We tend to think of George II wandering around the grounds of his palaces with his ruffled sleeves, signing papers and being kind of serious. We don't generally imagine him having a huge raving party in the middle of a London Park with fireworks and up to the minute music.
But on 27 April 1749, that's exactly what he did.
He commissioned his favourite composer, George Frederic Handel, who had written the music played at his coronation in 1727, to create a show-stopping piece of music. For the entertainment, George ordered the creation of a 'machine' that would set off a choreographed display of glittering fireworks, to Handel's music. This would be delivered by a group of Italian theatre workers letting off the fireworks from inside a closed stage. There would also be cannons firing. A little bit of a health and safety nightmare today.
The event was to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in the previous year.
But everything didn't quite go to plan.
Originally, Handel wanted violins in his performance, but was told that George preferred woodwind and percussion, so left them out. The piece was played by oboes, trumpets, horns, bassons and kettle drums. A rehearsal also took place a few days' before - and people caused a traffic jam of carriages on the London Bridge trying to get close to see the spectacle for themselves. Estimates from the time say that from eight to twelve thousand people flocked to Vauxhall Gardens, where the rehearsal was held.
On the actual evening of the performance in Green Park, it was pouring with rain and at least one of the fireworks misfired, setting a woman's dress on fire and also injuring another two men. Part of the stage caught fire. In one of the earlier rehearsals, one man's hand was blown off, and George awarded him ten guineas by way of compensation.
But while George wanted this day to be remembered in history, in the end the winner was his composer, Handel.
He eventually got his way with the violins, adding them to a later performance of the piece in London in May 1749, and Mozart, who was born after the performance, in 1756, later called the piece 'a spectacle of English pride and joy'. The piece would still be associated with Handel even after he died, and is still played today on stages around the world.
Many people recognise the music. But not many realise that it was originally written to accompany George II's fireworks on Green Park in 1749 and not necessarily as a piece of music to have been enjoyed in its own right.
You can listen to the music here.
Londonist - Fire and eighteenth-century traffic jams: Handel and the Royal Fireworks, accessed 6 August, 2020
Wikipedia Commons - Music for the Royal Fireworks, accessed 6 August 2020.
You might also like: George I's Hot Chocolate Obsession, The History of the Sandwich and a book review of The Daughters of George III.