I wonder if I’m the only person who wants to go back in time and take part in one of the royal celebrations for which George Frideric Handel composed works like Music for the Royal Fireworks. Sure, lack of personal hygiene may have made crowds back then a little less pleasant, but baroque-era people knew how to party. Just imagine the pyrotechnic feast for the eyes that the Fireworks Music accompanied, as described in The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure on March 4, 1749:
As to the beautiful sun which you see represented on the top of the triumphal arch; it is composed of three circles of fiery fountains, each circle containing 180 cases of composition…These fountains will also be placed alternatively in the circle, viz. the mouths of the first circle opposite the intervals between the second, and the second between the third, and they being also mixed with steel dust, and fired at the same instant, will form a most brilliant glory resembling the streams of, or rays of light generally painted about the heads of saints, exceeding any thing of the kind ever seen before.
We’re used to big spectacles, but a sight like this must have been unbelievable in the 18th century. (And where can I subscribe to The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure?)
While the Music for the Royal Fireworks celebrated the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, Handel‘s Te Deum for the Victory at Dettingen—which we perform on May 17 and 18 in our final concerts of the season—was intended for a smaller military coup. The Dettingen Te Deum, as it is usually called, commemorates King George II’s victory over the French at the Battle of Dettingen on June 27, 1743. While writing the program notes for these performances, I learned that this win wasn’t quite so straightforward. England wasn’t officially at war with the French when the battle was fought, and rumor had it that the king wore a Hanoverian sash as he commanded his “Pragmatic Army” comprised of British, Hessian, and Hanoverian soldiers. Handel seized the chance to write music for huge forces anyway, and had the Te Deum completed in plenty of time for the king’s return to England. There was just one problem—George II decided to stay in his native Hanover for the summer. The party had to be postponed until November 27, which must have been a bit of a letdown.
What’s amazing is that the Dettingen Te Deum reflects none of this ambivalence. It’s truly joyful, an inspired blend of Handel’s best writing for orchestra and chorus. (Its only shortcoming might be its generic name, which doesn’t say anything about the music, but titles didn’t mean much in the Baroque.) A perfect ending to what’s been a really glorious season for Music of the Baroque.
(Hear what Jane Glover had to say about this piece when I spoke to her a month or so ago.)