Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


David Hunter (University of Texas at Austin, USA)

Rode the 12,000? Counting coaches, people, and errors en route to the rehearsal of Handelís Music for the Royal Fireworks

Though responsibility for numerous exaggerations in Handelís life-story can be assigned to biographers, in the case of the Fireworks Music the contemporary pressĖin the form of the Gentlemanís MagazineĖinitiated the myth that 12,000 people attended the public rehearsal at Vauxhall Gardens on Friday 21 April 1749. Widely reproduced in Handel biographies, and in histories of London and of British music, the figure has been used to indicate a growing middle class, its tastes, and the democratization of leisure.

For three reasons the figure is most improbable. First, logistics made it impossible to move that many people (by carriage or boat, or on foot) to Vauxhall for the announced 11 am start. Second, the expense was prohibitive for most people as it included not only the entrance fee of 2s. 6d. per person but also the carriage tolls on London Bridge and at the turnpike of 6d. per passage (2s. for the return trip), of an ostler or other attendant at Vauxhall, of carriage ownership or hire, and so on. Third, the social necessity of attendance was limited to the leisured elite.

The implications of preferring a reduced figure of 3-4,000 (as suggested by other evidence) not only include the continuing exclusivity of Handelís audience (and the consequent denial of popular appeal) but also extend to consideration of this question: did Handel seek, need, or enjoy the level of popularity that the figure of 12,000 suggests?

Last updated on 11 May 2004