Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks
performed at Staunton Music Festival
August 12, 2016
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA
SMF Baroque Players
Carsten Schmidt, conductor
violin: Aisslinn Nosky (leader), Martin Davids, Jacob Ashworth, Minna Pensola, Antti Tikkanen, Airi Yoshioka, Fiona Hughes
viola: Gesa Kordes, Jason Fisher cello: Anna Steinhoff, James Wilson violone: Heather Miller Lardin
harpsichord: Francesco Pedrini theorbo: David Walker timpani: Brian Smith
oboe: Alek Fester, Margaret Owens, Roger Roe bassoon: Stephanie Corwin contrabassoon: Keith Collins
horn: Todd Williams, Ian Zook trumpet: Kris Kwapis, Bruno Lourensetto, Dominic Favia
video by Stewart Searle
About the Music
When Handel was commissioned in 1749 to compose music for The Royal Fireworks, he already had experience with festive outdoor compositions, having brought forth Water Music (1717) at the request of George I. On this occasion, it was George II who requested suitable music with fireworks to celebrate the end of the War of Austrian Succession. That conflict ended favorably for England and their Hapsburg allies. Exactly one year after the peace treaty was signed, King George planned a lavish celebration that would culminate with Handel’s music and fireworks by John Montague. Responding to the King’s preference for wind instruments, Handel acquiesced and scored the original version for winds, brass, and drums. One month later, on May 27 1749, the familiar revised version for full orchestra—with strings augmenting the different registers of the wind parts—was performed. It remains a staple of Baroque orchestral literature.
The rousing overture remains probably the best-known movement of this suite. It is also the largest, occupying over one-third of the entire work. Following the French model, this overture opens with majestic, dotted rhythms that typify the pomp of occasional music on the grandest scale. As this mood retreats, Handel introduces a vigorous allegro based on alternating string and brass motives. A slow interlude in B minor (similar in mood to the opening) allows a brief respite from all the vigor and extroverted cheer. But in the end, nothing can stop the jubilation of the music and the moment from resurging to carry us to the overture’s final, resounding cadence.
The ensuing Bourrée features a vastly reduced scoring: just oboes, bassoons, and strings; moreover, strings and winds are heard in succession rather than simultaneously. Handel situates this gentle dance in the realm of D minor/F major. It is followed by an expansive Siciliano titled, aptly enough, “Peace.” The movement of “Rejoicing,” an Allegro in D major with touches of a march, features the strings in the revised version. The original use of winds would, I think, have strengthened the suggestion of naturalistic birdcalls in high melodic snippets. The Fireworks suite then concludes with two Minuets: one in minor, one in major. And there seems no clear consensus on which minuet should enclose the other. Modern performances tend to prefer situating the minor mode, more politely-scored minuet between repetitions of the ceremonial-sounding D major minuet. To push the point, it would also not have been out of place to interpose phrases from the proceeding Bourrée or Siciliano here. Perhaps the only guiding principle is that the entire Royal Fireworks must conclude with music appropriate for the regal and celebratory occasion.
(c) Jason Stell, 2016
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