The English and the French signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle on October 27, 1748, bringing to a close the War of Austrian Succession. That war had dragged on for eight years and had proven so exhausting that eventually all the parties were relieved to have it over. Both sides immediately began planning victory celebrations, and the English plans were elaborate. George II’s staff brought in the designer Florentine Servandoni, who erected what was called a “Machine” in Green Park, directly across from Buckingham Palace. Over 400 feet long and 100 feet high, this structure took the form of a Doric-style pavilion. The royal “victory” celebration on April 27, 1749, was to be a real show in every sense of that term: over 100 cannons would fire a thunderous salute, followed by a massive fireworks show, and Handel was commissioned to write music to accompany all this.
George II took an active interest in the music, and he made clear that he preferred the strident sound of martial instruments. Specifically, his staff told Handel, the king “hoped there would be no fidles.” Handel was loathe to do without stringed instruments, but he tried to satisfy the king’s tastes by writing for a massive military band of 18 brass instruments, 37 woodwinds, and three timpani. Contemporary accounts speak of over 100 musicians at the celebration, so perhaps Handel was able to sneak a few “fidles” into his orchestra. News of the upcoming spectacle spread through London, and Handel’s open-air rehearsal in Vauxhall Gardens on April 21 attracted a crowd of 12,000. Traffic to this rehearsal was so heavy that it took some carriages three hours just to make it across London Bridge, and there were reports of scuffles and injuries among the footmen of those carriages (commuter gridlock and road rage are not strictly modern phenomena, apparently).
The actual celebration on April 27 turned into a wonderful fiasco. Things began as planned, but the fireworks went awry, setting the “Machine” on fire. A stiff wind quickly turned this into a conflagration, the crowd panicked and fled, and the gaudy pavilion burned to the ground. Servandoni was so outraged that he drew his sword on one of the king’s representatives and was promptly arrested; he was released the next day only after an apology. There is no record of Handel’s reaction to all this, but the following month he performed this music – with the number of winds reduced and the “fidles” increased – at a benefit concert for his favorite charity, the Foundling Hospital of London, and that occasion produced a profit of 2575 pounds for the orphanage. Since that time, the Music for the Royal Fireworks has remained one of Handel’s most popular works.
That popularity is no mystery. This is wonderful music – festive, bright, and strong – and it continues to excite audiences long after the occasion for which it was composed has faded into history. Handel opens with a grand Ouverture, somewhat in the French manner but without the fugal writing of the normal French overture. The music begins with a ringing slow introduction, full of dotted rhythms and fanfares that must have been particularly pleasing to George II’s desire for a martial sound; the overture then rushes ahead on rapid exchanges between brass and strings. Handel pauses for a brief slow interlude, then returns to the fast music to rush the overture to its close. At this point in the original celebration came the salute by the cannons, and Handel then offered a series of dance movements that were separated by fireworks. First comes an agile Bourrée, and Handel specifies that the oboes are to have the first statement, the strings the second. There follow two movements with titles appropriate to the occasion. “La Paix” (Peace) takes the form of a slow siciliana, which rocks gently and gracefully along its 12/8 meter, while “La Réjouissance” (Rejoicing) returns to the manner of the opening Ouverture with racing fanfare-figures for brass and timpani. Handel rounds matters off with a pair of minuets, varying their instrumentation as they repeat until they conclude with the sound of rolling drums and resounding brass.
— Eric Bromberger