The War of the Austrian Succession sapped Europe’s prosperity and will from 1740 to 1748. As soon as the ink was dry on the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, England was ready for a celebration. It was set for 27 April, 1749, and it was to be a magnificent party with fireworks and music provided by none other than the great Handel.
For some reason, though, apparently King George wasn’t too keen on the idea of having any music at all! Or so we read in a series of rather huffy letters which flew among Handel, the king’s Master General of Ordnance (who had the say-so over military music), and Charles Frederick, who had been assigned the remarkable title of Comptroller of his Majesty’s Fireworks for War as for Triumph. However, once Handel had assured the King that the music wouldn’t be overly long, "he was better satisfied."
But he "hoped there would be no fiddles."
There were none.
Handel did try a few times to sneak a few violins into the band, but in the end (perhaps placing some significant value on his own head) he bowed to George’s wishes — and to practicality, since for outdoor performance in such a situation, strings wouldn’t really have added much. His ensemble was as "warlike" as they come. And it was big: 9 trumpets, 9 horns, 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 3 pair of kettledrums, and an unspecified number of side drums. What a magnificent amount of volume it must have made!
A public rehearsal of Handel’s music on 21 April in Vauxhall Gardens drew a record crowd of 12,000, causing a 3-hour traffic jam on London Bridge. Maybe the tie-up was more newsworthy than the music; the press tells us much more about the rehearsal than about the actual performance at Green Park on the 27th. However, one report identifies Handel’s music by its alternate name — A Grand Overture of Warlike Instruments.
Though we know it today as Music for the Royal Fireworks, it appears that Handel’s music didn’t actually play during the fireworks display. That was a good thing for the musicians. The display was apparently a bit disappointing: "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 anybody had patience to wait the finishing." But more significantly, one of the pavilions — almost exactly where Handel’s band had been playing the hour before — caught fire during the fireworks and burned to the ground.
Not one to let good music lie, Handel programmed his Grand Overture of Warlike Instruments on many other occasions, including a performance at the Foundling Hospital a month later.
And yes, he often added strings.
This article was originally published in WKSU Classical on 19 June 2009.