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Summer means outdoor concerts, but the music often gets trumped by the occasion � we recall the atmosphere, logistics, and companions more than the actual entertainment. Two of the most renown were presented a dozen generations ago in London by George Frideric Handel, whose music has survived to delight modern audiences. The first took place on April 17, 1717. The Daily Courant reported: At about 8, the King took Water at Whitehall in an open Barge . . . and went up the [Thames] River towards Chelsea. Many other Barges with Persons of Quality attended, and so great a Number of Boats, that the whole River in a manner was cover’d; a City Company’s Barge was employ’d for the Musick, wherein were 50 instruments of all sorts, who play’d all the Way from Lambeth the finest Symphonies, compos’d express for this Occasion, by Mr. Hendel; which his Majesty liked so well, that he caus’d it to be plaid over three times in going and returning. At Eleven his Majesty went a-shore at Chelsea where a Supper was prepar’d, and then there was another very fine Consort of Musick, which lasted till 2; after which, his Majesty came again into his Barge, and return’d the same Way, the Musick continuing to play till he landed. The Prussian ambassador, Friedrich Bonet, generally corroborated the newspaper account of the “Musick” and provided further details � it was sponsored by a Baron Kilmanseck, the instruments consisted of trumpets, horns, oboes, bassoons, flutes, violins, and basses, and each of the three performances lasted an hour � twice going and again returning. Unfortunately, though, we have no reliable documentation of just what was played. Although many of the pieces became instant hits throughout London, none was printed at the time. After many confusing and spurious publications, a 1788 edition has become generally accepted as the authoritative “Water Music.” The nineteen pieces often are grouped into three suites of distinctive character. The first, in F major and d minor, features French horns (possibly their first use in England); the second, in D, adds trumpets; and the third, in G, is more lightly scored with flutes. Scholars speculate that the suite in F, the longest and widest-ranging, was played on the outbound trip (and may have been recycled from a royal excursion two years earlier); the third, too delicate for outdoors, entertained during the banquet; and the noble second accompanied the concluding downstream float back home. (But this conflicts with Bonet’s claims that the entire set was played each time and that each performance took an hour � even with pauses for the musicians to catch their breath, the first suite is barely half that long. Yet the movements may have been repeated or perhaps Handel, a notorious recycler, may have enlarged the work with other pieces.) Then as now, a success demands a sequel. That occasion was the mammoth festivities planned for April 27, 1749, to celebrate the treaty that ended the War of Austrian Succession. Fireworks were to erupt from a massive “machine,” an elaborately decorated wooden Dorian temple, 410 feet long and 114 feet high. According to an observer: “For a week before, the town was like a country fair, the streets filled from morning to night, scaffolds building wherever you could or could not see, and coaches arriving from every corner of the kingdom.” To defuse the tension, 12,000 tickets were sold for a rehearsal of Handel’s music, which ended with a 101-cannon salute and caused a massive traffic jam that blocked London Bridge for three hours. The event itself was a sensation, but not quite as planned. Reportedly, the night was rainy, many fireworks fizzled, and ground displays failed to ignite. There was, however, a truly grand finale � the “machine” itself caught fire and burned to the ground! None of the surviving reports made any mention of Handel’s music, and so the extent to which it meshed with the fireworks is unknown. Fortunately, though, we do have his autograph score. The king at first wanted no music but compromised by decreeing “martial instruments” only. Handel, too, bargained � he had wanted a hundred players to be heard over the din, but settled for the still-colossal ensemble of 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, nine horns, nine trumpets, and three kettledrums. Yet he did have the final say � despite the royal aversion to strings, Handel added them to his score for a repeat performance the next month to benefit his favorite charity. The huge crowds drawn to both the “Water Music” and “Music for the Royal Fireworks” performances are significant. Public concerts would arise only in the late 18th century. Before then, performances of opera, concerti, and all the other baroque and classical secular works we now revere were strictly for royalty and their entourages. Aside from trickle-down versions by itinerant musicians, the general public had no access. Indeed, many would pass their entire lives without ever hearing a skilled artist perform great music. An opportunity to hear a brand new work by England’s most famous composer was unique and not to be missed. Perhaps well-aware of this, Handel seized the occasions not only to delight his unaccustomed fans, but also to educate them. Both the “Water Music” and “Fireworks” brought his audience a crash course in the art they’d missed, incorporating a cosmopolitan range of influences and styles from a formal overture, minuets, and pastoral airs, to a sailors’ hornpipe and a rollicking country dance. Handel was destined for this role � although he settled in England (and became a British citizen in 1724), he was raised in Germany and trained in Italy, and so combined all but one of the European powerhouses of culture. RESCUED BY RECORDINGS By the advent of recordings, Handel had fallen long out of favor, and both the “Water Music” and “Fireworks” were known largely in arrangements that catered to late romantic taste � heavily abridged and densely orchestrated, with simplified rhythms, smoothed dynamics and underlined cadences. Yet, even these served a crucial purpose � to introduce Handel to audiences otherwise inclined to dismiss him as an archaic historical footnote. The stereo era stirred interest in the complete “Water Music.” Edward van Beinum and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (Epic) were gracious and elegant, with exquisitely refined playing. Yehudi Menuhin and the Bath Festival Orchestra (EMI) chose a leaner sonority and a keener sense of period style. Hermann Scherchen and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (Westminster) were full of subtle balances and imaginative interpretive touches. Leopold Stokowski (BMG) used an augmented orchestra of 120 to invest the score with his trademark color but the result emerged as surprisingly moribund, the principal excitement coming during the last half-minute in which the “Fireworks” are ruined by ridiculous sound effects of explosions and screaming kids. The many fine performances currently available divide into those on modern or period instruments. Among the former are acclaimed readings by Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra (Philips), Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Decca), Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque (Telarc), Gerard Schwartz and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (Delos), and Orpheus (DG). The latter achieves a clean, tight ensemble without a conductor, its intimacy emerging wholly from within. All convey the timeless grandeur and brilliance of this music. But even the best of these sound somewhat bland compared to those that embrace the distinctive sonorities and balances of Handel’s time. Among the elements of 18th century style that Handel had assumed his players understood without bothering to write them out was exaggerating the difference between dotted and short notes. Indeed, a clear sign of observing baroque conventions comes at the very outset of both works’ overtures. Thus, while the opening rhythm of the “Fireworks” is written as a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note, the practice in Handel’s time was to “double-dot,” as if the first note were 134 beats followed by a 16th note. Although there had been a few predecessors, a 1978 “Water Music” recording by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Das Alte Werk) launched the original-instrument revival of Handel in earnest. Playing actual instruments from Handel’s time (plus a few authentic copies), the 27-member Concentus Musicus Wien zipped through the whole work in 43 minutes, with breakneck tempos, lean textures, and startling sonorities, including horn trills that still shock with their virtuostic attacks (no easy feat using “natural” horns without any valves, so that all tonal effects are done through the lips). Yet, if it sounds just a bit sour, that’s due to “natural tuning” � in the days before the tyranny of keyboard-mandated “equal temperament,” a C sharp and a D flat were quite different, neither one falling exactly halfway between C and D, as we are accustomed to hearing. Modern recordings boasting period instruments and embellishments include Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (Oiseau-Lyre), the Linde Consort (Virgin), Jeanne Lamon and Tafelmusik (Sony), and Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert (Archiv). All feature lucid tempos, bright sonority, careful balances, and superb playing. Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonic Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi) and Jordi Saval and Le Concert des Nations (Astr�e) are especially alert, brimming with spirit, constantly shifting timbres, intensified pacing, and irresistibly vivid dances. Yet authenticity for these works is an elusive concept, considering their intended purpose. In the days before electronic amplification, the challenges of hearing an outdoor performance were severe enough, but were compounded in the middle of a river or amid vast crowds without the natural acoustical reinforcement of a band-shell or ampitheatre. Two recordings tackle the problem creatively with enhanced musical forces. A pioneering 1959 “Fireworks” led by Charles Mackerras (Testament) massed 64 London brass and wind players to replicate the needed volume; although tempos are stodgy, it still seems a more reliable guide to the original sound than all the period versions noted above that feature a prominent harpsichord continuo that could not possibly have been heard in an open-air setting. Among current discs, one follows boldly in Mackerras’ footsteps � Le Concert Spirituel, led by Herv� Niquet (Glossa), an ecstatic 2002 romp with pounding tympani, impulsive fanfares, and a half-minute drum solo that bursts with the rowdy, unfettered spirit of an outdoor celebration, palpably reflecting the ecstatic excitement of a crowd who had never before heard such a splendid outpouring of glorious sound. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected]. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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