Composing the water music for the Jubilee barge

By Debbie Wiseman, May 31, 2012
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Last October, an unexpected gem of an email arrived. It was from Gavin Greenaway, the musical director of one of the music herald barges for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant, asking if I’d be interested in writing a new piece for the Pageant.

“Six to eight”, who quickly became 11, of Britain’s top film and TV composers would each compose a movement of new “Water Music”, to be played live with a specially selected ensemble of musicians, travelling on the Thames as part of the 1,000-boat flotilla accompanying the Royal Barge.

I was thrilled, not only because being part of the Jubilee Pageant flotilla would be an honour, but because it was a completely new and exciting challenge.

The first meeting for the newly-formed crew of composers took place a month later. On a dull, chilly afternoon, at the Festival Pier on the South Bank, Gavin gathered us to brainstorm, to thrash out ideas and introduce us to the magnificent Georgian, the barge chosen to convey us along the Thames.

This is a new and exciting challenge for me as a composer

The next step was the allocation of titles for our pieces, taken from the titles of movements in Handel’s original Water Music.

I drew the title “Gigue”. It’s sometimes referred to as “Country Dance” in Handel’s original and it has an upbeat, rhythmic feel. I was hoping I could compose something uplifting and fun.

But there was an additional concern; the piece had to work outdoors, and be robust enough to be heard in any weather conditions; not a priority when you’re recording in the warmth of a state-of-the-art recording studio. This must have been what Handel meant by choosing instruments that would “travel well” along the river.

The natural rhythm of the Gigue is lively — a rollicking, upbeat feel — and for some reason it suggested pirates! Cartoon-style, old-world pirates, that is; think Captain Pugwash — three-cornered hats, parrots on shoulders, that sort of thing. I

decided that the piece would start by introducing a rag-tag Jolly Roger-flying renegade pirate crew, intent on attacking and plundering the flotilla, and that paved the way for a dramatic and powerful opening section.

The music then presents the courageous defenders of the flotilla, and when you hear it, it won’t be hard
to pick out the heroic trumpet and piccolo-led theme written for our gallant bunch.

I also imagined the pirates planning their high-seas raid in a tavern, a little worse for wear, and I composed a section, led by the solo violin, which accompanies their rum-fuelled plotting. The piece culminates in a final showdown; a battle to the finish, a final defiant statement of the heroic theme on solo trumpet, and the pirates retreat, never to return.

I will be on board the Georgian on June 3, baton in hand, score tucked under my arm, seasickness pills in my bag —well, we are going to be doing four whole knots.

The CD of The Diamond Jubilee Thames Pageant New Water Music is out now. Proceeds will go to the Thames Diamond Jubilee Foundation, supporting youth and education projects in the UK and throughout the Commonwealth.

Last updated: 11:46am, May 31 2012