Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks: Shock and Awe

George Frideric Handel is best known for restoring English music to its’ highly respected and acclaimed position, following years of compositional drought after the death of Purcell in 1695. He wrote music that was especially melodic and cosmopolitan in approach.

In 1705, he abandoned his former post in Hamburg for success in England. He stayed there until his death in 1759, having written music for many rich aristocrats, kings and queens, and of course, the paying public.

Music for the Royal Fireworks was written in 1749 for King George II to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. A pavilion over four hundred feet long was built especially for the event in Green Park, and the music was to be the accompaniment of an immense pyrotechnic display. Originally the king insisted on using “martial instruments” (brass, woodwind and percussion), presumably to match the event. However, after its’ premiere Handel’s reworked the ensemble to suit his original wishes, and the ensemble was changed to include strings instruments. This is the version that is most well known and performed today.

The night was a tremendous success, over 12,000 people attended and this immense number brought the city of London to a standstill. It was remembered for both music and dodgy extravaganza. The fireworks shocked, awed and bored. While some rockets succeeded in creating a spectacle, others were pitiful; and the right pavilion caught fire and was burnt down in the middle of the show.

The suite  is in five movements:

      1. Ouverture: Adagio, Allegro, Lentement, Allegro
      2. Bourrée  (A quick French dance in double time)
      3. La Paix: Largo alla siciliana  (in the manner of a Sicilian dance)
      4. La Réjouissance: Allegro
      5. Menuets I and II

The music is celebratory and full of rhythm, it’s lighthearted nature bringing out the playful and catchy melodies. The themes intertwine, intermingle and interact, each player responding to the other and creating a menagerie of varied, upbeat and vibrant sounds.