It’s ironic that Independence Day in America isn’t complete without Tchaikovsky’s most famous ode to Russian nationalism: the bombastic 1812 Overture, which was written to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon’s invading army. As we head into the July Fourth holiday weekend, here are five more pieces that bring fireworks to mind:
Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks
In 1749, England’s King George II employed Handel to write music for a large, outdoor public celebration in London’s Green Park, intended to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle and the subsequent end of the War of Austrian Succession. At the time, the idea of a public concert was both democratic and innovative. Professional music was mostly limited to the private courts of the aristocracy. Unfortunately, the event itself wasn’t as successful as Handel’s music. 12,000 people jammed London Bridge, creating a traffic jam of carriages that lasted for hours. It rained, dampening most of the fireworks. The fireworks that did go off started a fire on one of the stages. Six days later, another indoor performance was arranged.
Trevor Pinnock’s recording with The English Concert gives us a sense of how the instruments of Handel’s time might have sounded. Listen to the back and forth dialogue between brass and reed instruments. Notice the way the music evokes a sense of joy and celebration as it reaches increasingly higher, amid a flurry of fast notes after a majestic opening.
Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture
There are no overt references to the fireworks of a Roman carnival in Berlioz’ overture. But this piece, which grew out of the 1838 operatic flop, Benvenuto Cellini, is filled with musical fireworks. For me, one of the most amazing aspects of this piece is the way multiple voices, each with their own distinct character, interact. For example, listen to the way the woodwinds emerge with their own countermelody in this passage, or the canon that takes place a moment later. More colorful interjections can be heard as the slow opening gives way to a furious saltarello dance.
Here is Sir Colin Davis’ 1965 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra:
Stravinsky: Feu d’artifice
This short, but dazzling, orchestral showpiece was written in 1908 by a young Igor Stravinsky. Feu d’artifice, Op. 4 (“Fireworks”) was a wedding gift for the daughter of Stravinsky’s teacher and mentor, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. There are hints of Stravinsky’s ballet music to come. Also, listen for passing references to Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Here is Seiji Ozawa’s 1967 recording with the Chicago Symphony:
Debussy: Feux d’artifice
Feux d’artifice (“Fireworks”) concludes Claude Debussy’s second book of Préludes for solo piano. Completed in 1913, it’s music which is both colorful and haunting. Here is Krystian Zimerman’s recording:
Knussen: Flourish with Fireworks
There’s nothing more exciting than opening a concert with a short, electrifying musical first course. That’s what British composer Oliver Knussen provided for the first concert of Michael Tilson Thomas’ opening season as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1988. Flourish with Fireworks, Op. 22 draws inspiration from Stravinsky’s Fireworks, featuring shimmering splashes of orchestral color. Appropriately, the piece develops around motives which correspond with two sets of initials: LSO (A, E-flat, G) and MTT (E, B, B).
Here is Sir Simon Rattle’s recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra:
- Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks, Trevor Pinnock, The English Concert iTunes, Amazon
- Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra Amazon
- Stravinsky: Fireworks, Seiji Ozawa, Chicago Symphony Orchestra iTunes, Amazon
- Debussy: Préludes, Krystian Zimerman iTunes, Amazon
- Knussen: Flourish with Fireworks, Op. 22, Oliver Knussen, London Sinfonietta iTunes, Amazon