Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV 351

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            Handel, of course, shares the bill with J. S. Bach as the two dominant, most respected, and influential composers of the late Baroque period—roughly the first half of the 1700s.  And while they both exemplify the basic musical styles of the time, they differ in many important ways.  Bach was a servant of the church, whose cantatas and other sacred works—as well as works for keyboard--are one of the great legacies of music.   He was inspired by Italian vocal style, French dance rhythms, and German contrapuntal traditions, and integrated them into the peerless music that we know.  He lived modestly in small towns, never traveled very far, and while not an obscure composer, was primarily known for his ability as an organist.

            Handel, on the other hand, lived among the “rich and famous,” garnered his reputation from his many operas, traveled freely, and was in the employ of earls, princes, and kings.  He became a British subject, grew rich, and was buried with state honors in Westminster Abbey.  In contradistinction to Bach, Handel was a master of composing in the various national styles, choosing to preserve their distinctive characteristics—a “coordinator” of national styles, as one scholar deemed him.  He early on spent time in Italy, composing operas, cantatas, and oratorios, and learning well the Italian style.  Returning to Germany, he became the head of music for the Elector of Hanover, whom we all remember as the future King George I of Great Britain.  Handel moved to London permanently in 1712, and soon became the musical toast of the country, esteemed for his operas in the Italian style, and, of course, later, his oratorios.   The last decade of his life was marred by ill health, a serious accident, and by his death in 1759, a botched cataract operation that had left him blind.

            His integration into the musical life of the nation at the highest level was complete.  He furnished many compositions for the British monarchy, and the Music for the Royal Fireworks is representative.  Wars between the great powers of Europe plagued the Western world during most of the 1740s, 50s, and 60s.  We all remember the French and Indian Wars in this country—sideshows to European wars, including the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63.  The precursor to that war was the War of the Austrian Succession of 1740-48.  In both wars, all the big powers fought each other under a variety of complex, often deceptive pretenses.  In any case the peace treaty that ended the first conflict—the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748)—was the occasion for a great celebration in London.  And in the spirit of the extravagant festivities, Handel, England’s greatest composer, was called upon to provide the music to accompany a stunning fireworks show in London’s Green Park.

            The gala event was devised and masterminded by Italians, who came to design and build the pavilions, and oversee the fireworks.  A really big show it was, with over a hundred cannons, twenty-four oboes, twelve bassoons, nine trumpets, nine horns, and a gaggle of drums.  King George was adamant that only these wind instruments be employed, for they constituted the military bands of the time, but Handel later added string parts.  For this event Handel provided a suite consisting of five movements:  an overture, a bourée, a siciliana, an allegro, and two successive minuets.  This was a few decades before the development of what audiences now think of as the standard fare of symphony orchestras:  the symphony.  Rather, in those days instrumental groups usually played compositions composed of a suite of several relatively short movements, most of them being specific dances.  Later, of course, only one dance movement survived in common orchestral usage, and that was the minuet, so familiar in the works of Haydn and Mozart.

            Music for the Royal Fireworks opens with an overture.  In those days there were more or less two kinds—French and Italian—and this one is French.  Stemming from its use in French operas of the century before, its standard form is one that opens slowly, with the stately dotted rhythms so appropriate for the operas of the court of Louis XIV.  That quickly yields to a faster section, and then ends with a return of the pompous opening. Music lovers will remember that Handel’s overture to his evergreen Messiah is exactly in this style.  The second movement is a French dance, the elegant bourée—a moderately quick dance in double time, with a short “pickup.”  The third dance, La Paix (Peace) is a siciliana, an Italian dance with a characteristic dotted rhythm and a gentle, swaying feeling.  The siciliana rhythm is still a common rhythm in music, and perhaps the most common example would be the rhythm of the Christmas carol, Silent NightLa Réjouissance (Rejoicing) aptly reflects the conceit of its title.  Its joy is effusive. Finally, a pair of minuets, a dance familiar to most of us, ends the suite.

            Handel’s music was a great success, and along with his Water Music (written much earlier), joined his Messiah as his greatest hits.  Alas, that could not be said of the celebration, itself.  After rain delays, the fireworks caught the temporary pavilions on fire—along with a woman’s clothes—and several soldiers were grievously injured by cannons and rockets.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan