Handel, G.F., Music for the Royal Fireworks. (1749)
“The music was a huge success,” commentated Katie Derham at the 2012 Proms, “but being an English celebration it will come as no surprise to you to learn that the fireworks themselves were somewhat dampened by rain.” This is an understatement, considering that the few fireworks that did work ended up setting the stage ― an edifice over a hundred feet tall ― on fire. Aaron Grad notes, “The actual event on April 27, 1749 was spectacular, not least because of the fire that burned down the specially built wooden pavilion.” In a typically English reaction of the day, Horace Walpole complained the evening as badly organised, but that “very little mischief was done, and but two persons killed”.
Commissioned by King George II to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle that ended almost a decade of war, the instrumentation was intended to embody a sense of military grandeur: 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 horns, 9 trumpets, and 3 sets of timpani. And while this would be impressive in any century, the original plan was to have 16 trumpets and 16 horns, and Phillip Huscher notes that the first performance actually included some sixty wind instruments. The Academy of Ancient Music notes that the use of trumpets and oboes was linked to instruments used in army bands, and the dotted rhythms in the first movement are symbolic of the cavalry. Movement titles provide further symbolism, with the siciliano dance labelled ‘Peace’ (La Paix), and the following fanfare titled ‘Rejoicing’ (La Réjouissance) in reference to the Treaty for which it was commissioned.
Modern-day performances almost always involve strings, as Handel added these parts in for indoor performances. This was the composer’s original intent, hampered only by the monarch’s preference (and instruction) for having exclusively winds and drums.
Public performances were a rarity, and as such even the dress rehearsal at Vauxhall Gardens ― with tickets sold ― attracted a crowd of some 12,000, causing a traffic jam on London Bridge a century and a half before anything resembling a motor vehicle was invented.
References: Katie Derham, commentator of the 2012 Proms; Britannica Online Encyclopaedia; Classic FM; the Academy of Ancient Music, Aaron Grad writing for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Burgess Hill Symphony Orchestra, and Phillip Huscher writing for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.