George Frideric Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks

Context

George Frideric Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was originally composed for a suite of wind instruments. Handel re-orchestrated the suite for an orchestra after the original performance. The suite was composed in 1749 through the request of George II of Great Britain for use of the fireworks display in London’s Green Park. The fireworks were celebrating the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle in 1748.

It wasn’t usual for Handel to compose for wind instruments alone, however the Duke of Montagu was against adding stringed instruments. The Duke had made clear to Handel that the King had a preference for martial instruments such as trumpets, oboes and percussion. Handel omitted the strings he had already composed for against his will, and proceeded to compose an all-wind (plus brass and percussion) work.

The fireworks display sadly did not live up to expectations. Though that’s not to say that Handel’s music disappointed. The weather was rainy and clouds were thick which caused audiences to lose sight of some of the display. The weather also didn’t help the firework technicians, who began to misfire which led to one of the pavilion’s catching fire. People were hit by fireworks, including three soldiers.

Handel’s music went down a hit, however, with audiences engaging and really enjoying the fantastic display of musicianship. On May 27th 1749, Handel re-orchestrated Music for the Royal Fireworks for a performance in the Foundling Hospital. The upper strings joined the oboes, whereas the cellos and basses joined the bassoon lines. This created the piece that Handel had originally envisioned, with richer textures and more depth in timbre.

 

The Music

Scored into five movements (six if you separate the final movement), Music for the Royal Fireworks is full of lighthearted catchy melodies, exciting twists and turns and Handel’s signature style.

Movement I – Overture

Opening the suite with a full length French-style Overture, Handel went all out to start this suite in scintillating style. By far the longest and most lavish movement, the music emphasises Handel’s keen use of natural trumpets and drums. The opposing light and highly decorated oboe and string melody starts an exciting dialogue between the winds and brass.

The score calls for nine natural trumpets and nine natural horns, which certainly packs a punch! Their entries are the most celebratory in character, with the string and wind interludes providing a sweet accompaniment. The Overture ends with an exciting fanfare between the trumpets which builds excitement. The strings play fast runs before the ensemble unite as the trumpet adds decoration before landing on back for the perfect cadence on the tonic.

Movement II – Bourrée

The perky second movement is in the form of a lively bourrée dance. Much like a gavotte, the bourrée was a popular dance in France. The light and bouncy strings sits on top of the chugging bass motif which keeps the music driving. This movement highlights the winds and strings, with the brass not featuring at all.

Movement III – La Paix

The lyrical third movement is based as a siciliana. Marked ‘Largo’, the luscious string melodies sing above all else. Handel’s use of trills and mordents adds to the beauty and lightness of this movement. Again, the brass are not utilised in this movement. After a few repetitions of the main theme, the movement comes to gentle close.

Movement IV – La Réjouissance

Perhaps the most famous movement of the five, La Réjouissance sees the brass back in top form action. Opening with layered entries from the trumpets, the main theme is set out from the off. The exciting and bombastic percussion accompaniment adds to the overall celebratory feel of the music. After the extensive exposition led by the trumpets, the winds and horns take over the melody for more stately proclamation. The trumpets return once more for another round of the theme as the excitement builds up to the final few bars where the ensemble unite for another perfect cadence.

Movement V – Menuets I & II

The first menuet is less than a minute in length and is dominated by the strings. The fairly slow walking pace of the melody gives it room to breathe before the finale movement.

The second menuet is opened by the trumpets. There is a pompous and stately feel to this main melody which represents the royalty that this music was composed for. The wind and horn interlude again gives a great reflection on the more outlandish trumpet sections. The suite comes to a close as the ensemble being to get slower before a loud drum roll and the final chord reach the end together.

 

Final Thoughts

George Frideric Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks is one of the composer’s most well-loved suites, alongside other works such as Water Music, Zadok the Priest and Messiah. Handel’s light touch shines through the intricate melodies are interwoven into the fabric of the suite. The playful and catchy melodies are still popular today, with the suite being performed regularly by chamber orchestras around the world.

 

Happy Reading!

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