Handel - Music for the Royal Fireworks: How Handel's great work created sparks of its own

Jane Jones revisits some pure entertainment from Handel.

I have been wondering lately how much of Handel’s popular and accomplished pieces now suffer from a casual familiarity which blunts our appreciation of the music. His works - including Messiah and the Water Music suites - have become the backdrop to countless state occasions and is there a firework display choreographed with music which doesn’t include Handel’s made-to-measure soundtrack?  So I've been listening to Handel’s extraordinary score with fresh ears and I hope you will too.

The Music for the Royal Fireworks is itself a political gesture, as was the event for which it was written. In 1748, England and France had signed the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle to mark the end of the War of Austrian Succession which involved just about everyone - the Prussians, the Spanish and the Austrians themselves, as well as the two signatories to the peace treaty. To celebrate the peace, a spectacular display was to be held in London’s Green Park and Handel, the King’s chosen composer was the man to write the music.

This is pure entertainment from Handel, setting out to please his audience and match the mood of the times with his six movement suite. But he does so with a victor’s good grace towards the former enemy. Handel’s music is in the style of earlier French composers like Lully and Rameau, which explains the French dances in the piece and the titles he gives to the movements. The opening overture, with just the right touch of pomposity for a royal celebration, is based on the music of the French court and that sets the tone for the dances and fanfares which follow. So there are bourées (French dances) and minuets, a gentle siciliano called La Paix, and the most jubilant section of the music with its French title, La Rejouissance. Now you might think this is Handel’s way of rubbing it in – making sure the French are fully aware that they are the losers here! I’m convinced his intentions were more noble that that.

Sadly the real losers were the thousands of people who flocked to Green Park for the firework display who had to wait for hours and hours because of carriage traffic jams and queues, even for the rehearsal. On the night of the grand display, a wayward firework set light to the specially built Pavilion, which then caused a fight to break out amongst the organisers. Amidst all this chaos, the band played on and Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks created sparks of its own.