Music for the Royal Fireworks
Overture to Oberon, J.306
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D Minor
ANDERSON & ROE
Carmen Fantasy, based on themes from Bizet’s Carmen
Anderson & Roe Piano Duo
Music for the Royal Fireworks
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
Born February 23, 1685, Magdeburg
Died April 14, 1759, London
The English and the French signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle on October 27, 1748, bringing to a close the War of Austrian Succession. That war, which had dragged on for eight years, had proven so exhausting and costly that eventually all the parties were relieved to have it over. The English planned an elaborate victory celebration: George II’s staff brought in the designer Florentine Servandoni, who the following April erected what was called a “Machine” in Green Park, directly across from Buckingham Palace. This structure, over four hundred feet long and a hundred feet high, took the form of a Doric-style pavilion with elaborate wings and a viewing stand. The royal “victory” celebration on April 27, 1749, was to be a real show in every sense of that term: over a hundred cannons would fire a thunderous salute, followed by a massive fireworks show, and Handel was commissioned to write music to accompany all this.
George II, whose family had had music lessons from Handel, took an active interest in the music to be performed, and he made clear that he preferred the strident sound of martial instruments; specifically, his staff told Handel, the king “hoped there would be no fiddles.” Handel was loathe to do without stringed instruments, but he tried to satisfy the king’s tastes by writing for a massive military band of 18 brass instruments, 37 woodwinds, and three timpani. Contemporary accounts speak of over a hundred musicians at the celebration, so perhaps Handel was able to sneak a few “fiddles” into his orchestra. News of the upcoming spectacle spread through London, and Handel’s open-air rehearsal of the music in Vauxhall Gardens on April 21 attracted a crowd of 12,000. Traffic to this rehearsal was so heavy that it took some carriages three hours just to make it across London Bridge, and there were reports of scuffles and injuries among the footmen of these carriages (commuter gridlock and road rage are not strictly modern phenomena, apparently). The actual celebration on April 27 turned into a wonderful fiasco. Things began as planned, but the fireworks went awry, setting the “Machine” on fire. A stiff wind blowing across the park quickly turned this into a conflagration, the crowd panicked and fled, and the gaudy pavilion burned to the ground.
Handel’s music for this occasion has survived, however, and it continues to excite audiences long after the occasion for which it was composed has faded into history. Handel opens with a grand Ouverture, somewhat in the French manner but without the fugal writing of the normal French overture. The music begins with a ringing slow introduction, full of dotted rhythms and fanfares that must have been particularly pleasing to George II’s desire for a martial sound; the overture then rushes ahead on rapid exchanges between brass and strings that overflow with energy. Handel pauses for a brief slow interlude, then returns to the fast music to rush the overture to its close. At this point in the original celebration came the salute by a hundred cannons, and Handel then offered a series of dance movements that were separated by fireworks. First comes an agile Bourrée, and Handel specifies that the oboes are to have the first statement here, then they are to drop out and allow the strings the second. There follow two movements with titles appropriate to the occasion. Le Paix (“Peace”) takes the form of a slow Siciliana, which rocks gently and gracefully along its 12/8 meter, while La Rejouissance (“Rejoicing”) returns to the manner of the opening Ouverture with racing fanfare-like figures for brass and timpani.
Overture to Oberon
CARL MARIA VON WEBER
Born December 18, 1786, Eutin
Died June 5, 1826, London
In 1824 Covent Garden commissioned an opera from Carl Maria von Weber. It was a great opportunity for the composer, but when the libretto by James Robinson Planché arrived, Weber found himself writing music for an opera of stupefying absurdity. Listeners should know right from the start that the opera bears no relation to Shakespeare. Planché may have borrowed the characters of Oberon, Titania, and Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but he then created a libretto that has nothing to do with that magical play and instead takes its characters through a series of events so fantastic that they are almost impossible to describe.
Making that task even more difficult was the fact that Weber knew that he was dying of tuberculosis. His doctors had forbidden him to go to London, with its fog and dank weather, and instead recommended that he travel to Italy, but Weber was so desperate to provide for his wife and children that he took on the commission even as he must have known subconsciously that it would kill him. He composed most of Oberon between November 1825 and January 1826, then journeyed to London in March to oversee rehearsals. The overture was the last part of the opera to be composed—he completed it just three days before the premiere and wrote in the manuscript: “Finished April 9, 1826, in the morning at a quarter til twelve, and with it the whole opera, Soli Deo Gloria!!! C.M. Weber.” The opera—predictably—has not held the stage, but from the first instant its overture was a hit—it had to be encored at the premiere before the audience would allow the opera to proceed, and over the last two centuries it has remained a favorite in the concert hall.
As well it should. From its first instant, this music transports us into a world of magic. The first sound we hear is a solo horn, playing very softly–this is the call of the magical horn that will recur throughout the opera. Here it is answered by soft strings, and instantly we are aware of Weber’s command of the orchestra: violins are muted, but violas and cellos are not, and that subtle blend of different sounds is a measure of Weber’s musical imagination. A distant march for brass helps propel us to a moment of expectant silence, and then–wham!–one fierce attack for full orchestra launches the main body of the overture. Weber marks this Allegro con fuoco, and fiery it certainly is. Weber drew the themes for the overture from the already-completed opera: the music for rushing violins here is from the quartet in Act II, “Over the dark blue waters,” and solo clarinet introduces the dolce second subject, which comes from the tenor aria “From boyhood trained.” This flows into the surging, leaping third theme, which comes from Rezia’s “Ocean, thou mighty monster,” sung after the shipwreck in Act II. Weber then treats these themes in sonata form. A firm march rhythm propels us into the energetic development, and in the closing pages the “Ocean, thou mighty monster” theme drives to a soaring climax as the overture races to its blazing conclusion.
No wonder this music had to be encored at the premiere.
A SAD FOOTNOTE: Oberon itself may have been hopeless, but there is a great deal of terrific music in it, and the audience at the premiere recognized that. Weber conducted that performance, and an eyewitness left an account: “When the curtain fell the entire audience, who had shown the composer their attention and regard by remaining in their places till all was over, rose simultaneously, with frantic and increasing calls for Weber, who at last appeared, trembling with emotion, exhausted, but happy.” Weber remained in London to oversee the next few performances. He longed desperately to return to his family in Dresden, but his health collapsed, and he died in London on June 5, less than two months after the premiere. He was 39 years old.
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D Minor
Born January 7, 1899, Paris
Died January 30, 1963, Paris
Poulenc wrote his Concerto for Two Pianos in the summer of 1932, when he was 33 years old, and he was one of the soloists at the premiere in Venice on September 5 of that year. Concertos for two pianos are comparatively rare. It is difficult to use two such formidable instruments with orchestra, and Poulenc wisely chose to write charming and agreeable music for this combination instead of trying to create a virtuoso display concerto for two pianists simultaneously. It has proven one of his most popular works. Among the most striking features of the Concerto for Two Pianos is its multiplicity of styles, all deftly held together with Poulenc’s breezy and effortless skill. One hears—by turn—tunes from Parisian dance halls, a slow movement in homage to Mozart, sonorities inspired by Balinese gamelan ensembles, and many other styles. Throughout, Poulenc keeps textures light and clear. He is setting out consciously to charm audiences, and in this he succeeds admirably.
Poulenc’s marking at the beginning of the Allegro ma non troppo–très brillant–is the key to this sparkling movement: the soloists trade passages, Poulenc incorporates “popular” tunes, and the music is colored by a large percussion battery that includes castanets. The coda brings a surprise: the movement’s breathless rush comes to a sudden stop, and the two pianos take the movement to its close with quiet music inspired by the Balinese gamelan, a sound that had captured the imagination of Debussy a generation earlier. The music sounds vaguely exotic (Poulenc marks it “mysterious and clear”), its unusual sound produced in part by harmonics from the lower strings and cymbals struck with sponge-headed sticks.
Poulenc was frank about the inspiration for the second movement: “In the Larghetto of this concerto, I allowed myself, for the first theme, to return to Mozart, for I cherish the melodic line and I prefer Mozart to all other musicians.” The opening theme, played by the first piano, could easily come from the slow movement of a late Mozart piano concerto. The movement’s center section offers more animated music, but the two pianos—which often play unaccompanied here—bring the movement to a quiet close on a return of the opening material. The finale, very fast and rondo-like in structure, recalls material from the first movement, including some of the dance-hall tunes. Poulenc once again invokes gamelan music in the coda, and this rushes the concerto to its brusque cadence.