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 Overture, 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 Overture with racing fanfare-like figures for brass and timpani.
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.
ANDERSON & ROE
Anderson & Roe Piano Duo, born in 2002
Greg Anderson & Elizabeth Joy Roe
A concert fantasy in the grand romantic tradition, the Carmen Fantasy for Two Pianos weaves together several distinct scenes from Georges Bizet’s beloved opera Carmen. Serving as an introduction, the work begins with the “Danse Bohémienne” from Act IV, a ballet that is almost always cut from modern performances of the opera. (Incidentally, Bizet used the same material as incidental music to L’Arlésienne.) The introduction is followed by the “Aragonaise” (originally the entr’acte to Act IV, a scene just before the opera’s climactic bullfight), the famous “Habanera” from Act I (in which Carmen sings “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” or, “Love is a rebellious bird”), and the “Card Aria” from Act III (in which Carmen reads in the cards that both she and Don José are doomed to die).
—Greg Anderson & Elizabeth Joy Roe