PERSPECTIVE : If It Was Good Enough for King George

Article excerpt


It was, we believe, in 1717 that George Friederic Handel composed his Water Music. On a summer night, in that year, the new King George I was serenaded by bassoons, oboes and strings as he made his progress down the River Thames.

The proud dome of St Paul's rose above the city, and music was upon the face of the waters.

Eighty years later they tried the same thing at Winson Green.

Titter ye not. Birmingham was perfectly able to make grand gestures such as this, with the added advantage that the bill for the water music in 1799 did not come out of the public purse. It came out of Matthew Boulton's pocket.

It was in August 1799 that the great Birmingham industrialist was entertaining none other than the Russian Ambassador, and hit upon the novel idea of a canal trip with musical accompaniment. Boulton was a big fan of Handel, so we can imagine where the idea came from, and what the music was likely to be. We also know that the band (who travelled in the barge behind) consisted of two trumpets, two French horns, two clarinets, two German flutes, two bassoons, two oboes and a double drum. Hundreds lined the tow-path as the procession passed.

Boulton tells us that they set off from Winson Green wharf and went to Smethwick and then on to Dudley, where the barges entered ``the regions of darkness'' under Castle Hill ``which I dispelled with 100 torches.'' Arriving back at Soho House, the party dined heartily and sang till one o'clock in the morning. Not that the visit was entirely devoted to pleasure. …