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Handel: “Music for the Royal Fireworks”

Fireworks displays, like military parades, are the sort of free entertainment governments bestow on their citizenry from time to time in the hope of fostering patriotism and national contentment. The fireworks in this case had to do with a celebration in London of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, concluded the previous October to end the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48). One of the treaty provisions guaranteed George I and his heirs right of succession in England and in their German territories; that alone was cause for jubilation.

Handel provided a French suite for the occasion: a substantial overture followed by the usual series of two-part dances. The Frenchness of the dance forms is most likely symbolic, and both titled movements -the siciliana called “Peace” and the fleeful movement before the concluding minuets, called “Rejoicing” -convey the spirit of the events and were probably coordinated with the fireworks display.

The instruments are of the loud, outdoor sort preferred by the king: oboes, trumpets, and horns in threes, bassoons and contrabassoons for the bass, ad probably a great deal of improvised percussion. Strings must have doubled the wind parts, for the announced performing force consisted of nearly 100 musicians: 28 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 horns, 9 trumpets, and over 40 strings. Improvisation in the French style is to be expected from a good performance.

The Fireworks Music was rehearsed before a huge crowd on 21 April 1749. It threatened rain on the 27th, but the music commenced at the proper time, only to be interrupted by a fire at one end of the scaffolding. By that time, though, Handel’s music had already gained its following.

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