Handel's Water Music suite no. 1 starts with a slow overture with 1/16 notes at the middle and end of each measure:

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Some performances play it "as written" [Koopman], but some play the 1/16 notes delayed and shorter (something like 1/32) [Gardiner, Harnoncourt, Savall]. I don't recall shortening the 1/16s as a common baroque practice. Are there any performance instructions, historical notes or research as to why they can be played this way, and is this considered the historically informed way?

  • 1
    Interesting! All scores that I could find on IMSLP show 16th notes, not 32nds. My hunch would be to follow both Gardiner and Harnoncourt, but that's just because of my respect for those two conductors. Great question!
    – Richard
    Sep 16, 2018 at 15:15

3 Answers 3


In baroque practice by playing them as 32nds you are not shortening the sixteenths. You are shortening that figure, like you would with a crushed grace figure (acciaccatura), crushing the notes toward the quarter note. The emphasis in any grace figure whether notated as such belongs to the main note (the note being led to by the figure). Unfortunately there are no recordings of Händel’s orchestra. Cultural practices varied in rhythmic interpretations during this period. If it were French music we’d be discussing the practice of notes inégales. With Händel there is an interesting mix of the German and English styles. With Händel at the podium I would imagine his own style permeated the orchestra, whatever that style happened to be.

  • But notes inégales are a known practice and can be found in many pieces. I never heard any other piece in which what I show in this Handel's piece is done. I don't see this practice documented anywhere. Nov 17, 2018 at 18:48
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    It is, in a sense, French music: it introduces itself in French as Ouverture. The "French overture" was an established convention, and "overdotting" is one of its hallmarks. See google.com/books/edition/…, though there it's discussing the later "Fireworks Music," in which French gestures are even more significant (celebrating peace with France by using explosives and "military instruments"). See also the following conversation about perhaps not overdotting because it's really an entr'acte... Aug 23, 2021 at 13:11

My personal experience in orchestras has resulted in performing this piece both ways. When I asked the thirty-second-note conductor why he wanted it that way, he said it was how he had been taught to interpret it, turning those notes into acciaccaturas leading into the next measure.

So at least part of your answer is it's a taught tradition. Whether that tradition leads all the way back to the time of Handel might not have an answer.


fast 32nds: youtube , youtube , youtube , youtube and many others

slow 16ths: Boulez! , Koopman,

So, 'You pays your money and you takes your choice.'

  • 8
    Surely there's a better explanation than just "whatever you want," no?
    – Richard
    Sep 17, 2018 at 15:37
  • @Richard IMNSHO, "no." I firmly believe that, within rather broad limits, a performer or conductor should be allowed to interpret a piece as he sees fit, unless you are claiming "period instruments and original markings, etc" . As an example from another genre, I consider both Roy Orbison's original and VanHalen's cover of "Pretty Woman" to be excellent performances. Sep 17, 2018 at 17:27

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