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Today is the Fourth of July, where fireworks are the preferred way to celebrate. Fireworks have been used for celebration since the Seventh Century, when they were invented in China.

It has been a Grand Tradition throughout the centuries for firework displays to be accompanied by music. In our country, it is ironic that the most iconic music to accompany fireworks to is the 1812 Festival Overture, about a Russian victory over the French. To be fair, often times, The Stars and Stripes Forever is used for a finale piece.

No, this is the story of a King, a lionized composer, some immortal music, and how the Best Laid Plans, as they say, "gang aft agley".

In 1748, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed, ending the War of Austrian Succession (also known in America as King George's War). Because it's good to be the King, George II ordered a Grand Celebration.  He commissioned his Court Composer George Frederick Handel (ordered) to write some music for a grand fireworks celebration to be held in London's Green Park, near St. James' Park, on April 27, 1749.

The noted designer Giovanni Niccolò Servando designed a special wooden pavillion for the musicians to play in.

The design for the pavilion for the Royal Fireworks of 1749
The fireworks themselves were designed by Thomas Desguliers, son of the cleric and scientist John Theophilus Desaguliers.

However, the Royal Fireworks Display was not as successful as the music. The huge wooden building caught fire after the collapse of a bas-relief of George II.  Oops. The music, however, had already been premiered.  Six days earlier, on April 21, there was a huge open rehearsal at Vauxhall Gardens. Over twelve thousand people, each paying 6 shillings 2 pence, stampeded to get in, causing a three-hour traffic jam of carriages after the main route to the area south of the river was closed due to the collapse of the central arch of newly built London Bridge.

Handel's Fireworks Music, performed at his GRACE the Duke of RICHMOND'S at WHITEHALL and on the River Thames on Monday 15 May 1749. Performed by the direction of Charles Fredrick Esq. A hand-coloured etching.
So--on to the music.  It is in five movements:

   1. Ouverture: Adagio, Allegro, Lentement, Allegro
   2. Bourrée
   3. La Paix: Largo alla siciliana
   4. La Réjouissance: Allegro
   5. Menuets I and II

The music itself was to be scored for wind band.  Handel set very specific numbers of instruments and parts.  The Duke of Montague noted:

"I think Hendel now proposes to have but 12 trumpeters and 12 French horns; at first there was to have been sixteen of each, and I remember I told the King so, who, at that time, objected to their [sic] being any musick; but, when I told him the quantity and nomber [sic] of martial musick there was to be, he was better satisfied, and said he hoped there would be no fidles."
At any rate, the music is scored for the following:  24 oboes, 12 bassoons (and a contrabassoon), nine natural trumpets, nine natural horns, three pairs of kettledrums, and an unspecified number of snare drums.  Naturally, as a double reed player, this is why I love this piece, and why I love to hear--and see--it performed as it was originally written.  Handel was specific about the numbers of instruments to each written part. In the overture there are assigned three players to each of the three trumpet parts; the 24 oboes are divided 12, 8 and 4; and the 12 bassoons are divided 8 and 4. The side drums were instructed when to play in La Réjouissance and the second Menuet, but very likely also played in the Ouverture.

After the first performance, Handel arranged the music for regular orchestra as follows: Handel wrote notices in the score: the violins to play the oboe parts, the cellos and double basses the bassoon part, and the violas either a lower wind or bass part. The instruments from the original band instrumentation play all the movements in the revised orchestral edition except the gentle Bourrée and the first Menuet, which are played by only the oboes, bassoons, and strings alone.

Here is the Music for the Royal Fireworks in the original 1749 arrangement.

Every year, at the annual convention of the International Double Reed Society, all participants are invited to bring their horns and join in a massed ensemble where the highlight is the Royal Fireworks Music.  Here's a snippet--

But I promised Fireworks, so here they are:

Be safe, and enjoy the holiday, and may good music always illuminate your personal fireworks and celebrations.

Originally posted to zenbassoon on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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