20 Sep

MB pic george hixson

By ANTOINE PLANTE, Artistic Director

On Oct. 10, Mercury Baroque will open its season at the Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater with The Royal Fireworks. While the concert will feature beautiful music by Bach, Telemann and Fasch, the real highlight of the concert is Handel’s famed Music for the Royal Fireworks. We all know and love this music but few know its fascinating story. 

Mercury Baroque doesn’t actually aim to burn down the Wortham with our performance of Handel’s Royal Fireworks. However, as you’ll see below, there are precedents! 

It was the year 1749 and England was celebrating the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. A great fireworks show was planned for London’s Green Park and Handel was contracted by King George II to compose a musical score to accompany it. Jean-Nicolas Servan, a French architect, designed a beautiful theatre in the park for the musicians to perform in while fireworks are lunched from all corners and wings of the theatre. Only a few days before the show, at a rehearsal for the performance in London’s Vauxhall Gardens, Handel’s orchestra drew a paying crowd of what some historians believe to be 12,000 people. It was reported in papers the next day that the crowd caused immense traffic jams of carriages all over London. 

On the night of the fireworks show Handel’s music began and fireworks were launched. At about 9:30 in the evening some of the fireworks launched from the left wing of the building discharged incorrectly and set fire to that same wing. Some of the arches of the theatre quickly burned and by 11:00 the whole building was engulfed. During the fire two of the grand Rockets and the Sun, two of the biggest fireworks of the show, were accidentally discharged.  It must have been a wild spectacle as the beautiful theatre burned to the ground in front of the crowd. His Majesty, however, lost interest and left with his family at about midnight. 

So it is ironic that the premiere of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks ended in such fireworks. The theatre constructed by Servan wasn’t the only casualty of the show. A painter high in scaffolding had fallen  and was killed, a shoemaker drowned, and one poor bombardier accidently blew off his arm. One woman in the audience was hit with a stray firework. Her clothes rapidly caught fire, yet the quick-thinking men next to her stripped her of all of her clothing and managed to save her. 

So now you are armed with the history of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. When you listen to our performance on Oct. 10, close your eyes and imagine Servan’s theatre in flames, illuminating the night sky. Imagine the light from the flames and the wildly discharging fireworks twinkling in the eye of King George II. The bombardier losing his arm, a painter falling from scaffolding, the embarrassment of the poor lady stripped of her burning clothing after being hit with a stray firework…What a scene! 

Mercury’s performance on October 10this likely to be less chaotic than Handel’s premiere in 1749. We aren’t expecting anyone to lose an arm or for the Wortham to combust, but we will make up for that with musical excitement. Mercury will present a clean, crisp and refreshing take on Handel’s masterpiece with the precision and energy that we have become known for in the past several years. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks won’t be the only musical fireworks in the program. Bach’s fourth Orchestral Suite opens the concert with more trumpets, timpani and baroque fanfare at its finest. 

Mercury will also present the Texas premiere of a Sinfonia by J.F. Fasch, a respected contemporary of Bach, who, unfortunately, is probably most remembered for having been forgotten. In his time, Fasch even turned down the Cantor position at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, the same position J.S. Bach would eventually be the fourth choice for. This prompted the now famous quote referring to J.S. Bach by Abraham Christoph Plaz, a Leipzig councilman: “Since the best cannot be obtained, we will have to settle for the mediocre.”

Photo: Mercury Baroque musicians by George Hixson


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