Mayuko Kamio, Virtuoso Violinist

In a time where there seem to be dozens of up-and-coming virtuoso violinists, Mayuka Kamio stands out. The Japanese musician follows in the long list of great musicians from her country, including Seiji Ozawa, Midori, and Shinichi Suzuki.

Mayuko was born in Osaka in 1986 and began to play violin at the age of four. Her earliest teachers were some of Japan’s finest violinists, and she studied at the Toho Gakuen School of Music. Like many other young violinists, she continued her education in the United States, studying at the Aspen Music Festival and the pre-college division of The Juilliard School. Zurich, Switzerland is her current home where she balances an international performing career with advanced studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater.

On TV at Age 10

The Japanese virtuoso showed her talent at a young age. Kamio made her concerto debut in Tokyo at the age of ten under the baton of Charles Dutoit, and this was broadcast on NHK television. The following year, she was the youngest violinist ever to win a prize in the Menuhin International Violin Competition and performed with the Orchestra National de Lille under Lord Menuhin’s direction.

Mayuko was also active in the United States. When she was thirteen, Mayuko won First Prize in the 2000 Young Concert Artists International Auditions.  In 2001, she was the youngest artist ever to be presented in the Young Concert Artists Series at the Kennedy Center. Two years later, she made her New York concerto debut with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Alice Tully Hall and gave a recital at the 92nd Street Y.

Tchaikovsky Competition Winner

On the European stage, she won Gold Medals at the Monte Carlo Violin Masters and at the International David Oistrakh Violin Competition in Ukraine. But her most notable award came in 2007 when she captured First Prize in International Tchaikovsky Competition. This competition, held every four years, has been won by such notables as Van Cliburn, Gidon Kremer, and Viktoria Mulllova.

Of course, these incredible successes have made Kamio in great demand as a soloist with orchestras throughout the world. To date, she has performed with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich with Mstislav Rostropovich, the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Spivakov, and the Prague Philharmonic, the BBC Philharmonic, the Oviedo Symphony Orchestra in Spain, and many others. And, proving that she plays more than just the classics, she has soloed with the Boston Pops conducted by Keith Lockhart.

Mayuko’s Compact Disks

Fans of virtuoso artists love to buy their compact disks. To date, Kayuko has released four CD’s:  the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev Concerti; another recording with orchestra of Bach, Waxman, and Chausson; a violin and piano recital with Stravinsky, Szymanowski, and others; and Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin. When she signed with SONY BMG Masterworks, the head of the company said, “Mayuko just won the Tchaikovsky Competition and performed in Munich with Zubin Mehta, where I was delighted to witness a unanimous standing ovation for her performance. She will undoubtedly be one of the most inspired and gifted violinists on the international concert circuit.”

The New York Times described her 2008 recital as “distinguished by her warmly luxurious, buttery tone and long, seamless phrases.” Kamio plays a Stradivari violin from 1727 that was once owned by the 19th-century virtuoso Joseph Joachim.

Mayuko Kamio soloed with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra in November 2012. This article appeared in Greensboro, North Carolina’s News and Record on October 28, 2012.

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A Short History of “The Phantom of the Opera”

We all know “The Phantom of the Opera” as a great show on Broadway and other well-known stages, but the story began long before it became a long-running musical. From newspaper to novel to film to two different stage versions and finally to film again, let’s look at the various ways this timeless tale has been told.

Gaston Leroux was born in Paris in 1868 and graduated with a law degree when he was 21. He then inherited millions of francs and went on a reckless spending streak. Approaching bankruptcy, Leroux needed a job, began work as a journalist, and eventually started writing fiction.

In September 1909, The French newspaper “Le Gaulois” published the first chapter of a new story by Leroux. Over the next four months, the complete “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” appeared in print, and then it was published as a novel. The book did not sell well, and has even been out of print several times.

Lon Cheney as the Phantom

The first successful adaptation of Leroux’s “Phantom” was in 1925 when Universal Studios produced a silent film with Lon Chaney. These were the last years of silent films, and four years later the studio dubbed, added music, and re-shot portions of the movie. Its success led Universal to create a series of classic horror films, including “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, “The Wolf Man”, and “The Mummy”.

A second film of “The Phantom of the Opera”, released in 1962, did not garner much critical acclaim. The title role was played by Herbert Lom. Fans of “The Pink Panther” movies will remember him as the twitchy-eyed Chief Inspector Dreyfuss who Peter Sellers (as Inspector Clouseau) unwittingly taunted.

Enter Andrew Lloyd Webber

The most important adaptation of Leroux’s story came two decades later. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who already had great successes with “Evita” and “Cats”, thought “The Phantom of the Opera” would make a good musical. The British composer later commented, “I was trying to write a major romantic story, and I had been trying to do that ever since I started my career. Then with the Phantom, it was there!”

“Phantom” opened in London’s West End on October 9, 1986 with Michael Crawford in the title role, Sarah Brightman as Christine, and Steve Barton as Raoul. The London production celebrated its 10,000th performance in 2010, and is only surpassed by “Les Misérables” (which opened in 1985) and Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” (1952). All three are still running.

On this side of the Atlantic, the show opened in Broadway’s Majestic Theater on January 26, 1988 with the same three lead actors. It is the longest-running Broadway musical, and surpassed 10,000th performances in January 2012.

Tony and Olivier Awards

Of course it is not surprising that “The Phantom of the Opera” has won numerous awards. The two most important were Broadway’s Tony Award and the London’s Olivier Award (the equivalent of the Tony) for Best Musical. Michael Crawford also won the Tony and the Olivier for Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Lloyd Webber’s wonderful music has been featured in many productions worldwide. Cast recordings have been made in Japanese, Dutch, Korean, Swedish, Hungarian, and several other languages. A final version of “Phantom”, a film adaptation of Lloyd Webber’s musical, was released in 2004. It grossed more than $50 million, and was even more successful overseas.

This article first appeared in Greensboro, North Carolina’s News and Record on October 21, 2012.

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The Many Hats of Emanuel Ax

Emanuel Ax

Pianist Emanuel (Manny) Ax is a wonderful piano player who has toured the world, recorded a huge amount of repertoire, and has collaborated with the finest musicians and orchestras. Manny, it turns out, is far from your run of the mill piano virtuoso.

In his 1977 expose on the professional golf tour, Dave Hill compared the personalities and interests of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Palmer, Hill said, would always talk about golf – the latest clubs, the courses he had recently played, nothing but golf. In contrast, Nicklaus likes to discuss many things like fine wines, interesting places to travel, even the marching band of his alma mater Ohio State University where he once dotted the “i” in their script Ohio. In the world of world-class pianists, Emanuel Ax is more like Nicklaus.

A Polish Violinist to a Juilliard Pianist

Perhaps Manny learned flexibility and openness from his parents who had to adapt for both to survive the holocaust.  Then the youngster did not start on piano; he started on violin, eventually studying keyboard with his father who coached in an opera house in Lwow, Poland. It was not until after living in Warsaw and Winnepeg, Canada that the family settled in New York and young Ax began to study at The Juilliard School, just like any other future virtuoso.

Yo Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax

Now that Ax has made a name for himself as one of a handful of the world’s top pianists, one might think he would stick to a short list of tried-and-true composers  like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and maybe one or two others. But Manny (just like Jack Nicklaus) would never allow himself to live in such a small world. Although he loves these great composers, he strongly believes a 21st Century musician should also play music from today’s composers. To this end, he has not only played a great deal of music written in the last 50 years, but has asked composers to write new pieces just for him. Pianists in the next 100 years will thank Ax for extending their repertoire.

A Chamber Musician Par Excellence

Although many established pianists are content to live as a soloist, either playing solo recitals or concertos with orchestras, Ax loves to play chamber music and is considered and an outstanding chamber musician. One of his best friends and musical collaborators is the cellist Yo Yo Ma. Together, the two have received three Grammy Awards for Best Chamber Music Performance. Ax has four other Grammys as well.

Emanuel Ax in front of the Chicago skyline.

With his expertise in so many facets of music, one would think music was all that Emanuel Ax did. This is certainly not the case with his chameleon-like interests. Studying at Juilliard and honing his keyboard skills probably took all of his time. Well, no. At the same time, he earned a degree in French at Columbia!

An Emmy for a Holocaust Documentary

And there is more (think Nicklaus). While most pianists are content to spend their lives sitting at a Steinway grand piano, Ax was so interested in a 2004 BBC documentary on the Holocaust that he was one of the musical contributors. Add an International Emmy Award to his collection of Grammys.

So what has this remarkable musician has added to his rich life recently? Blogging on his site ( His recent posts on how and when audiences applaud – and don’t applaud – are creating some waves in the world of classical music. They are definitely worth reading.

This article was written in 2009 before Emanuel Ax’s performance with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra.

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Vienna’s Konzerthaus – Book Excerpt

The following is a draft excerpt from my next book on the musical sites of Vienna which will be published by Doblinger Musik Verlag in Spring 2013. This may not be reprinted or quoted without permission of the author.

The Konzerthaus is another world-class concert hall in Vienna. It presents a wide variety of artists performing standard classical fare as well as early music, modern music, jazz, folk, and world music.

The Large Hall of Vienna’s Konzarthaus

Many internationally renowned performers made their Austrian debuts in the Konzerthaus, including Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Alfred Brendel, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Simon Rattle, and Cecilia Bartoli. Additionally, quite a few first performances have taken place here, including works by Bartók, Berg, Hindemith, Kodály, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Messiaen, Pärt, Penderecki, Schönberg, Stockhausen, Webern, Wolf, and Zemlinsky. To celebrate the inaugural concert of the Konzerthaus on 19 October 1913, Richard Strauss wrote his “Festliches Präludium op. 61”.

As early as 1890 the Viennese began to wish they had another concert venue to complement the Musikverein. Not wanting to duplicate the famous hall, the new building was to appeal to a wider section of the public and serve a variety of functions. The original plan was to be the “Olympion”, a large complex with concert halls, skating rink, bicycle club, and an outside arena for 40,000 spectators. Although this plan was never realized, there is still a skating rink and beach club next door.

Vienna’s Konzerthaus

There are three main concert halls which are literally three separate buildings behind a common façade. This design helps to eliminate noise spillage from one auditorium to another. The Great Hall is the largest and is mainly used for orchestral concerts. It features the largest concert organ in Europe. To the right side of the stage is a private booth that was used by the Habsburgs when they wanted to hear a concert without being seen.

The Mozart Hall is used for chamber music, recitals, and chamber orchestra concerts. It is simply decorated and some believe it has the best acoustic for a small hall in Vienna. The Schubert Hall is the smallest of the three main halls and is the only one without a balcony.

Mahler Plaque

Mahler Plaque outside of the Konzerthaus

These halls are color coded: the Great Hall is decorated in dark red, the Mozart Hall in blue, and the Schubert Hall in yellow. The stairs leading to each hall has the matching color, and colored lights in the lobby signal the start of a performance. When the light is blinking, it is time to take your seat; when the light is solid, the concert has begun.

Underneath the lobby is the New Hall. Its modern design is mirrored by its vast technical and electronic capabilities, making this hall ideal for new music. There are also three smaller halls in the top level: the Schönberg Hall, the Alban Berg Hall, and the Wotruba Salon. Schönberg used to lecture in the hall bearing his name.

The statue of Beethoven in the lobby was a preliminary version of the monument across the street on Beethovenplatz. Inside the building is a plaque dedicated to Schumann to celebrate his repeated visits to Vienna. On the outside of the building are plaques dedicated to Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler.

The Beethoven Statue in Vienna’s Konzerthaus

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Greensboro on the Danube

The Danube is one of the most historic rivers in Europe. Mozart, the Hapsburgs, Richard the Lionhearted, and the Magyars all traveled on the river, and the cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade grace its shores in its 1785 miles between Germany’s Black Forest and the Black Sea between Romania and Ukraine. The river figures in numerous stories, myths, artwork, and, of course, music. It is this “Danube Musical History” that is the Greensboro Symphony’s first Masterworks program this year.

Multiple Strausses

Johann Strauss, Jr.

Geographically, this concert comes from the middle miles of the river with a lot of Vienna and a little Budapest. And the composers were all prominent in the great musical capital, Vienna. Featured will be three different Strausses and Brahms.

Lighter music of Vienna begins and ends the concert. The start of this season will be the Overture to “Die Fledermaus” by the Waltz King himself, Johann Strauss, Jr. This composer of memorable melodies started his career composing and performing dance music. During Vienna’s Carnival Season, he would often have several bands playing his famous waltzes around the city, and he would make special appearances at each. In the 1870’s, he branched out and starting writing music for the stage. His tunes were perfect for the new world of operetta. “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat) is his best known.

Launching Dima’s Career

Johannes Brahms

Dima Sitkovetsky will be the soloist in the next piece from the Austrian banks for the Danube. Brahms spent his mature years working and composing in Vienna, and his Violin Concerto was among his finest works. Dima also has a strong Viennese connection with this music. In 1979, he won the first Fritz Kreisler Competition playing the Brahms Concerto and the international television broadcast of it helped launch his career. This will be the first time he will play this music in Greensboro.

Following intermission, the concert takes a brief sojourn into Hungary as we turn to Brahms again. In 1869, his “Hungarian Dances” were published, first in two-piano versions, then in arrangements for full orchestra. When the composer was a young virtuoso pianist, he often accompanied for the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. Brahms loved the gypsy-influenced music that they performed, and this was the genesis for his “Hungarian Dances”.

Laughing Orchestra

Johann Strauss, Sr.

The final three works on the concert are by three different Strausses. “Ohne Sorgen” (Without Sorrows) Polka is by Johann Jr.’s  brother Josef. The polka is brisk and full of bubbling melodies, and Josef Strauss even has the orchestra shout out “ha, ha, ha” to show the carefree nature of the piece. It is his best known work.

Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” follows. Most people do not know that this was originally a waltz to be sung by a male choir. It was not very popular at its first (sung!) performance in 1867, but became a bit hit later that year when Strauss conducted the instrumental version at the Paris World’s Fair. Maybe the “Beautiful Blue Danube” needed a little water from the Parisian Seine River to make people notice.

Clapping in Rhythm

Finally, the music of the father of the two Strausses, Johann Strauss, Sr., ends the program. His Radetzky March closes the famous New Year’s Day Concert in Vienna, seen annually on PBS. One of the great traditions of this concert is the audience clapping in rhythm with the main theme. I would not be surprised if Dima invited the audience to join along in true Viennese fashion.

The Danube might not be the source of all the music on the program, however. These concerts will celebrate Dima Sitkovetsky’s birthday on September 27, and “Happy Birthday” has its roots in the United States. I wonder if it was written along the Mississippi or Hudson.

This article appeared in Greensboro, North Carolina’s News and Record on September 23, 2012.


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Dvořák’s 8th Symphony

Although Dvořák was greatly influenced by Czech folk music, he is often considered more of a “universal” composer than a primarily “nationalistic” one such as Smetana. He wrote significant works for all genres, and some consider him the most important composer – from any country – in the period following Brahms’s death.

That said, the melodies in the Eighth Symphony are easily heard as coming from the Bohemian folk music that was so important to the composer. Within a rather stormy first movement, Dvořák gives us a “bird call” melody in the flutes, again, reminiscent of his time in the Czech countryside. Another interesting feature of the symphony is in the third movement. Most orchestra minuets or waltzes end with the same character as they began, but here Dvořák concludes the movement with a faster dance.

The Eighth Symphony was completed in a relatively short period of 77 days in August through November, 1889. Dvořák dedicated it to Emperor Franz Joseph and the Bohemian Academy for the Encouragement of Arts and Literature to which the composer had recently been elected.

Dvořák’s 8th Symphony appeared on the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra’s concerts in November, 2011.

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Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto and its Problematic Beginning

Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto had a very problematic beginning. In 1939, a Philadelphia businessman named Samuel Fels asked Barber to write a concerto for the violinist Iso Briselli. Barber started working on the first two movements in Switzerland, but had to return to the U.S. because of the war. He continued his compositional work in the Pocono Mountains.

Samuel Barber, violin concerto

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Then the problems began. Barber gave the first two movements to Briselli. The violinist liked the music, but when he showed them to Albert Meiff, his violin coach in New York, Meiff thought they were poorly written and needed many changes. The New York violinist actually wrote to Fels and documented all the problems he saw in the piece.

In the meantime, Barber had finished the third movement and arranged for a reading of the movement at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia to be sure that was he was giving Briselli was technically feasible. Those who heard this private performance including Gian Carlo Menotti thought the movement was playable and was very high quality music.

But now it was Briselli who did not like it. Briselli felt it was too lightweight in comparison to the first two movements. After all of this, Barber did not change his piece, but Briselli did not premier it either. Despite the controversy which continues even today, the Violin Concerto has become one of the most frequently performed 20th-century concerti.

David Nelson is indebted to Marc Mostovoy, founder of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and a representative of the Briselli family, for his help in the preparation of this post.

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“On the Beautiful Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss, Jr.

On the Beautiful Blue Danube is one of the world’s most beloved pieces of music. Its charm has delighted listeners for more than a century. But, for all its wonder, it had a rather unusual beginning.

Johann Strauss, waltz king, blue danube, vienna

Johann Strauss, Jr.

In the 1860’s, Strauss was in great demand. He performed nearly every night, and was frequently asked to compose for particular ensemble or event. One such request was by Johann Herbeck, who requested a choral waltz for the Männergesangsverein (Men’s Singing Society). A waltz for chorus? That would be new for Strauss. (He would eventually write none dances for chorus.)

Austria had just suffered a military defeat by the Prussians at Koeniggräetz. The Viennese were dejected. The new waltz attempted to raise people’s spirits by reminding them of the Fasching (Carnival). The text was written by Josef Weyl, a policeman who sang in the chorus. Although Weyl had great intentions, the verse was less than inspired. In fact, the choir almost revolted because of the inane lyrics!

Vienna, be gay
Oh ho, why, why?
A glimmer of light
We see only night
The Fasching is here
Oh, yes – well, then . . .

strauss, blue danube, waltz, vienna

Johann Strauss, Jr. composed the “Blue Danube” Waltz in this apartment. It is now a museum.

Strauss added the title at the very last minute. It was from a poem by Karl Beck with the line “one the Danube, the beautiful blue Danube.”Apparently the composer was also behind on the piano part. When he gave the music to Herbeck, he attached the note

Please excuse the poor and untidy handwriting.  I was obliged to get it finished within a few minutes. Johann Strauss.

The first performance was on February 15, 1867 at the Diana Ballroom (no longer standing). Because of an imperial ball, Strauss and his orchestra could not attend. So the first performance of this masterpiece was by lesser known musicians: Rudolf Weinwurm and the ‘König von Hannover’ Infantry Regiment, along with the Men’s Singing Society.

The popular legend is that the public’s reaction was lukewarm. We know that the new piece was only repeated once, which was nearly a failure by Strauss’ standards. When he learned about the singular encore, the waltz king said that it “was probably not catchy enough.”

But the Viennese newspapers had a different opinion. On February 17, they printed:

“The lovely waltz, with its catchy rhythms, ought soon to belong among the most popular of the prolific dance composer”

“Hofballmusik-Direktor Strauss celebrated a great and deserved triumph with his waltz An der schönen blauen Donau . . . ”

“The waltz was truly splendid . . . The composition was received with rejoicing, and had to be repeated by tempestuous general demand.”

Johann Strauss, Blue Danube, Vienna

The famous golden statue of Strauss in Vienna’s Stadtpark.

That summer, Strauss performed at the World Exposition in Paris. He had almost forgotten about the waltz, but one night decided to play it. The music war heard without words for the first time.  The Parisians loved it! They could not get enough of the Blue Danube. They even came up with their own (superior!) words

Stream of blue
On your pure waves
Glides the Sail
Like a star.

The waltz was still not yet complete. It was not until the following year that Strauss added the long introduction and the code (ending) that we all now recognize. Since that time, the popularity and importance of the Blue Danube has grown in leaps and bounds.

Two anecdotes attest to the greatness of this piece.

Strauss’ wife, Adele, once asked Brahms for an autograph.(Brahms loved Strauss’ music.)  The revered composer wrote the first few bars of Blue Danube and then signed, “Unfortunately not by – Johannes Brahms.”

Perhaps the most fitting tribute came from Eduard Hanslick, the dean of Viennese music critics. In 1872, he wrote:

Alongside the National Anthem by Father Haydn, which celebrates the Emperor and the Imperial Household, we have another National Anthem, Strauss’ Beautiful Blue Danube, which sings of our land and people.

Strauss, Blue Danube, statue, Vienna, waltz

An Infrared photo of the Strauss statue by David Nelson.

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Mendelssohn’s 4th Symphony – The “Italian”

mendelssohn, europe, tours, leipzig

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn, known as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in his native Germany, only lived 38 years. His musical abilities were recognized as a young child, and he was even called “an heir to Mozart”. Even in his short life, his output was prodigious: five symphonies and other orchestral music, concertos (notable his Violin Concerto), chamber music, choral works, songs, and keyboard music. His premature death is one of the tragedies in music.

Between 1829 and 1831, Mendelssohn undertook a tour of Europe, which turned out to be the inspirations for several of his pieces. His third symphony is subtitled “Scottish” and “The Hebrides” refers to islands of the coast of Scotland, and the fourth symphony, performed tonight, is subtitled the “Italian”.  His excitement about this country is apparent in a letter: “This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought.. to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it.”

Mendelssohn, tours, italy

Menselssohn’s pen-and-ink drawing of Italy’s Amalfi Coast

The composer began the symphony during that trip, but did not finish it until 1833 when he was in Berlin. Around that time, Mendelssohn received an invitation to compose for the London  Philharmonic Society, so the first performance was an international tour de force: a symphony by a German composer, with an Italian inspiration, in an English concert hall! The date was May 13, 1833.

The bubbling melodies and perpetual rhythmic drive has made Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony extremely popular and often performed. The composer knew that he had captured the liveliness of the Italian spirit even as the piece was just taking shape. During his trip, he wrote to his musical sister: “The ‘Italian’ symphony is making great progress. It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done, especially the last movement.”

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Handel’s “Water Music” – London 1717

With the focus on London’s Olympics these days, and also of the current presidential campaign, I was reminded of a great piece of music whose first performance was on the Thames almost 300 years ago.

George Fredric Handel

In 1717, King George’s popularity with the British population had declined. In an attempt to rectify this, his advisors thought that a large-scale spectacle was needed, and they suggested a huge boating event on the Thames River. Of course, music was needed for the “river party”, and the court composer, George Frederic Handel, was asked to compose the festive music.

On July 17, the King was on the Royal Barge with an assortment of Dukes and Duchesses, Counts and Countesses, Earls and other noblemen. A barge owned by the City of London held Handel and fifty musicians. The public must have totally embraced the idea because the number of boats on the river that summer day were “beyond counting” according to one participant.

A Long Day of Performing

Handel (left) with King George on the Royal Barge on the day in 1717 when the “Water Music” was first performed.

Handel wrote the music in three parts, with the entire piece lasting more than an hour. The musicians played the music as the barges moved from Whitehall where the festivities started, to Chelsea where dinner was served. After the King and his party finished dining, the barges reversed direction and returned to Whitehall with the musicians continuing to perform this newly composed music.

The music was very popular with the King. A local newspaper, the Daily Courant, reported that George “liked so well, that he caus’d it to be plaid over three times in going and returning”. Some scholars believe that it was played three times each way, making for more than six hours of performing for the musicians sitting on moving barges in the July heat. I doubt the musician’s union would allow for that these days.

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