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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott


The article which follows is based on a radio script which marked the 400th Keys To Music program. I decided to celebrate with fireworks of the musical kind. Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks was an obvious inclusion, but my explorations led to the inclusion of music by Debussy, Stravinsky and others, all of which lent a bit of sparkle to our celebrations.

In 1749, George Frideric Handel turned 64. He'd been a naturalised British subject for 22 years and could look back on a gloriously productive career as a composer of opera, oratorio, church music and orchestral music. He was an English institution, so when the King and Parliament needed help in staging a public relations exercise to sway the public over a dodgy peace treaty, they turned to Handel to provide the music.

The War of the Austrian Succession was messy and had dragged on through the 1740s, involving most of the major European powers. It was concluded in 1748 with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the provisions of which were largely unpopular in Britain. George II and the British parliament were seen as having conducted the war and the peace more to the advantage of the Electorate of Hanover in Germany (of which George II was also Elector) rather than Britain. The treaty was also unfavourable to many of Britain's colonial interests.

Celebrations of the treaty were delayed in Britain by six months. Christopher Hogwood put it perfectly when he wrote: "Frankly, there was little to celebrate…and some dramatic spin-doctoring was called for to stimulate (or simulate) public approval."

It was decided to hold a massive fireworks display in London's Green Park in April 1749 to mark the conclusion of the war. A huge theatrical set made of wood and canvas, called a "machine", was built in the park, comprising a fake temple some 125 metres long and 35 metres high with figures from mythology and representations of the King.

On the night itself, 27 April 1749, tens of thousands of people gathered. At about 6 pm the King and his entourage toured the "machine", and Handel's music was played during this time; contrary to popular belief it wasn't played during the fireworks display itself, and just as well. The fireworks started about 8.30 pm, during which part of the machine caught fire. Once this was brought under control the fireworks continued and the whole thing wound up about 3 am.

Machine for the fireworks for the peace of Aix la Chapelle in May 1749 performed in Green Park; structure designed by Franco-Italian architect Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni

Handel's music is scored for wind and percussion instruments in twelve parts: 3 oboes, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets and timpani. In Green Park, though, all these parts were played by multiple players. The band consisted of 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 horns, 9 trumpets, 3 sets of timpani and - probably - extra instruments such as serpents, side drums and huge "double drums". For later performances indoors, Handel used fewer wind players (probably single brass and timpani and double winds to each part), as well as having the oboe and bassoon parts doubled by strings. The recording linked below is of the “indoor” version, played on period instruments.

Handel's music for the occasion took the form of a Baroque suite, or ouverture as it would have been titled (in French) at the time. The overture proper is one of Handel's most massive creations: imposing, virtuosic, and thrilling. It takes the form of what we now call the "French overture". A slow introduction with a dotted rhythm (long, short, long, short, long) is followed by a fast main section. There is another slow section later, after which part of the fast section is repeated. In the recording linked here you’ll need to hear both the following links in order to hear the complete overture. [listen listen]

It's common these days to call Baroque suites of this sort "dance suites", and it is true that usually the remaining movements were based on dance forms. This is especially so in the keyboard and orchestral suites of JS Bach, and in Handel's own keyboard suites. But it was also common for the pieces which comprised such works to be what we might call "characteristic" pieces: pieces of a descriptive or programmatic nature. The suites of Telemann (who was a friend of both Handel and Bach) are perhaps the best example of this sort of writing.

The shorter movements in suites were also usually in binary form - two halves, each of which were repeated - and all the remaining movements in Handel's suite are in this form.

In the Fireworks Music Handel combines both dance movements and descriptive pieces in the five remaining movements. A dance movement follows the overture, a bourrée. This is in the minor key and Handel marks it to be played three times. Playing it three times would have been fine in its original context, as background music for the King touring a giant stage set in a park, but the instruction is not always observed in modern concert performances where such repetition can be a little tedious. Recordings will always vary on the way these instructions are interpreted. [listen]

After the dance movement Handel writes two descriptive pieces appropriate to an occasion celebrating a peace treaty, and as would have been normal, he titles them in French. La Paix (Peace) is set as a gentle siciliana. This dance is characterised by compound time - in this case 12/8 - and a lilting dotted rhythm.

In some older recordings of the Fireworks music one hears the trumpets playing - or attempting to play - in La Paix. This is because Handel's score contains a marking "tr" against the melody part which was interpreted being an abbreviation for "tromba" (trumpet). The fact that the melody part is not playable on a natural 18th century trumpet has made it clear that this was an error and the "tr" probably means "traversa", the term Handel used for the flute (as opposed to "flauto" which to Handel meant the recorder). Handel later added strings to double the oboe parts for indoor concert performances, and it's likely that he had flutes play this line as well in later performances, for which he used the same score for reference. [listen]

The Peace is followed by Rejoicing, titled in French as La Réjouissance. Perhaps the most famous movement in the work, this music is a perfect example of Handel's ability to encapsulate a mood. [listen]

Most Baroque suites ended with a movement involving rhythms grouped in threes. Either there was a jig, which used compound time like 3/8 or 6/8, or there was a more stately conclusion with a minuet, which was almost invariably in 3/4. Handel chooses the latter option here, although his intentions are not absolutely clear from the score. It seems that he wrote a minuet in D major [listen] and then latter added a second minuet in D minor [listen].

Ending with the D minor minuet is rather an anticlimax, so some conductors choose to reverse the order, playing the D minor minuet first and ending with the D major.

Other conductors use the D minor minuet as a trio (or central section) between two playings of the D major minuet. It's this option which has been used in this recording, which ends this way. [listen]

Manigault: The Rocket (1909)

Fireworks have been used for public celebrations for centuries. The Chinese invented them in the 7th century AD and of course pyrotechnics are still integral to celebrations such as Chinese New Year. Most nations - Australia included - use fireworks for major public events such as new year's eve or national days. It was probably the use of fireworks on Bastille Day that prompted Debussy to describe fireworks in music in the last piece in his second book of Preludes, published in 1913.

Debussy's two books of preludes - each containing twelve pieces - are a cornerstone of the piano literature. They contain such gems as The girl with the flaxen hair and The Submerged Cathedral. But when they were published, the titles appeared at the end of each piece, not at the start, and it seems that in at least some cases the titles were added after the music was composed. This would indicate that the music is not really pictorial but that the titles are merely suggestions or guides as to the actual content or meaning of the music.

Claude Debussy (1908)

So for me to say that Debussy is "describing" fireworks in the last prelude of book two is possibly misleading. Yet there can be no doubt that right near the end there is a wistful, sad little quotation from the middle of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem (at 3’48 in the performance with score linked below). It's for this reason that the connection with Bastille Day is so hard to avoid.

The music clearly suggests twirling wheels, exploding balls of light, and showers of sparks as they fall from the sky. And quite apart from the pictorial elements, it's a gloriously sensuous piece of pure piano writing. [listen]

Debussy's writing for the piano is of course magnificent, and he was also a master orchestrator as works like La mer easily prove. Debussy didn't orchestrate the preludes, but between 2001 and 2006 the English composer Colin Matthews did, in response to a commission from the Hallé Orchestra in the UK. These are far from attempts at a literal transfer of the piano notes onto an orchestral canvas, but fascinating reworkings of music in another medium which is completely pianistic in its original form.

This is Colin Matthews' orchestration of Debussy's Fireworks. [listen]

Colin Matthews

Debussy was a supporter of the young Igor Stravinsky when his ballets The Firebird and Petrushka were premiered in Paris in 1910 and 1911. For his part, though, Stravinsky seems to have disliked Debussy's music intensely, at least at that early stage of his creative life.

In 1908, a couple of years before those Parisian triumphs, Stravinsky wrote a short orchestral work called Fireworks to celebrate the wedding of some friends. The influence of Stravinsky's teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, is evident in the harmonic language and the dazzling orchestral colours Stravinsky elicits from the very large orchestra he uses.

There is also an unmistakable quote from the beginning of Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice near the start of Stravinsky's piece; the fact that Rimsky-Korsakov greatly admired The Sorcerer's Apprentice is probably the connection. Stravinsky must have been heart-broken when Rimsky-Korsakov died only three days after this piece was completed. [listen]

Let's finish with something far more recent. Jerry Goldsmith was one of America's most respect composers of film and TV scores; he died in 2004 at the age of 75. Apart from his work in film and television, Goldsmith composed concert music and maintained close connections as a conductor with orchestras in his own country and elsewhere. In 1999 he composed Fireworks to mark the end of his first concert season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. The piece turned out to be a celebration of Los Angeles, his home city, and a celebration of his life and career. The composer conducted this recording in 2000 with the London Symphony Orchestra. [listen]

Jerry Goldsmith

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2011.

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