Orchestral music had attracted Georg Friederich Händel’s attention right from his earliest years in England. Orchestral writing, for Handel, usually took the form of a concerto grosso, in which an inner group of soloists is pitted against the remainder of the orchestra. Two of his famous works used by royalties for celebrations are The Water Music and Royal Fireworks Music.
London was the setting for the Water Music in 1717, when the royal family and members of nobility took part in a royal water-party on barges floating on the River Thames. For this event, Handel created music for a large orchestra of over fifty musicians including horns, oboes, bassoons, flutes, trumpets, and strings. There were twenty-two compositions pieces in three suites: No. 1 in F Major, No. 2 in D major, and No. 3in G Major. Music historians question exactly how many pieces Handel wrote for this event. They concluded that it was very possible that he composed perhaps two-thirds of them for this royal evening, adding others later for similar occasions. After all, in those days such music was written and used for special events as needed. The Allegro is a lively dance, the Air a melodious English-type folk song, the Bourrée and Hornpipe two more jaunty pieces that typify many selections that make up the Water Music.
The Royal Fireworks Music came much later, in 1749. The occasion was a peace treaty signed at Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1748, to end the conflict between France and England. The celebration was set for Green Park, London, on April 27, 1749. These festivities –marred when the fireworks set off a blaze which completely destroyed the structure especially built for the event – were launched by an Overture which, in Handel’s original orchestration, required 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, one contrabassoon, three pairs of timpani, and a kind of cornet known as a “serpent horn.” There followed a royal salute from 101 brass cannon and various pieces by Handel, all originally scored for winds and a large force of strings, bringing the number of original players to well over 100. Fortunately, the magnificent ceremonial music was completed before the fire caused complete pandemonium. The Royal Fireworks Music was next heard on May 27, 179, played by a much smaller band in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital during the benefit attended by the Prince of Wales. Again, an introductory Overture is followed by a series of dance rhythms, including a bourré, a Siciliana called “La Paix” (the peace), a brilliant “Le Rejouissance,” and endw with two minuets – all conveying a spirit of celebration and rejoicing. As a biographer Herbert Weinstock has said of Handel, his is “one of the most majestic, tender, and human voices ever lifted in praise of life, love, of beauty, and the art of music.”