Handel was commissioned to write his wind band suite, Music for the Royal Fireworks, by King George II in 1749 to mark the signing of the Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle which had brought the War of the Austrian Succession to an end the year before.
This was near the peak of the German-born composer’s powers. He had come over to London when his employer George, Elector of Hanover, succeeded Anne as George I of Great Britain in 1714. Two years later he wrote his first outside orchestral suite, the Water Music, which impressed the monarch.
Handel had also written the acclaimed anthems for George II’s coronation. The build-up to this celebration was huge. Top-class concerts open to the general public were rare. Tickets were even sold for a rehearsal in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
During the preparations, it was made clear to Handel that the king had a preference for only wind instruments and drums. The composer dutifully left out the string instruments in the five-movement work.
It was scored for 24 oboes, 12 bassoons and a contrabassoon, nine natural trumpets, nine natural horns, three pairs of kettledrums and side drums which were given only the direction to play “ad libitum”.
Handel was specific about the numbers of instruments to each written part. The overture has three players to each of the three trumpet parts. The oboe parts are divided into three with groups of 12, eight and four. And the 12 bassoons are divided eight and four.
12,000 people flocked to the actual performance in Green Park. A traffic jam closed London Bridge for hours. But then the April weather intervened. It rained, most of the fireworks refused to light, and the few that did light caused the staging to catch fire.
Horace Walpole reported that the evening was “pitiful and ill-conducted” but “very little mischief was done, and but two persons killed”.
Handel later re-scored the suite for full orchestra. This was for a performance on 27 May at the Foundling Hospital. In notices he instructed the violins to play the oboe parts, the cellos and double basses the bassoon part, and the violas either a lower wind or bass part.
The instruments from the original band instrumentation play all the movements in the revised orchestral edition except the gentle Bourrée and the first Menuet, which are played by only the oboes, bassoons and strings.
Blind in old age, Handel continued to compose. He died in London on April 14, 1759. Beethoven thought Handel the greatest of all his predecessors. He once said: “I would bare my head and kneel at his grave”.
Tonight’s performance is from a score arranged by Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras who made a celebrated recording of the suite in 1959, which did much to revive the popularity of Handel’s instrumental music.
The music is heavily annotated with directions. “I believe it’s very important to edit orchestral parts explicitly and as thoroughly as possible, so that the musicians can play them without too much rehearsal,” he said.
The suite remains a royal favourite. It was also performed for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II on 1 June 2002, at the Buckingham Palace gardens, complete with fireworks.
Beverley Whitehead, flute