Conductor, Musicologist, Keyboard player

Introduction to facsimile edition of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks

August 2, 2007


All Handel’s music for the Hanoverian court was, by the very nature of the events — weddings, birthdays, funerals, coronations — occasional music, and none more so than the Music for the Royal Fireworks of 1749. It was played only once in the form that Handel first planned, and even that event (apart from the music, about which nothing was reported) was declared a failure; both the treaty it celebrated and the actual pyrotechnics turned out to be, if not damp squibs, dangerously compromised.

The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (present-day Aachen) was devised to bring to an end the War of the Austrian Succession, a squabble for colonial power largely played out between England and France — in America the conflict is still referred to as ‘King George’s War’. Many of its conditions were unfavourable to Britain, who, by agreeing to return to the status quo ante bellum, had to give up strategic trading positions in Nova Scotia and Gibraltar. On the other hand Madras was given back, and at the same time the succession of the House of Hanover in Great Britain was confirmed, so that dynastically if not commercially, the King could be persuaded to see it as a triumph. But the public called it capitulation, and were fiercely critical of the government. Horace Walpole summarised the situation in a letter to Horace Mann (24 October 1748): ‘The Peace is signed between us, France, and Holland, but does not give the least joy; the stocks do not rise, and the merchants are unsatisfied ... in short, there has not been the least symptom of public rejoicing; but the government is to give a magnificent firework’.

The first plan proposed fireworks ‘to be play’d off before the D[uke] of Newcastle’s house in Lincoln’s Inn-field’ in October 1748, but this celebration was postponed, to give time for grander preparations, extra spin, enhanced connection with the King rather than his politicians, a larger public attendance and, possibly, better weather. The site chosen was the fashionable upper part of St James’s Park, recently improved at the Queen’s instigation, which was becoming separately known as Green Park. It was a short walk from Buckingham House (not yet Palace) and was overlooked by the Queen’s Library, designed by William Kent. Ground was broken in early November and a military fence (‘a double row of chevaux de frize’) guarded by musketeers was erected to prevent public access.

The Green Park Machine was a theatrical contrivance, its design and operation in the hands of technicians imported from France and Italy. The Chevalier Servandoni (originally Jean-Nicholas Servan), designer of the Machine was, according to Diderot, ‘grand machiniste, grand architect, bon peintre et sublime décorateur’. He had previously worked for the King’s Theatre as a scene painter for Handel’s operas during the 1720s, and for the fireworks he devised ‘a magnificent Doric Temple’ in best trompe-l’oeil style:

Tho’ the materials were only wood, and canvas white-wash’d and siz’d, it appeared in great elegance, like a temple of fine stone, with a balustrade on the top, except in the center [sic], where instead of a pediment, it went strait up in order to receive some pictures and the king’s arms, to the top of which it was 114 foot high, and being adorned with statues and other figures, festoons of flowers, and other lustres, gave great delight to the beholders, which were innumerable. From this temple, which was 144 feet in length, extended, by 5 arches of a side two low wings, north and south, at the end of each a pavilion, the whole length being 410 feet. The several prints published, not excepting that by authority, of this structure, did not agree with the appearance on the night of performance. (The Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 19 (April, 1749), p. 186)

The official Description, whatever its faults, is our best source for a description of the ‘Inscriptions, Statues, Allegorical Pictures, &c.’ which decorated the Machine and the transparent pictures which were to be lit from within. The actual fireworks were to be devised and controlled by Gaeta no Ruggieri and Giuseppe Sarti, both from Bologna. The Ruggieri family represent one of the longest-surviving dynasties in the pyrotechnical trade, firing the celebrations for the French Revolution, and still around to supervise the display in New York harbour when the Statue of Liberty was rededicated in 1986. Working in collaboration with the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, they planned for an estimated 10,000 rockets and other devices to be let off, culminating in the grand Sun on the top of the Machine, supposed to burn for five hours with ‘VIVAT REX’ in its centre in ‘bright Fire’.

Engravings of the promised structure and descriptions of ‘the intended Fireworks’ were printed, most of them unofficial, together with rumours of an impressively large band of military music:

The band of musick that is to perform at the fireworks in the green-park, is to consist of 40 trumpets, 20 French horns, 16 hautboys, 16 bassoons, 8 pair of kettle-drums, 12 side-drums, a proper number of flutes and fifes; with 100 cannon to go off singly at intervals, with the musick. See the VIEW of the fireworks in our Magazine for December last. (The London Magazine, 14 January 1749)

In the caption to that engraving Handel’s name is mentioned for the first time: ‘a Band of a Hundred Musicians are to play before ye Fire works begin, the Musick for wch is to be compos’d by M.r Handel’, from which we might assume that the composer was aware of the proposed instrumentation and had agreed to write for it. But Handel’s inclusion in the scheme, if not actually an afterthought, appears to have been rather delayed. This may have been the fault of his own diary rather than official procrastination, and probably some bargaining was involved over what was musically possible in terms of the massed military instruments already promised. His impatience with bureaucracy is easily understandable and comes across vividly in the letters that passed between those officials who had the job of dealing with him — the Duke of Montagu, Master General of the Ordnance and the highly-strung Charles Frederick, grandly titled ‘Comptroller of His Majesty’s Fireworks as well as for War as for Triumph’.

They first encountered problems persuading Handel to hold a public rehearsal in Vauxhall Gardens and to include as many military instruments as the King hoped to see:

Duke of Montagu to Charles Frederick (28 March 1749)

I don’t see any kind of objection to the rehersal of the musick at Voxhall being advertised, and when that is done, if any questions are asked how it comes to be there, the true reason must be given.

I think Hendel now proposes to have but 12 trumpets and 12 French horns; at first there was to have been sixteen of each, and I remember I told the King so, who, at that time, objected to their being any musick; but, when I told him the quantity and nomber of martial musick there was to be, he was better satisfied, and said he hoped there would be no fidles. Now Hendel proposes to lessen the nomber of trumpets, &c, and to have violeens. I don’t at all doubt but when the King hears it he will be very much displeased. If the thing war to be in such a manner as certainly to please the King, it ought to consist of no kind of instruments but martial instruments. Any other I am sure will put him out of humour, therefore I am shure it behoves Hendel to have as many trumpets, and other martial instruments, as possible, tho he don’t retrench the violins, which I think he shoud, tho I beleeve he will never be persuaded to do it. I mention this as I have very lately been told, from very good authority, that the King has, within this fortnight, expressed himself to this purpose.

Although it is always assumed that Handel did not want to rehearse in Vauxhall for logistical reasons — and surely the full band would not have fitted into the ‘Music Box’ — the fact that the event was to be publicly ‘advertised’ (and the Gardens to make a fine profit from tickets) may have been the true cause. Handel not only wanted the music new for the event, he had recently engaged to repeat the Fireworks Music as part of a charity concert at the Foundling Hospital four weeks afterwards, and would not have wanted to lessen the pulling power of this programme.

The argument over the instrumentation may perhaps be reduced to a conflict between professionals (Servandoni, Handel) and amateurs (Frederick, Montagu) in the business of dramatic and musical presentation. Starting from the musically obvious, we can easily surmise that Handel realized three important factors from the very beginning. Firstly, the originally publicised ‘military’ forces could never have played together: 40 trumpets against 16 oboes could not have been contained in a single composition, since the brass would have entirely out-balanced the winds; more probably a series of marches contrasted with fanfares had been envisaged. Montagu reported that the next level proposed was 16 trumpets and 16 horns, and that these were reduced to 12 of each (and eventually 9). Perhaps the simplest explanation is that there were not enough extra military players who could read music; army personnel usually played from memory. Handel was simply biding his time as the figures decreased.

In the second place, any work written for such an extraordinary band would have had no future after its premiere. Handel may have been reminded of this by his publisher, John Walsh, but certainly the prospect of publication as well as the benefit for the Foundling Hospital must have encouraged the incorporation of the strings. Thirdly, Handel surely realised that no other local composer would, at this stage, be competent to provide the necessary score. Years of experience with theatrical negotiations would have suggested to Handel that he allow Mr Frederick, clearly a musical innocent, a glimpse of the manuscript showing strings, and use that as leverage to reduce the unworkable numbers of brass. He would offer to eliminate the strings, which would have made no effect in Green Park anyway, in exchange for a manageable number of military instrumentalists who could read music. Meanwhile he continued to indicate in the manuscript where string parts would be needed at the Found ling Hospital and also continued to resist the idea of a public rehearsal at Vauxhall:

Duke of Montagu to Charles Frederick (9 April)

Sir, — In answer to Mr. Hendel’s letter to you (which by the stile of it I am shure is impossible to be of his indicting) I can say no more but this, that this morning at court the King did me the honor to talke to me conserning the fireworks, and in the course of the conversation his Majesty was pleased to aske me when Mr. Hendel’s overture was to be rehersed; I told his Majesty I really coud not say anything conserning it from the difficulty Mr. Hendel made about it, for that the master of Voxhall, having offered to lend us all his lanterns, lamps, &c. to the value of seven hundred pounds, whereby we woud save just so much money to the office of Ordnance, besides thirty of his servants to assist in the illuminations, upon condition that Mr. Hendel’s overture shoud be rehersed at Voxhall, Mr. Hendel has hetherto refused to let it be at Foxhall, which his Majesty seemed to think he was in the wrong of; and I am shure I think him extreamly so, and extreamly indifferent whether we have his overture or not, for it may very easily be suplyd by another, and I shall have the satisfaction that his Majesty will know the reason why we have it not; therefore, as Mr. Hendel knows the reason, and the great benefit and saving it will be to the publick to have the rehersal at Voxhall, if he continues to express his zeal for his Majesty’s service by doing what is so contrary to it, in not letting the rehersal be there, I shall intirely give over any further thoughts of his overture and shall take care to have an other.

Handel evidently conceded the Vauxhall rehearsal which was eventually fixed for 21 April at 11 am; there was also a preliminary rehearsal at Handel’s house in Brook Street on the 17th which we presume (for the sake of the neighbours) only involved some of the principal players. The full Vauxhall show attracted ‘the brightest and most numerous Assembly ever known... an audience of above 12,000 persons (tickets 2s. 6d.)’. Westminster Bridge, so recently built, was already closed for subsidence repairs making a traffic jam on the old London Bridge inevitable 2 and provoking some bad behaviour: ‘So great a resort occasioned such a stoppage on London-Bridge, that no carriage could pass for 3 hours; — The footmen were so numerous as to obstruct the passage, so that a Scuffle happen’d, in which some gentle men were wounded’ (The Gentleman’s Magazine, April 1749, p. 185). Normal entry to Vauxhall was a shilling; at the elevated price of 2/6, 12,000 people at 2/6 a ticket, if the number were true, would have yielded a more than tidy profit for the manager, Jonathan Tyers of over £1,500. But the figure is physically impossible; allowing for normal means of transport — foot, carriage, boat — it was possibly 2–3,000 (or even a misprint for 1–2,000?). Since, this was still a high-priced event.

The Royal Artillery Train again loaned Handel their timpani from the Tower, as they had for Joshua, but more surprising are the 36 pounds of explosive delivered to Mr Frederick at Vauxhall.

Was this for incidental salutes to be added to the rehearsal, and, if so, they may in fact have been included within the composition, as one description states (‘After a grand Overture of Warlike Instruments, composed by Mr. Handel, in which eighteen small Cannon were fired...’). Certainly 36 pounds of gunpowder divides nicely amongst 18 cannon.

In spite of the (over-estimated) number of people at the public rehearsal, no description of Handel’s music appears in any report of the event, either public or private. The same neglect has to be admitted for the actual show itself, where the numbers were even greater, but the music still marginalised by the spectacle and its incidental disasters. While it was still light, the King, his son ‘Butcher’ Cumberland and the court toured the Machine, and presented purses to the operatives.

The whole Band of Musick (which began to play soon after 6 o’clock) perform’d at his Majesty’s coming and going, and during his stay in the Machine.

At half an hour after eight, the works were begun by a single rocket from before the library, then the cannon within the chevaux de frize were fired; two rockets were afterwards discharg’d at the front camera of the inclosure, when 101 pieces of cannon placed on Constitution-hill, were discharged; after which a great number of rockets of different sorts, balloons, &c. were discharged, to surprising perfection. (The Gentleman’s Magazine, p. 186)

The official Description shows that the display was planned in a series of eleven numbered scenes, each containing multiple firings and a set piece. (A second version — Description II — published after the event was rewritten to describe what actually happened). The Gentleman’s Magazine, noting ‘all kinds of artists, affecting to make use of foreign words and phrases, rather than the common terms’, obligingly translated the technical names:

HONORARY ROCKETS are the large rockets which are fired single... As all fireworks are considered as compliments to princes or great persons, the French have given the name of fusees d’honneur to these rockets, which are constantly the beginning of every firework.

AIR BALLOONS, are hollow globes of paper filled with stars, &c. which are fired from mortars, and are contrived to burst when at their greatest altitude; some of the balloons fired on this occasion were remarkably fine. CADCEUS ROCKETS and GIRANDOLE ROCKETS. These had a circulating motion as they rose.

TOURBILLONS, are copied from the Chinese. They consist of a case of composition which rises not endways, like a rocket, but keeps horizontal in its ascent, and is contrived to turn round at the same time with a horizontal motion. — Some of these were very pleasing by their complicated movement....

However, the surprising perfection did not last:

About half an Hour after Nine, in discharging some of the works from the Pavilion at the Left Wing of the Building, it set Fire to the same, and burnt with great Fury, so that that, and two of the Arches, were burnt to the Ground; and had not the Carpenters made a Breach by casting away two Arches, and removing the Timber, and for the Assistance of some Fire-Engines which were in Readiness, in all Probability the whole Fabric would have been consumed. Messengers were going to and from his Majesty all the Time of this Misfortune; and when it was brought under, a Present was made to the most diligent in stopping the Flames.

During the Fire, the grand Rockets and the Sun were discharged; but this Accident prevented the exhibiting some of the most considerable of the Fireworks.

About Eleven the whole Building was illuminated, and continued so until between Two and Three o’Clock. His Majesty and the Royal Family withdrew about Twelve. (Description II, p. 8).

From eyewitness accounts of the evening, we learn that despite ‘a dark overcast of cloudiness’ (John Byrom) the rain held off, the ladies were shocked by the explosions — Jemima, Marchioness Grey reports that ‘the Number, the Sizes & various Forms of the Rockets were quite surprising, one Explosion particularly which they say was of Six Thousand was beyond all Imagination, & excepting to poor Mrs. Talbot who was frightened out of all her Wits (for it was not indeed a very Quiet Amusement) they were no less Beautiful’ — but most people agreed with Horace Walpole that ‘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 scare anybody had patience to wait the finishing’.

In spite of mishaps, the whole show lasted some nine hours. Even a tantrum from the designer, the last thing Mr Frederick needed, was quickly sorted out. When the pavilion caught fire, Servandoni drew his sword on Frederick; he was disarmed and taken into custody, but released the following day after apologizing. At the end the sun, ‘32 feet in Diameter’ and the literal high-light of the scheme, survived to fulfil expectations. But nowhere is there any comment on the musical contribution; for this, our only document is Handel’s score.

Christopher Hogwood


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