The Essential Hyperion, Vol. 2
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Movement 1: Ouverture
Movement 2: Bourrée
Movement 3: La Paix
Movement 4: La Réjouissance
Movement 5: Menuet I and II
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.
from notes by Robert King © 1989