Please wait...

Hyperion Records

CDH55375 - Handel: Fireworks Music & Water Music
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
CDH55375

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: April 2009
Total duration: 66 minutes 55 seconds

Fireworks Music & Water Music
Ouverture  [9'45]
Bourrée  [1'38]
La Paix  [3'33]
La Réjouissance  [2'17]
Menuet I and II  [2'46]
[Menuet]  [2'55]
Air  [2'31]
Menuet  [2'30]
Bourrée  [1'02]
Hornpipe  [1'17]
[Andante]  [4'19]
[Ouverture]  [2'00]
Alla Hornpipe  [2'58]
[Menuet]  [3'03]
Rigaudon  [2'42]
Lentement  [2'03]
Bourrée  [0'51]
Menuet [I]  [1'00]
[Menuet II]  [2'10]
[Trumpet Menuet]  [1'22]

On a cold January day in 1989, two dozen oboes, twelve bassoons, nine horns, nine trumpets and two giant double drums were gathered in a north London church to make what became of Hyperion’s most iconic recordings: The King’s Consort’s recreation of Handel’s Musick for the Royal Fireworks is a sonic triumph of jaw-dropping majesty, its authenticity only stopping short at burning down the venue.

Ten years later Robert King and The King’s Consort turned their attentions to the Water Music. Handel’s commission was for an enormous party on the river Thames given by George I. A large orchestra was present on the musicians' barge: a good-size string section (despite the King’s outspoken loathing of ‘violeens’) and a substantial wind presence. The sound of a large baroque wind band produces a magnificent sonority. Similarly, a colourful continuo force on the river seems probable. The rhythmic impetus of a pair of baroque guitars combined with the colours of two harpsichords lends the music a vital danceband-like rhythm section, much in keeping with the King’s colourful intentions for his evening’s entertainment!

All faithfully recreated, of course. Except for the barge.


Other recommended albums
'A Christmas Present from Polyphony' (NOEL2)
A Christmas Present from Polyphony
Buy by post £4.50 NOEL2  Super-budget price sampler — Last few CD copies remaining  
'Fire burning in snow' (CDA67600)
Fire burning in snow
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67600 
'Lauridsen: Lux aeterna & other choral works' (CDA67449)
Lauridsen: Lux aeterna & other choral works
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67449 
'Tallis: Spem in alium' (CDGIM006)
Tallis: Spem in alium
Buy by post £11.75 CDGIM006 
'Vivaldi: La Senna festeggiante' (CDA67361/2)
Vivaldi: La Senna festeggiante
Buy by post £27.98 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA67361/2  2CDs Archive Service  

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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.

Over thirty years earlier, on Wednesday 17 July 1717, most of London’s dignitaries and nobility had been summoned by King George I to a spectacular outdoor event on the River Thames. The party boarded open barges at Whitehall and sailed three miles up river to Chelsea. Friedrich Bonet, a Prussian resident in London, described what happened in his diary:

At about eight in the evening the King repaired to his barge. Next to the King’s barge was that of the musicians, about 50 in number—trumpets, cors de chasse [horns], oboes, bassoons, German flutes [traverse flutes], French flutes [recorders], violins and basses, but no singers. The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel, a native of Halle and his Majesty’s principal Court composer. His Majesty’s approval of it was so great that he caused it to be played three times in all, twice before and once after supper, even though each performance lasted an hour. The evening was as fine as could be desired for this occasion and the number of barges and boats full of people wanting to listen was beyond counting. In order to make this entertainment the more exquisite, Madam de Kilmanseck had arranged a choice supper at the late Lord Ranelagh’s villa on the river at Chelsea, where the King went at one in the morning. He left at three o’clock and returned to St James’s at about half past four. The concert cost Baron Kilmanseck £150 for the musicians alone.

The Daily Courant reported similar details of this extravagant event two days later. One barge ‘was employ’d for the Musick, wherein were 50 instruments of sorts who play’d the finest Symphonies, compos’d express for this Occasion, by Mr Hendel; which his Majesty liked so well, that he caus’d it to be plaid over three times in going and returning’.

There can be little doubt from these two sources that the assembled company heard the collection of movements which was in due course to become known as Handel’s Water Music.

1717 was a bad year for the English monarchy. A rift between George I and his son (the future George II) was escalating: Bonet noted in his diary that the son and his wife, the future Queen Caroline, were conspicuously absent from the water party. The elder George appears to have attempted to cover the growing rift by increasing his public profile with a series of summer events, many held at Hampton Court. Thus his vast water party of July 1717, the largest recorded and held just two days after Parliament had risen for the summer recess, seems to fit this plan. (The dispute eventually rumbled on until November, when a major quarrel resulted in the ejection of the Prince of Wales from the King’s palace.)

Though both Bonet and The Daily Courant suggest that Handel wrote music especially for the water party, it is possible that some movements were recycled from earlier works. Scholars have suggested that the Water Music may even have started life as two orchestral suites or concertos, to which Handel added movements with horns and trumpets. No autograph manuscript survives, but the work re-emerged in a variety of forms and performances in London over the next thirty years. But published editions were elusive: Walsh’s parts for the ‘Celebrated Water Musick’ of 1734 contained only around half the movements, although he published a transcription for harpsichord in 1743. It was only in 1788 that Arnold presented all the movements in full score. So it is to two manuscript harpsichord transcriptions from the early 1720s, one by Handel’s faithful copyist J C Smith the Elder, that we have turned to try to gain the most likely original performing order.

Handel’s scoring is especially colourful. The inclusion of two baroque horns presents the first known instance of Handel writing in London for the instruments. He holds them in reserve during the Ouverture (whose ‘indoor’ scoring, especially in its concertino grouping of two solo violins and the glorious oboe solo of the Adagio e staccato, suggests that these sections may well have been recycled by Handel), but thereafter they establish themselves as the dominant instrumental colour of the F major Suite. Handel is nonetheless careful to rest both the ear of the listener and the lips of the players from too much of the horn sound; some of this ‘intervening’ music is especially delicious. The contrast of wind trio against tutti strings in the Andante, capped by the colour of high bassoons used as a tenor instrument, produces glorious sonorities, and the sparing use of the horns to form a descant to the now famous Air presents another remarkable colour. Two brief dance movements, a Bourrée and a Hornpipe, with their instruction ‘three times’, allow tutti strings to contrast with an ‘outdoor’ wind band before Handel produces another lyrical ‘link’ movement. Although the function of this movement is to modulate from F major to the trumpet’s D major, Handel produces some of the most ravishing of all his instrumental writing—the now-gentle winds contrast with strings, and both are complemented with the colour, once again, of high bassoons.

The D major Trumpet Suite is, not just by its scoring but also by its extrovert nature, much more suited to outdoor performance, contrasting lively movements such as the Hornpipe and the Bourrée with more stately dances such as the Menuet and the Lentement. That could hardly be said for the G major Flute Suite, whose movements come interspersed with those of the Trumpet Suite. The Flute Suite’s predominantly delicate textures suggest that the musicians’ barge must have been moored very close to that of the King. Here there are wonderfully inventive pieces of writing and varied orchestrations: the delicate scoring of the flutes’ Menuet, the insistently lively rhythms of the Rigaudon (with its prominent upbeat, borrowed from its French origins), the scoring of two highly contrasted movements for flauto piccolo (soprano recorder)—one almost Viennese in its delicious poise, the other, the first Country Dance, fast and lively, and a vehicle for Handel’s recorder player to show his virtuosity—and, a trick which still never fails to bring a broad smile to the faces of both players and audiences, the gutsy scoring of the second Country Dance, with bassoons, second violins and violas giving their rustic best in a splendid imitation of English folk music.

A large orchestra was present on the musicians’ barge at Chelsea in 1717. There would clearly have been a good-size string section, but Handel’s music seems also to demand a substantial wind presence, especially for the dance movements where the winds engage in dialogue with the strings. The sound of a baroque wind band, with nine or ten reed players, produces a magnificent sonority, both on its own and in binding the tuttis. Similarly, a colourful continuo presence on the river seems equally right. The rhythmic impetus of a pair of baroque guitars—an instrument far more favoured in baroque times than is sometimes assumed—combined with the colours of two harpsichords lends the music a vital danceband-like rhythm section, much in keeping with the King’s colourful intentions for his evening’s entertainment!

Robert King © 2009

   English   Français   Deutsch