The light under the bushel

The radio Times has made it abundantly clear that a program that I thought was unique, almost an epic, and fascinating, if a little drawn out, was unworthy of publicising in its weekly paper, and only refered to it on the schedule in about four lines. It was a re-enactment of the Premier of Handel’s Water Music as it was played on the River Thames back in the days of George I.

BBC 4, presumably, had staged this because it was an anniversary. A small team of people, researchers, archivists, shipwrights, painters, sound engineers and musicians, the latter using period instruments, produced a spectacle that one was likely never to see again, in ideal circumstances, accompanying Handel’s exquisite music. The logistics of this project were mind-boggling, they had to find a vessel which looked like an 18th century royal barge, which alone was a mixture of persistence and luck. The conductor had to experiment with the aid of the musicians, to find the best order in which to place the musicians on the barge, for the best musical effect with these unusual instruments, and also so the musicians themselves could hear one another while sailing down the Thames. The sound engineers had to experiment with these different instruments being played on water to discover if they could be heard and recorded ashore as well. The barge had to be modified, decorated painted. The musicians had to be robed, and provided with wigs, in such a way that they looked the part, but could play just as they were. In one instance a wig gave serious problems. The barge itself was referred to as a ‘dumb barge’ which implied that it had neither power nor steering and would require a tug to propel it, and another astern to steer it through all the bridges that have been built between the Houses of Parliament and Chelsea over the intervening years. The amount of current research going back hundreds of years was incredible, and this paragraph does not give credit to the amount of work that these people put into this project.

The spectacle started at Westminster in broad daylight and finished at Chelsea in darkness. As the progression went on it was noticeable that none of the public knew this was happening because those watching from the bank were patently there for another reason, and they were very few. The sight of that barge in daylight was wonderful, and if people onshore could hear the music as we did, the scene would have lived with them for the rest of their lives. The barge in the evening, allegedly lit by candles, but probably assisted by battery driven light, was also beautiful.

The logistics with respect to the water are probably the reason why wasn’t publicised in London. They would have to take into account the state of the tide at a given time, fine weather, and a relatively calm river. From the film it was clear that they have fulfilled all these requirements, and probably this prevented them publicising the occasion as a lot of people could have been disappointed if the parameters were not achieved. But nonetheless this does not stop the Radio Times from doing more to promote it than they did. I just hope that BBC 4 gives this as many repeats as we get of other programmes from the past.

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