Work: Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV 351
About This Work
The War of Austrian Succession was brought to an end by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, signed in October 1748. Although England had been a somewhat reluctant participant and had gained little from the war, preparations for celebrations commenced the
following month with the erection of a large wooden structure incorporating a triumphal arch in London's Green Park -- the framework for a large and impressive display of fireworks. Peace was formally declared in the following February, and Handel, who had then just completed two contrasting oratorios, Susanna and Solomon, was commissioned to provide music for the occasion. Obviously, such music would have to be both grand in scale and suitable for open-air performance -- this latter aspect, in practical terms, calling for a large contingent of wind and brass instruments. Handel originally intended to make use of no fewer than 16 each of trumpets and horns. However, he ran into trouble with the organizers, evidenced by a sequence of bad-tempered letters. Ultimately, he settled for something a little more "modest": 24 oboes, 12 bassoons (including a contrabassoon), nine each of trumpets and horns, three pairs of kettledrums, and an unspecified number of side drums.
Music for the Royal Fireworks consists of five movements, commencing with a suitably pompous and ceremonial Overture in the French style: a slow, dotted-rhythm introduction followed by a contrapuntal Allegro. The suite continues with a lively Bourée, a quieter movement entitled "La paix," the ebullient "La réjouissance," and a final Minuet. A second Minuet, in D minor, which seems to have been added later, was probably used by the composer as a trio section before a final triumphant return to the main Minuet in D major.
The rehearsal of Music for the Royal Fireworks in Vauxhall Gardens on April 21, 1749 takes a place as one of the best attended in the history of musical performance. A huge crowd, said to number in excess of 12,000, is reported to have turned up, blocking many surrounding streets and causing traffic chaos. The actual event was rather less successful; observers reported that in particular, many of the fireworks failed to impress. To make matters worse, the display set fire to one of the pavilions that formed part of the structure. A month later, the music was performed in the rather more peaceful surroundings of the Foundling Hospital. For this occasion Handel reverted to a traditional combination of strings and winds. This is the version in which the music, one of Handel's most popular works, is most often heard today, although at least two recordings have been made which employ the massive wind forces heard at the first performance.
-- Brian Robins
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