel benefitted from further aristocratic patronage the following month as he became house composer at Cannons, the seat of the Duke of Chandos, writing a range of music, probably including some of the eight keyboard suites he published three years later. Indeed, Handel’s output, embracing both choral music and instrumental works, was a sign of the shift from the former to the latter in a period when the harpsichord was king. But dramatic music was also a preoccupation for the composer in this year, as he wrote three new arias for the castrato Gaetano Berenstadt in his role of Argante in the London revival of Rinaldo. Handel was a man about town in a city where public life was pulsating and meaningful – that the annual charity performances of his Messiah for Bloomsbury’s Foundling Hospital became his most profound bond to his adopted city was proof of the thriving public sphere in the early Georgian capital.

Meanwhile, on the continent, French composer and musician François Couperin was publishing the second volume of his Pièces de clavecin, a collection of era-defining works for the harpsichord, as well as the revised edition of his seminal didactic treatise L’art de toucher le clavecin. Vivaldi was still in the process of establishing himself, his opera L’incoronazione di Dario appearing at the Teatro Sant’ Angelo in Venice in January.

Further north, Bach was 32 and experiencing mixed fortunes. His role as konzertmeister at the Schloss Weimar had allowed him to increasingly flex his compositional muscle as he took on the Italianate influence from Vivaldi in particular, and by 1717 his fame had spread beyond Saxe-Weimar, with Frederick II of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg commissioning him to compose a piece for Good Friday. The result, the Weimarer Passion, was performed on March 26 at the monumental early baroque palace of Schloss Friedenstein. The piece is now lost, although parts of it would survive through reuse in the celebrated Johannes Passion.

But Bach’s success was tempered when he was dragged into the personal animosity between his employer, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, and the household of the former Duke’s widow. When he was subsequently unfairly passed over for the role of kapellmeister, Bach sought to leave this unpleasant atmosphere to take up that same post at the court of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. The Duke, however, took extreme umbrage at his insolence and threw the musician into prison, where he remained for a month, well into December.

But Bach used the time well, preparing a cycle of organ choral preludes, and he immediately took up his new role on his release. He found the court of Anhalt-Köthen was dominated by the cultivated tastes of the 25-year-old prince, who was an accomplished musician alive to international influences and not afraid to spend serious cash on the provision of music in his court. For the next six years Bach used this conducive atmosphere to compose key pieces in his oeuvre, and 1717 had proved to be a pivotal year for this universal great.

In these years, modernity was lurking, even if the Enlightenment was yet to fully flicker into life. Early the next decade Robert Walpole would become the first prime minister as the powers of the monarch waned, and the second half of the century would see revolutions in America and France, fed by Enlightenment thought, that tried to forge a new world. But 1717, between the era of the plague and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, was a year of nascent change.

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