George Frideric Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks” (1749), composed at the behest of King George II of Great Britain for the great fireworks display celebrating the signing of the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, which concluded the War of the Austrian Succession on October 18, 1748.
(Performed by the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Raymond Leppard.)
The terms of the treaty were largely negotiated between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of France, with the other powers, chief among them Austria, Prussia and Spain, following their lead. The treaty affirmed the right of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa to the Habsburg thrones and recognized the gains of the rising Kingdom of Prussia, which had, with France and Spain, opposed the Habsburg monarchy and Great Britain. Although the position of Britain in the struggle was arguably less than paramount, it was decided that a great public fireworks celebration should be conducted to commemorate the peace. Handel composed his “Music for the Royal Fireworks” after being commissioned to provide “suitable music” for this celebration, to be held on April 27, 1749 in London in Green Park, by St. James’s.
The “Music for the Royal Fireworks” was first performed publicly six days before the great fireworks display, on April 21, 1749, when a full rehearsal of the music was held at Vauxhall Gardens. However, Handel himself objected to this performance. It is assumed his objection was due to logistics, but was more due to his promise to repeat the music for a charity concert at the Foundling Hospital four weeks after the main display. The Vauxhall performance was publicly advertised, and would thus be widely attended, so Handel feared it would lessen interest in subsequent performances.
At any rate, over twelve thousand people, each paying two shillings and six pence, rushed en-masse for the Vauxhall rehearsal, causing a three-hour traffic jam. The Westminster Bridge was closed for subsidence repairs, so London Bridge was severely overcrowded. Carriages were forced across with great inconvenience, and there were reports of scuffles among the footmen. The rehearsal itself was accompanied by an 18 cannon salute, conducted with powder that had been delivered in a batch of 36 pounds.
Against George II’s wishes, Handel insisted upon including strings in the orchestra for the main celebration. Renowned designer Florentine Servandoni was summoned to construct what was dubbed an enormous “machine” as the centerpiece. A great wood and canvas structure measuring over 400 feet long and 100 feet high, it was constructed in the manner of “a magnificent Doric Temple” and executed in the trompe-l’oeil style. It was complete with a triumphal arch topped with a grand Sun, bearing the latin epigraph “VIVAT REX” in letters of “bright fire” which were to burn for five hours. The structure featured impressive side pavilions and elaborate decoration.
On the great day, the King and his entourage toured the “machine,” presenting purses to its operatives while the entire band played, commencing at 6 o’clock. The beginning of the fireworks display went well enough, as “The Gentleman’s Magazine” vol. 19 (April, 1749), describes:
“At half an hour after eight, the works were begun by a single rocket from before the library, then the cannon within the chevaux de frize were fired…101 pieces of cannon placed on Constitution-hill, were discharged; after which a great number of rockets of different sorts, balloons, &c. were discharged, to surprising perfection.”
However, catastrophe ensued when the great “machine” misfired and burst into intense flame. The left pavilion of the structure was most affected, and according to the “Description II” of the celebration, published afterwards, the contrivance “burnt with great Fury.” Two of the arches smoldered to the ground, and the whole building was only saved when carpenters cast away another two arches and fire engines were brought in to suppress the flames. The stress was apparently great, because another misfortune followed when Florentine Servandoni threw a tantrum and drew his sword on Charles Frederick, Comptroller of the event. Servandoni was imprisoned but released the next day after tendering his apologies. In the end, the great sun, “32 feet in Diameter,” the literal high-light of the arrangement, survived the disaster to fulfill expectations.
Handel’s orchestration begins with an Overture suited for the royal progress across St. James’s park, the middle portion of which relaxes and turns toward B minor. Then, a Bourrée for woodwind and string follows, moving into a siciliano entitled “La Paix,” which splendidly reflects the eighteenth-century view of peace as a country pastorale. The piece then moves to the brilliant and varied “Réjouissance,” and finally, is concluded with two Minuets, finishing off the music in an august atmosphere.