Home   |   About Me   |   Older Posts   |   Contact   |   Links   |   Acknowledgements   |   Subscribe

01 January 2019

39. standardize/compromise

As we welcome the new year, fireworks are inevitably on my mind.  At the very least, my dogs make me aware of fireworks:  even distant explosions are enough to keep my dogs anxiously pacing the house.  (I can only imagine what it must be like for veterans with PTSD, hearing these explosions at too-close range well into the early hours.)  Moreover, beautiful as such displays may be, its hard for me not to feel that if youve seen one (good) one, youve pretty much seen them all.  I dont bother to stay up for them, and then Im cross when I am woken by worried canines.  On such occasions, I'm inclined to agree with Hamlets view of a similar noisy custom: 

More honoured in the breach than the observance (Act 1 Sc. 4).

SOURCE:  A view of the magnificent structure erected for the fireworks to be exhibited for the solemnization of the General Peace (uncredited, but apparently in the British Library), cropped from scan of the cover of Bärenreiter facsimile Georg Friedrich Händel:  The Musick for the Royal Fireworks / Feuerwerkmusik / British Library Manuscript R. M. 20.g.7 (2004).  (Christopher Hogwood's introduction to this volume is available here.)
Only because of this pyrotechnical connection, I thought it was time for me to comment on a few of my frustrations related to editions of Handels Musick for the Royal Fireworks (celebrating the 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle).  I grew up on a musical diet in which the largest food group consisted of Bach, Handel, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Mendelssohn.  I cant remember a time when I didnt know the Fireworks music, I think mostly from a 1972 recording by Neville Marriner and his Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields.  (It sounds very familiar to me now, and its exactly the sort of recording my father would have bought.)  But I remember, too, a recording of the suite orchestrated by Hamilton Harty, as well as hearing some of the early attempts at historically-informed reconstruction of the original all-winds and percussion scoring24 oboes, 12 bassoons, a contrabassoon (and, by rights, a serpentalthough Im not sure if that has yet been included on any of the recordings), nine each of trumpets and horns, plus timpani and side drum.  Those outrageous figures were already scaled back from the official plans.  A press blurb several months before the actual event listed 40 trumpets, 20 French horns, 16 hautboys, 16 bassoons, eight 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.

SOURCE:  detail of A Description of the Machine for the Fireworks... (London, 1749), p. 8, just for the heck of it; cropped scan from appendix in Bärenreiter facsimile, p. 92.

Then, as now, one must be skeptical of figures from those in power.  Just two years ago, the (then) White House press secretary Sean Spicer stepped in front of journalists to insist that This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, PERIOD, both in person and around the globe.  (My transcription hardly does him justice.  If you want to watch it again, here he is.)  Handel rehearsed the work inVauxhall Gardens, south of the Thames, on 21 April 1749 to what must have been a large audience, butas David Hunter has shownthe official figure quoted (an audience of above 12,000 persons (tickets 2s. 6d.)) is just not possible.  Taking physical, economic, social, and mathematical factors into account, Hunter reckons the realistic audience size charitably around 3500, allowing that it might have been a good bit smaller still [pp. 75–84].  Plus ça change plus cest la même chose.

I grant, however, that the music Handel wrote was extraordinary, at least in that it departed dramatically from any sort of ensemble he had used hitherto.  Handel was much more adventurous in his use of brass sonorities than was his contemporary J. S. Bach (although admittedly Bach called upon greater technical feats from his players).  The only Bach work I can think of that employs trumpets and horns simultaneously is BWV 205, the secular cantata Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft.  (If there are others, perhaps someone will let me know.)  Handel uses those instruments in combination more often, particularlyas in the Water Music and his sumptuous oratorio Solomonfor antiphonal or double-chorus effects, where the contrasting timbres have much more impact than when he pits two identical ensembles together. (In this regard these works have the advantage of his three Concerti a due cori).  The three distinct ensembles of the Fireworks music are very evident on the first page of Handels autograph:  trumpets/timpani (four staves), horns (three staves), woodwinds (five staves):

SOURCE:  scanned from Bärenreiter facsimile, p. 59; also available at http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=R.M.20.g.7 (see f. 16r).
When in about 1988 I learned of Dover’s reprints of public domain editions, their paperback comprising the Water and the Fireworks music (both reprinted from Friedrich Chysanders Händelgesellschaft volume of 1886) was on my very first order form.  As I had grown accustomed to that, which prints the score with the staves allocated more or less as in Handels autograph, I found myself disorientated when opening both the 1962 volume of the HHA and its 2007 HHA revision.  In these newer editions, the score has been radically redistributed according (almost) to modern ordering conventions:  woodwinds at the top of the page, then brass (horns first, trumpets next), then percussion, then strings.  (What strings?  Ill come back to that.)  The almost is that in both of these HHA volumes, the bassoons are at the bottom of the page among the strings.  There is a reason for this:  in practice, the HHA only gives a bassoon its own staff when Handel has written an independent part, not just doubling the bass line common to the strings.

SOURCE:  (l.) Händelgesellschaft edition, vol. 47 (1886),  p. 100 [available at IMSLP #24009]; (r.) revised HHA Ser. IV Bd. 13 (2004), p. 87.
I grant that a standard score order is a useful thing, especially for a standardized ensemble.  I dont object to seeing Mozart scores reorganized in this way, with the upper strings moved from the very top (where he habitually put them) to the bottom (just above the cello/contrabass line).  That said, I think we do miss something when we look at a page so differently laid out from what he wrote, and I appreciate those textsa good example is Simon P. Keefes Mozart in Vienna:  the Final Decadein which the musical examples restore his score order.  Whatever reordering the HHA might impose on Handel in general, I think the Fireworks music deserves to be treated as an exception:  even by Handel's terms, the ensemble is exceptional.  (Even the NMA abandons its use of modernized score order when dealing with works for a non-standard ensemble; see for example the wind serenades, which retain Mozarts placement of the horns above the bassoons.)  There are times when the modernized allotment of staves obscures what Handel is doing with his triple ensemble.  Compare the pages below.  The HHA gives me the impression of a dialogue between only two ensemblesbrass (in the middle of the score) and oboes/strings (at the top and bottom); placing the horns above the trumpets means that when any of the horns play with the trumpet ensemble they appears to lead the brass altogether, and the use of two consorts (three trumpets + horn, then three horns) becomes almost invisible, while it is very clear in the autograph.
SOURCE:  (l.) autograph, f. 22v (facsimile p. 72); (r.) revised HHA Ser. IV Bd. 13 (2004), p. 107.
(I note with some distaste that already in 1788 Samuel Arnold had put the horns above the trumpets in his edition.)

A further complaint:  both the original HHA volume and the revised version present a score including five staves of strings, realizing instructions for doubling that Handel added to his autograph score.  Doing so while also retaining the inflated wind numbers conflates two distinct versionsoutdoor and indoorinto a form Handel never heard:  massed winds + strings.  The conflation makes a striking effect, but it is not something that ever happened in his time.  If youd like to experience this version but cant muster 80+ period-instrument players, heres a 2012 BBC Proms performance by Le Concert Spirituel under Hervé Niquet that does it for you, even adding a drum interlude (at 01:43ff, corresponding with Handels later-cancelled instruction alla Bruit de guerre”) in lieu of discharging cannon:

Strings were not part of the outdoor performanceapparently vetoed by George II himself.  I have my doubts that the overture was composed with strings in mind, given the problematically high viola line (generally doubling Oboe III), and the confusing pair of bass lines, in which the contrabass seems to be on the wrong line.  In his revised HHA, Christopher Hogwood has modified the viola line;  I find his version just as dubious, often doubling the bass up an octave even when it seems to me to intrude in the texture.  Whatever one does seems unsatisfactory.  The string doublings were likely added with an eye to a performance at the Foundling Hospital several weeks after the fireworks display; for that concert, the doubled-and-redoubled winds must surely have been scaled back to normal size.

Intriguingly, Hogwood interprets the marginalia in the autograph manuscript as indicating that the work heard at the Foundling Hospital performance differed in another significant respect:  the suite was truncated with just a few movements, and for the finale Handel borrowed the last movement of a trumpet/horn due cori concerto, HWV 335aa work thematically linked to the Fireworks overture and preserved in a different fascicle of the same bound volume now.  (For Hogwood's argument, see his Cambridge Music Handbook [pp. 115 and 127] and the revised HHA volume [p. xxviii-xxix].)  Musically, I like this suggestion a lot:  to me, the two menuets that conclude Fireworks are an unconvincing conclusion to such a work, at least when not followed by fireworks.  Those menuets plod.  The finale of HWV 335a, however, is buoyant.  (Hear it here.)  A problem with this solution to the marginalia is the scoring:  although the scoring is similar, it is not identical:  two (not three) trumpets + two pairs of horns (the first pair consistently with oboes, the second pair consistently with strings).  In that the rest of that Foundling Hospital performance included music from Solomon (two trumpets + two horns), I began to wonder if they jettisoned Trumpet III (or, Principale, as he labels it, denoting its low register) altogetherbut what did they do about the extra horn part?  A further problem:  the only movement in the autograph of Fireworks to have a staff allotted to the violas is the final menuetwhich this theory would exclude from the strings version of the piece; granted, the staff is lightly crossed-out as it stands.  Is that significant?

SOURCE:  cropped scan of autograph, f. 28v (facsimile, p. 84)
This leads me to my third frustration:  my sense is that the indoor version of the Fireworks music (and Fireworks no longer seems the right name) really deserves to be published as its own distinct workand with its own catalogue number.  The revised HHA volume does right by the Water Music (and Ill come back to it sometime), but I fear an opportunity was missed to do justice to the Fireworks music.  The new volumes blue covers enclose both a triumphant flourish (the much-needed update of Water Music, since many important sources had come to light) and a damp squib.  Surely there will not be a second revised volume to give us distinct outdoor and indoor versions of Fireworks; we will have to wait for someone else to do itsomeone willing to defy standardization and its inevitable compromise.  Someone, that is, willing to honor the custom in the breach rather than the observance.

No comments:

Post a Comment