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A Very Quick Guide to Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks

Handel, George II and the Royal Fireworks
Handel, George II and the Royal Fireworks

Music history abounds with disastrous premieres, but few come close to that of Handel’s ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks.’ Featuring a royally hobbled orchestra, fire, water and some maimings, things did not go as well as the composer had hoped. More than 250 years later, however, it is considered one of the Handel's best works...

What's it all about?

The British had been involved in the War of the Austrian Succession for 8 years (1740–8). One of its battles, that of Dettingham in 1743, in which the French had been deferred by the British had already resulted in one masterpiece from Handel, the splendid ‘Dettingen’ Te Deum:

The war ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapellein and to mark it Handel was commissioned by King George II to write a new work to accompany fireworks in London in April 1749.

What does it consist of?

Written for a large orchestra, the work is in five moments:

1. A rousing Overture in the French style (lots of dotted rhythms!), which leads straight to a vigorous Allegro in 3. The first movement is by far the most extensive of the work.
2. An elegant Bourrée
3. ‘La Paix’, a gentle siciliano in 12/8 time
4. La Réjouissance, (‘The Rejoicing’), an sturdy martial movement in 4.
5. ‘Minuet I’ - a moment of repose in a minor key. This connects to the final rousing Minuet II.

It takes around 15-20 minutes to perform.

Why was the orchestra hobbled?

King George II had a been in his bonnet about strings so, against the composer’s wishes, insisted that it only include winds and percussion. In order for the music to carry sufficiently outside and against the noise of fireworks Handel assembled an enormous orchestra, containing 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, a contrabassoon, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, three sets of timpani, and side drums. It nowadays rarely performed in this orchestration, but one exponent of it was period instrument conductor Robert King:

Handel was never too happy about leaving out strings so, ignoring regal tastes, he added them for a later performance at the Foundling Hospital. It is the version that is most widely played today.

Fire and Water?

Neither weather nor fireworks behaved on the night of the premiere. A downpour resulted in many of the fireworks not going off. And unfortunately the rain did not prevent the lavish stage, which had been the brainchild of a crack team of Italian designers, from catching fire.

And a maiming?—oh come on....

The event also made use of a set of 101 canons. During the rehearsal for this, one of the soldiers had his hand blown to smithereens. And during the concert itself, a stray firework ignited one of the ladies’ dress, another burned two soldiers and blinded a third.

So a catastrophe, then?

Nope, not a bit of it. A measure of Handel’s popularity, and the buzz around the premiere was that even the rehearsal, conducted in Vauxhall Gardens, attracted a crowd of thousands. And the sodden, botched premiere was judged to be a great musical success.

The work has never since lost its place as one of classical music’s best loved works and, nowadays, alongside his Water Music, is considered the composer’s greatest orchestral score.

Offical line: ‘No Strings Attached’

Out of line: ‘Give the cannons a big hand...’