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Hyperion Records

CDA66350 - Handel: Fireworks Music & Coronation Anthems
The building erected in Green Park for the firework display to celebrate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1749.
Coloured engraving reproduced by permission of the Gerald Coke Collection
CDA66350

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: October 1989
Total duration: 56 minutes 10 seconds

CD COMPACT AWARD, SPAIN

'Mightily impressive' (The Guardian)

'This recording recreates the scale of [the] original outdoor performance with 24 oboes, nine each of horns and trumpets, a dozen bassoons, and a mighty percussion of four pairs of timpani including a unique pair of extra-large 'double drums' and four side-drummers. The effect is shattering, the clearest justification for 'authenticity' in performance' (BBC Music Magazine Top 1000 CDs Guide)

'Those two dozen oboes make magnificent and surprisingly clear sound, and the inclusion of the glorious Coronation Anthems composed for George II's coronation makes the disc one of unashamed musical splendour' (The Sunday Times)

Fireworks Music & Coronation Anthems
Ouverture  [9'45]
Bourrée  [1'38]
La Paix  [3'33]
La Réjouissance  [2'17]
Menuet I and II  [2'46]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
An English coronation service has always been an occasion of great magnificence, and one whose pomp and ceremony is enhanced by music of equal splendour. King George I died on 11 June 1727, and his successor, George II, was proclaimed king four days later. There seems to be no official mention of the coronation service until the Privy Council met on 11 August, when it would have been normal procedure to entrust the composition of the music for the service to the Organist and Composer of the Chapel Royal. However, William Croft died on 14 August, and although his successor Maurice Greene was recommended on 18 August by the Bishop of Salisbury, the appointment was not made until 4 September. Whether Greene was expected to compose the music is uncertain, but by 9 September it was known that ‘Mr Hendel, the famous Composer to the opera, is appointed by the King to compose the Anthem at the Coronation which is to be sung in Westminster Abbey at the Grand Ceremony’. It would seem likely that Handel began work immediately on the music, for the service was scheduled for 4 October, although, in the event, it was postponed for a week because of the danger of flooding near the Abbey. However, an order of service was not agreed until the Privy Council met on 20 September, by which time we may reasonably expect Handel to have written much of his music: this may account for discrepancies between the texts which he set and those in the official order of service. It also appears that Handel was somewhat put out by being ordered by the bishops to set certain texts for the service—‘… at which he murmured, and took offence, as he thought it implied his ignorance of the Holy Scriptures: “I have read my Bible very well, and shall chuse for myself”’.

Handel was, however, traditional in his choice of texts. There was little choice for two of them, for Zadok the Priest was the proper anthem for the Anointing, and My heart is inditing was specific to the coronation of the Queen. A copy of the official Order of Service survives at Lambeth Palace with comments by the Archbishop, William Wake, but the Clerk of the Cheque, Jonathan Smith, kept an actual record of what was performed. According to Wake’s official order of service, The King shall rejoice should have been sung at the Recognition, when the King was presented to the people, but instead it was performed at the Crowning, and Smith records that Let thy hand be strengthened was sung. In the official running order that anthem was meant to be performed at the Inthronisation. Of the four anthems, Let thy hand is the only one that does not include trumpets and drums, quite possibly for the practical reason that they would at that stage of the service have been elsewhere in the Abbey, having just sounded a fanfare.

Not everything seems to have gone to plan musically at the service, as Wake records. The Chapel Royal choir seems not to have achieved a terribly high standard of performance, especially as five of the ten boys had left with broken voices in June, and the Archbishop caustically noted against the first anthem the comment, ‘The Anthem all in confusion: All irregular in the Music’. To mitigate, the performers were placed on two specially built platforms on either side of the Abbey, with their view of each other interrupted by the altar, and coordination must have been difficult. Some forty voices are recorded by the Norwich Gazette to have taken part, and Handel’s score indicates that he was expecting a total of forty-seven singers. Less convincing is a report that there were a hundred and sixty musicians: we know that there were theoretically twenty-four string players (the ‘vingt-quatre violons’) in the royal establishment, though this was rarely at that full strength by the late 1720s, and that there was an establishment of Royal Trumpeters, with their own Kettle-drummer. We also know that fifty-seven ‘supernumary’ instrumentalists, paid three guineas each, were hired, and that the Abbey’s own organ was not used: instead one was specially supplied by Christopher Shrider at a cost of a hundred and thirty guineas.

With such jubilant texts and large forces, Handel nonetheless made room within the four anthems for gentle movements. ‘Let justice and judgement’ forms a delicately contrasting middle section between ‘Let thy hand be strengthened’ and its concluding ‘Alleluia’, and ‘My heart is inditing’ follows its grand opening with two lyrical movements, ‘Kings’ daughters’ and ‘Upon thy right hand’. The King shall rejoice too has an elegantly swung middle movement, ‘Exceeding glad shall he be’, full of melismata and suspensions. Only in Zadok the Priest do we find a continuous anthem in three sections: its subsequent popularity, especially in its opening orchestral build-up and mighty first choir entry, has ensured that it has been performed at every coronation since 1727. But in all four anthems, even taken out of their original context and performed without the visual splendour of a British coronation, we find Handel’s choral writing and orchestral accompaniment at its most convincing and magnificent.


In October 1748 the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle brought to an end the War of the Austrian Succession. It was a war which England had entered with some reluctance, and from which she gained very little, but she had acquitted herself fairly honourably. In November, bands of workmen began to erect an enormous wooden structure in London’s Green Park, 410 feet long and 114 feet high. It was designed in Palladian style, with a central triumphal arch and colonnades, statues of Greek gods and a bas-relief of the King by one Giovanni Servadoni (actually a Frenchman, Jean-Nicholas Servan), best known for his work in the London theatres. It was to be the basis of an enormous fireworks display.

By February 1749, when peace was officially declared, the ‘machine’ was almost completed, and Handel, already well known for his ‘Fire Musick’ from Atalanta (which was a regular accompaniment to firework displays in the pleasure gardens), was commissioned to supply suitable music. In addition, fireworks experts were engaged from Italy. However, for once Handel and royal taste were at odds, and a sequence of ill-tempered letters flew between the Duke of Montague, Master General of the Ordnance (responsible for military music), Charles Frederick, the grandly titled ‘Comptroller of his Majesty’s Fireworks as well as for War as for Triumph’ and Handel. It appeared that the King was originally against any music at all but later, on hearing ‘the quantity and nomber of martial musick there was to be, he was better satisfied, and said he hoped there would be no fidles’. There was a further problem when Handel proposed to lessen the number of trumpets and french horns from sixteen to a mere twelve, and, much worse in the official eye, to have ‘violeens’. On 28 March 1749 the Duke wrote: ‘I dont at all doubt but when the King hears it he will be very much displeased … it ought to consist of no kind of instruments but martial instruments … it behoves Hendel to have as many trumpets and martial instruments as possible, tho he dont retrench the violins, which I think he should … the King has, within this fortnight, expressed himself to this purpose’.

A public rehearsal was held (not without another dispute, this time over the venue) on the 21 April in the Vauxhall Gardens. A huge audience, ‘over 12,000’, and certainly the largest ever seen at Vauxhall, attended, paying half-a-crown. They also caused such a traffic jam on London Bridge that ‘no carriage could pass for three hours’. The actual performance in Green Park took place at 6pm, with the fireworks following shortly afterwards: the royal party probably made their tour of the machine during the music. There is no evidence to suggest that fireworks and music actually coincided, which, with the events that followed, was maybe fortunate for the instrumentalists! Little comment appears to have been made about Handel’s music, but the fireworks appear to have been rather a disappointment:

The rockets and whatever was thrown up into the air, succeeded mighty well; but the wheels, and all that was to compose the principal part, were pitiful and ill-conducted, with no changes of coloured fires and shapes: the illumination was mean, and lighted so slowly that scarce any body had patience to wait the finishing.

In addition, the right-hand pavilion (near to which the orchestra had been performing an hour earlier) caught fire during the display, and, being all wood, burned to the ground. This was obviously too much for the designer, Servadoni, who drew his sword on Charles Frederick for so conspicuously failing in his role of Comptroller of the Fireworks: Servadoni was ‘disarmed and taken into custody, but dischar’d the next day on asking pardon’.

The autograph score of the Musick for the Royal Fireworks, now held in The British Library, shows signs of the negotiations between Handel and the authorities. They seem eventually to have settled on nine trumpets, nine horns, twenty-four oboes, twelve bassoons (including a contrabassoon), and three pairs of kettledrums. There are indications too for an unspecified number of side-drums. We also know that a pair of ‘double drums’, a particularly large and unique pair of timpani held (and sadly later destroyed in a fire) at the Tower of London, were hired for the occasion. Deleted from Handel’s very specific instructions in the score (even down to how many players should be distributed on each part) is a serpent, and also crossed out in some of the later movements are the indications for string doubling. Although there has been some argument that strings may have taken part in this first performance, it seems unlikely that Handel would in the end have gone directly against royal wishes: rather, it seems, he would have left those comments that he did not cross out for his publisher, or perhaps for the performance that took place at the Foundling Hospital a month later. In purely practical terms, a string section, competing with such a vast array of wind, brass and percussion, on what turned out to be a rather damp April evening, would have added relatively little to the overall volume of sound when playing out of doors.

From the autograph score in The British Library it seems evident that Handel added a second Minuet (in D minor) after the other movements were composed. Most probably this would have formed a ‘trio’ to the major-key Minuet, rather than being performed as a prelude, as it more frequently is nowadays. This idea certainly helps make sense of the major Minuet, and also makes the final grand return, with ‘tutti insieme and the Side Drums’ (and in our performance the double drums as well) all the more exciting and majestic.

The unique sound of such a huge Baroque wind band is here recreated on record for the first time. To be able to gather together such vast forces is a considerable tribute to the progress that has been made in ‘period instrument’ playing, for a few years ago such a performance on instruments that the composer would have recognized would have been almost unthinkable. In Handel’s performance it seems likely that, to make up the numbers, a number of ‘squaddies’ would have been drafted in: the vastly augmented forces of The King’s Consort gathered in January 1989 did not require that step! This recording had, for technical and logistical reasons, to take place indoors (in winter), rather than outside (on Handel’s damp April evening), though we used a large recording space that would not be too far removed from an outdoor sound. The results are remarkable. The blend of two dozen oboes and twelve bassoons produces a sonority of considerable richness, and, when added to that of nine horns playing softly, as in ‘La Paix’, produces a ravishing sound quite unlike anything that modern orchestral instruments can produce. And, of course, Handel’s grandest moments with the full band, including all nine trumpets and the two giant double drums, could hardly have produced a more stately way of expressing a nation’s rejoicing.

Robert King © 1989

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