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Notes on ‘Baroque Fireworks’

By Bruce Lamott

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

No composer does celebrations better than Handel. And there could be no more fitting repertoire to celebrate Nicholas McGegan’s thirtieth year with Philharmonia than the repertoire he has championed his entire career.  The synergy between Handel’s musical style and Nic’s interpretations creates an ebullience born of joie de vivre, yet both can also mine the depths of profound emotion and introspection. This program is a sampling of Handel’s best-known works, including an unlikely first performance by Philharmonia: the Music for the Royal Fireworks. It seems impossible that such a popular work could have been be missing from our repertoire until now, but it just may be that Nic was saving it for something special—like his own apotheosis.

The leading operatic roles in Handel’s operas were sung by mezzo-sopranos, and the appearance of Susan Graham, one of the world’s foremost mezzos, further cements the relationship between composer and performer. Of course, Handel’s leading male roles were often—but not exclusively—sung by castratos, men who were surgically altered to preserve their pre-pubescent voices. Ms. Graham possesses the natural vocal qualities so admired in these singers: a clarion-clear tone, flexible agility in fast passages, extraordinary breath control, and, above all, dramatic expression of the pageant of emotions that is the hallmark of Baroque opera.

Handel with King George on the river

Handel with King George on the river

Handel wrote An Occasional Oratorio in the midst of the Jacobite Rebellion, the attempt overthrow the Hanoverian King George II in favor of putting Prince Charles Edward Stuart (aka “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) on the English throne. The trumpet fanfares of the majestic opening, the festive Allegro in the style of a concerto grosso, and the triumphant concluding march all seem a bit premature, as the outcome of the conflict was still undecided at the time of its first performance on February 14, 1746. It was not a celebration of victory, but a musical rally for the loyalists, whose ultimate victory at the Battle of Culloden would not take place until April 16.

The celebrated Water Music and Royal Fireworks Music both arose from the sumptuous outdoor festivities of England’s Georgian courts. According to The Daily Courant of July 19, 1717, King George I boarded an open barge about eight o’clock for an evening cruise with his noble entourage up the Thames from Whitehall to  Chelsea.  Alongside, another barge of some fifty musicians played “the finest Symphonies, compos’d express for this Occasion, by Mr. Hendel [sic].” The king reportedly liked this music so well that he requested it to be played three times both going and coming, even though the return trip began after two in the morning.

baroque fireworks

Hand-colored engraving of the Royal Fireworks display, 1749.

Unlike the background music for a noble dinner party, The Fireworks Music was specifically composed for public celebrations of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748. Though King George II opined that “it ought to consist of no kind of instrument but martial instruments,” Handel added strings to double the parts of the 24 oboes, 9 horns, 9 trumpets, three sets of timpani, 12 bassoons and a contrabassoon, and serpent [ancestor of the tuba] specified in the score. Even the daytime public rehearsal the previous week drew a ticket-buying audience of more than 12,000.

The works themselves reflect their circumstances of performance. The twenty movements of the Water Music, now grouped into suites according to their keys, were a sort of Baroque jukebox from which the musicians or their royal patron could pick and choose throughout their eight-hour sojourn. The F Major Suite reflects contains the current national styles and popular dances of the day: the French overture and bourrée, the international minuet, the fast-slow-fast  configuration of Italian concertos, and the home-grown English hornpipe.


Westminster Bridget from the north on Lord Mayor’s day, 1746.

The five movements of the Fireworks Music, on the other hand, were ordered for a single performance in Green Park, preceding, not during, a fireworks display . The Overture, as in the Water Music, begins with the characteristic pompous dotted rhythms of the French overture, but instead of the customary fugue to follow the opening Adagio, Handel writes an Allegro in the style of an Italian concerto grosso, exploiting the contrast between fanfares by three trumpets alternating with three French horns, and three oboes with two bassoons, each on a separate part. At the heart of the work are two movements specific to the occasion. Peace (La Paix) is represented by the gentle lilt of the siciliana (a favorite setting for themes of pastoral serenity), while Rejoicing (La Réjouissance) returns to the spirit of the initial fanfares.

When Handel lost the use of the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, longtime home of his Italian opera productions in London, to the rival Opera of the Nobility in 1734, his misfortune had a brighter side. The new theater at Covent Garden to which he moved the non-defecting remnant of his company was equipped with state-of-the art stage machinery and a dance troupe with renowned French dancer Marie Sallé. This gave him opportunities to create works with magical effects and ballet entractes such as those ending each act of Oreste, a pasticcio mostly cobbled together from his earlier works. The dance music, however, was entirely new, composed in the fashion of the French court galanterie. Cast in the two-reprise form of AABB and simply scored for oboes doubling the violins, often in the three-voice texture favored by Lully, the collection of gavottes, minuets, and other dances give a French stylistic accent to the otherwise Italianate work. Although Oreste has slipped into oblivion, its companion operas that season, Ariodante and Alcina continued to exploit the new resources for theatrical spectacle afforded by the new theater and Handel’s new superstar castrato, Giovanni Carestini.

Ms. Graham’s arias in the program were composed for the celebrated Giovanni Carestini, described by Dr. Burney as “the fullest, finest, and deepest counter-tenor [castrato, not a falsettist in the modern sense] that has perhaps ever been heard.” The title role in Handel’s Ariodante illustrates the variety of arias allocated to the leading man. His contemplation of suicide, Scherza infida, is a plaintive melody accompanied by muted strings, pizzicato bass, and solo bassoon. In the end, Ariodante returns as a knight in shining armor, literally, hailing the sun in Dopo notte with a flurry of coloratura designed to exploit Carestini’s two-octave range

The opera Alcina is a tale of knighthood and sorcery, based on the popular Italian Renaissance epic, Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. After discovering that the “man” he thought was a rival is actually his abandoned lady-love in drag, the knight Ruggiero wistfully sings a lyrical aria di cantabile of his fear that he may have just abandoned her yet again. Later resolving to vanquish the sorceress Alcina once and for all, he likens himself to an angry tigress in a cave awaiting the hunter, trading horn-calls with the French horns while the strings shudder with fear and agitation.

McGegan, Graham, and Philharmonia: Handel has never had it so good.