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Royal Fireworks Program Notes

Royal Fireworks Program Notes

Program Notes for Royal Fireworks
©2021 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin

Suite from Naïs
– Jean-Phillippe Rameau

Baptised September 25, 1683, in Dijon, France
Died September 12, 1764, in Paris, France

This work was premiered on April 22, 1749, at the Opéra in Paris.  It is scored for piccolo, flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two trumpets, timpani, percussion, harpsichord, theorbo, and strings.

Jean-Phillippe Rameau was one of the most important musicians and composers of the Baroque period.  Little is known of his life before age 40, except that he was the son of an organist and, like his father, he held several minor organist posts in the southern French provinces of Languedoc and Provence, where he also toured with a theatrical company.  Rameau traveled to Milan for a brief period where he likely heard Italian opera – an influence that would be rather important in his later life.

Rameau’s greatest achievement was the 1722 publication of his seminal Traité de l’harmonie (Treatise on Harmony).  This monumental volume includes instruction on the mathematics of music, the nature and relationships of chords, the principles of composition, and a guide to accompaniments.   The Treatise codified the basic concept of chords constructed in thirds and varied by inversion that has been the foundation of tonal music since its publication.  Not only did the book explain performance practice of the day, it was the first widely distributed publication to explain the practice.

As a composer, Rameau’s greatest achievements were in the field of opera.  French opera in the eighteenth century was a hybrid of arias and scenes combined with ballet.  These opera-ballets appeared in several forms that vary in length from three to five acts.  They usually included characters from mythology and were preceded by an allegorical prologue that included idealogical characters, such as Love, Music, and Virtue.

Rameau wrote the opera Naïs in celebration of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle that marked the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. Subtitled Opéra pour La Paix (Opera for Peace), the original name for this work was Le triomphe de la paix (The Triumph of Peace), but Rameau was dissatisfied with the terms of the treaty and changed the title in protest.   

Naïs is a pastorale héroïque, a type of opera-ballet consisting of a prologue and three acts, to a libretto by French author Louis de Cahusac, who had worked with Rameau on three previous operas.  While most of the music was newly composed, Rameau also borrowed from his own earlier works Les Fêtes de Polymnie and Les Paladins.  After Rameau’s time, the work was not performed until a 1980 revival at the Palace of Versailles, a fallow period that is often the case with music written for specific occasions.

The allegorical prologue, ‘L’accord des dieux’ (‘The Gods’ Agreement’), symbolically addresses the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle by referring to a siege on Mount Olympus by the Titans.  Representing the French King Louis XV, Jupiter prevails and agrees to share his rule of the world with Pluto and Neptune, a character representing the British King George II.

The plot of the three acts that follow is largely a framework for Rameau’s music.  The sea god Neptune desires the company of the water-nymph Naïs.  To possess her, he takes on the guise of a mortal and attends the Isthmian Games held in his honor.  This dazzling stage work features the exotic locales of a soothsayer’s mysterious grotto, Neptune’s undersea palace, and the final spectacle of the main event – a contest between the Corinthian warrior Telemus and the Isthmian shepherd Asterion in which the prize is Naïs.  

The suite from Naïs consists of a bold and pungent overture that represents the storming of Olympus with its syncopations and forceful harmonies.  This overture is unusual for its day in that it continues into the first act – a practice that was claimed by opera reformer Christoph Willibald Gluck decades later as his own innovation.  This is followed by a pair of stately minuets that were among the many dances that comprised over half of the score.  The final movement begins with a chaconne – an elaborate piece that allows for elaborate variations over a repeated chord progression – followed by an Air de triomphe (Air of Triumph) composed to reveal Neptune’s exotic undersea abode.

Viola Concerto in G major, TWV 51: G9
– Georg Philipp Telemann

Born March 24, 1681, in Magdeburg, Germany
Died June 25, 1767, in Hamburg, Germany

This work was composed between 1716-1721, but the premiere date is not available.  It is scored for solo viola, strings, and continuo.

Georg Philipp Telemann holds the distinction of being declared as the world’s most prolific composer, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, with over 3,000 compositions. For perspective, that is about five times the total output of Mozart.  

Telemann was largely self-taught in music but studied law at the University of Leipzig.  While there he started writing operas and became director of the city’s public opera house.  This led to an appointment at Neukirche.  After a dispute with Johann Kuhnau about the use of Thomaskirche students in Neukirche concerts, he left to take a court position in Poland, but this was soon completed because of war.  He spent a few years in Eisenach where he composed church cantatas and plenty of instrumental music.

Telemann’s two most important jobs were in Frankfurt and Hamburg.  In 1712 he moved to Frankfurt to assume the duties of city music director and kapellmeister of three churches.  News of his success traveled to Eisenach and he accepted the position of Kapellmeister von Haus aus, which was an in absentia position that allowed him to send music to Eisenach from Frankfurt.  In 1721 he accepted a job as cantor of the Johanneum Lateinschule, the Hamburg equivalent to the position Bach would soon hold in Leipzig.  He would also oversee music at five of Hamburg’s churches.  As in Frankfurt, news of Telemann’s successes spread quickly.  When Kuhnau died in 1722, the city of Leipzig decided to hire Telemann as cantor at the Thomasschule, but Hamburg offered him a raise to stay.  The job was offered to Christoph Graupner, who also refused the position.  Johann Sebastian Bach accepted it as the third choice.

During the early Hamburg years, Telemann found out that his wife had been unfaithful and had amassed gambling debts more than his yearly salary.  They separated and Telemann was finally able to repay the debts over time, but the situation took a great toll on the aging composer.  He lived until 1767 when he died of a respiratory condition.

Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G major was composed in Frankfurt.  It is organized as a church sonata, which has a movement structure of slow-fast-slow-fast. The opening Largo is built on an ascending dotted scalar pattern.  Expect a few harmonic surprises along the way.

The second movement is a quick allegro filled with darting arpeggios and lively interplay between the soloist and the orchestra. Filled with crystalline textures, this movement ends with the orchestra alone.

Pensive and measured, the andante third movement displays the wonderful lyrical qualities of the viola. As the movement progresses, it becomes more ornamented but ends as it began. The finale is a presto romp that is built upon a descending figure that begins in the orchestral introduction. Strangely, the virtuosity of the viola, although amply displayed throughout the work, is less on display in the finale.  Telemann favors a balanced approach that allows the orchestra to play an equal part.  The work ends pleasantly with a final flourish.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049
– Johann Sebastian Bach

Born March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Germany

The premiere date for this work is unknown.  It is scored for two solo flutes (or recorders), solo violin, and strings, along with basso continuo.

J.S. Bach was, above all, a working musician – an organist and teacher attempting to earn enough compensation through his craft to feed his large family (over a span of 43 years, his two wives gave birth to twenty children, half of whom lived past infancy).  His vast number of compositions came from an immediate need for music in his workplace.  Bach’s quest for sustenance led him to five cities and a variety of duties.  His first position was in the town of Arnstadt in 1703, where he served as organist at the Neue Kirche.  In 1707, Bach moved to Mühlhausen, accepting a position as organist in the church of St. Blasius.  Before the year ended, he had married his cousin, Maria Barbara.  

The following year, the couple moved to the city of Weimar, where Bach accepted his first court position, as organist to Duke Wilhelm Ernst – a job he would retain for nine years.  At Weimar, he was promoted to the position of Kapellmeister in 1714.  Bach and his wife had six children while in Weimar.  Four of them survived – two of which were the composers Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. 

In 1717, Bach accepted the position of court music director in Cöthen.  It was here that Maria Barbara died unexpectedly in July of 1720.  He married again sometime before the summer of 1722, this time to the daughter of the court trumpeter of the town of Zeiss. His new wife, Anna Magdalena Wilke, was a gifted singer whose voice Bach must have known.

In 1723, the Bach family moved to Leipzig where Sebastian took on the grueling duties of Kantor at the Thomasschule – a position bestowed upon him by the city, for which he also directed civic musical activities.  He was in charge of all music at four Leipzig churches – Thomaskirche, Nikolaikirche, Petrikirche, and Mattäeikirche – and answered to city council, which had the authority to demand new music for any occasion.  Bach was also choir director at all four churches – three of which sang polyphonic music.  In 1729, Bach assumed the duties of directing the collegium musicum, a group of university students and professional musicians who gave public concerts on a weekly basis, some of them at the local coffee house.  He held this position periodically until 1741.  Bach’s last years in Leipzig were marked by worsening eyesight, probably due to diabetes.  He died in late July of 1750 in total blindness.  Besides his widow, Bach left an estate of much less value than would befit a person of his musical and cultural importance.

Musically, Bach’s choice of compositional genres followed the needs of his employers.  In Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, and his earliest years at Weimar, he composed a large number of works for organ.  Later in his Weimar tenure and in Cöthen, instrumental works prevailed, often showing the influence of various Italian composers in which Bach had taken interest, among them Vivaldi, Corelli, and Albinoni.  In Leipzig Bach’s responsibilities with the choir led to his composing many cantatas and his large sacred choral works.  Increasingly interested in large musical forms, he also composed some of his more important instrumental music in Leipzig, including the Musical Offering and his unfinished Art of the Fugue.

Dedicated to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg, to whom they were sent in hopes of a possible position in Berlin, the six Brandenburg Concertos date from between 1718 and 1721 when Bach was working in Cöthen.  The term concerto refers here to the concerto grosso – a work for a small group of soloists (called the concertino) pitted against a larger ensemble of instruments (called the ripieno or tutti) – as opposed to the solo concerto.  Concerti grossi usually have a clear-cut division between the groups, as in Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1, 2, and 4.  The other three use two more evenly matched groups.  The fourth of these works, likely one of the last of the Brandenburg Concertos to be composed, is scored for a solo group of two flutes (originally blockflöte, or recorders) and solo violin, along with strings and basso continuo (consisting of harpsichord and a bass instrument, usually cello).  

The first movement (Allegro) relies on a tried-and-true technique called ritornello form.  Similar to the Classical rondo some fifty years later, this form uses a returning section (simply called the ritornello) to separate entrances of the solo group.  In this way, Bach allows a smooth flow between the stunning solos and the ensemble sections, providing formal clarity in the absence of the usual larger orchestral group.  The solo flutes usually work as a pair, sometimes in imitation.  Bach’s solo violin writing is extraordinarily detailed and is as delightful to play as it is to hear.

Bach’s second movement is a sarabande (a slow and stately Italian dance in triple meter) that features the flutes and relegates the solo violin to more of a supporting role.  The finale, marked presto, is a brilliant exercise in fugal counterpoint and ritornello form.  In this movement all soloists have a chance to shine, and Bach provides ample material to ensure their success.

Royal Fireworks Music 
– George Frideric Handel

Born February 23, 1685, in Halle, Germany
Died April 14, 1759 in London, England

This work was first performed on April 29, 1749, in Green Park, St. James, in London, England, with Handel conducting.  This work was originally scored for an impressively festive ensemble of twenty-four oboes, twelve bassoons, contrabassoon, nine horns, nine trumpets, and timpani. The scoring on this program is Handel’s revision for three oboes, three bassoons, contrabassoon, three trumpets, three horns, timpani, percussion, harpsichord, theorbo, and strings.

Of Handel’s orchestral music, two sets of pieces, both written for Royal functions, are most popular.  Composed for King George I, the Water Music dates from 1715 and was written to accompany a leisurely outing on a barge floating down the Thames.  The other work, Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music, was composed for an incendiary celebration of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (marking the end of the War of Austrian Succession) on April 29, 1749.  Both pieces may be seen as bookends at the opposite ends of a very long career.

It was to be a festive evening in London’s Green Park with a fireworks display to the accompaniment of Handel’s mammoth new suite.  Handel scored the work so it would surely be heard over the explosions – twenty-four oboes, twelve bassoons, contrabassoon, nine horns, nine trumpets, and six timpani requiring three players.  No strings were needed as they simply would not have been loud enough.  Subtlety was not a requirement.  The grounds of the park were decorated with a new building over a hundred feet tall and four hundred feet long designed by Jean-Nicolas Servandoni, the architect of St. Sulpice and stage designer for the Paris Opera.  It was such a huge undertaking that work was not completed until the day of the event.  This structure from which the fireworks were launched proved less than reliable.  As the building was constructed of wood, it caught fire shortly after the event began, sending the crowd fleeing.  Strong winds fanned the flames.  The British politician Horace Walpole reported that two people were killed.  Always the entrepreneur, Handel decided to add strings to the suite in hopes of marketing it to the ever-curious public.  This also allowed him to transform his score into a delightful addition to the concert repertoire.   

Music for the Royal Fireworks begins with a rousing “Grand Overture of warlike instruments.”  It is in French Overture form with a slow introduction using dotted rhythms, followed by a quick second section.  The fireworks began with a 101 cannon salute, followed by the bourée, a lively and peaceful dance. La Paix represents peace itself as a largo movement with a swaying Siciliano rhythm. La Rejouissance is a festive piece representing the intended celebratory spirit of what should have been a festival of rejoicing.  The suite ends with two contrasting minuets – one loud, one soft.

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