Tuesday, April 21, 2009

This Day in Classical Music History (Handel’s “Fireworks” Leads to Jam on London Bridge)

April 21, 1749—Six days before it was supposed to have its official premiere, a public rehearsal at Vauxhall Gardens of Music for the Royal Fireworks, by George Frideric Handel, drew such a crowd on London Bridge that no carriage could pass for three hours.

I like public rehearsals, don’t you? In contrast to actual concerts, they’re relaxed and cheap. If one I attended several years ago at Tanglewood is any indication, the musicians don’t get dressed up in their finest, but they’re serious and professional, and the conductor—perhaps because he knows outsiders are looking on—doesn’t throw a hissy fit if someone hits a wrong note.

Handel wasn’t keen on the idea of public rehearsals, though. Part of his reluctance related to his own showman’s instinct: he was going to repeat this piece in a month, at a benefit concert for the city’s Foundling Hospital, by which time, he feared, the music would lose its impact.

There was also the little matter of how all the musicians he wanted for the full performance could be shoehorned into the “Music Box” at Vauxhall Gardens.

The venue formed just part of a larger struggle for the composer, however, who, under even the best of circumstances, was wary about having his work tampered with. He got along well enough, all right, with King George II (whose family, the Hanovers, were, like Handel himself, a German emigrant to England).

But the two men representing the monarch’s interests—the Duke of Montague (Master General of the Ordnance, responsible for military music) and Charles Frederick, the “Comptroller of His Majesty’s Fireworks as Well as For War as For Triumph” (honestly, you can’t make these titles up!) were another story.

They were amateurs, and Handel didn’t like their suggestions (the king’s wishes, they insisted) for trumpets and martial music. Handel wanted the trumpets and French horns reduced from 16 to 12, with violins, of all things, added into the mix.

Montague, Frederick, and the king wanted a big to-do made out of this because they felt the occasion—the conclusion of the War of the Austrian Succession—warranted it. And, like the war itself—an inconclusive affair that didn’t end up settling anything—it’s likely that the three wouldn’t have insisted on getting their way if they’d known how the whole misbegotten affair would turn out.

Most of the estimates I’ve read about the London Bridge traffic jam put the number of vehicles at 12,000, though at least one contrarian insists on something closer to 2,000-3,000. Whatever the case might be, that little traffic jam was a prelude to some real discordant notes over the next week or so.

Handel must have been particularly disgruntled by the fact that—at least from what we can see—nobody made a fuss about his new work at the time. This might have been a blessing in disguise, for everyone else seems to have regarded the eventual April 27 concert at Green Park as a catastrophe.

The fireworks themselves were, according to a contemporary account, “lighted so slightly that scarce any body had patience to wait the finishing.” Even worse, from the musical point of view, were some other—uh, technical difficulties, shall we say.

The enormous wooden building in which the musicians had been performing ended up catching fire (courtesy of a bas relief of King George that collapsed). This enraged Handel’s collaborator, the theater designer Servadoni, who blamed Charles Frederick so much for the nasty turn of events that he drew his sword on him. (Poor Servadoni was taken into custody for his sins, and was only discharged the next day after he asked pardon of Charles Frederick.)

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