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.)|
|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, but—as David Hunter has shown—the 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 c’est 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, particularly—as in the Water Music and his sumptuous oratorio Solomon—for 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 Handel’s 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).|
|SOURCE: (l.) Händelgesellschaft edition, vol. 47 (1886), p. 100 [available at IMSLP #24009]; (r.) revised HHA Ser. IV Bd. 13 (2004), p. 87.|
|SOURCE: (l.) autograph, f. 22v (facsimile p. 72); (r.) revised HHA Ser. IV Bd. 13 (2004), p. 107.|
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 versions—outdoor and indoor—into 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 you’d like to experience this version but can’t muster 80+ period-instrument players, here’s 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 Handel’s later-cancelled instruction “alla Bruit de guerre”) in lieu of discharging cannon:
Strings were not part of the outdoor performance—apparently 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 335a—a 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) altogether—but 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 menuet—which 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)|