Johannes Somary and Handel Royal Fireworks Music



After my family emigrated from Nicaragua to the Unite States following the Sandinista Revolution, one the first things my Dad did, besides getting us settled in New Orleans, was to begin collecting classical music LPs again.

The record collection he was forced to leave behind, like many personal treasures, was irreplaceable. The new one would only be a shell of the former which had taken decades to compile, each a handpicked memento of a work or concert he attended.

Nevertheless, he quickly set about replacing all of the music he thought to be classics, perhaps with the idea that one his three sons would also take interest.

I cannot remember when I started exploring the collection (some time before high school, certainly), but I do remember the first one which became a personal obsession—“The Royal Fireworks Music / Water Music” of George Frideric Handel, performed by the English Chamber Orchestra (Johannes Somary, cond.) on the Vanguard Classics label.

To my knowledge, this was the first recording of the Fireworks Music to employ the original Baroque instrumentation, if performed on modern instruments (24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 2 serpents, 9 trumpets, 9 French horns, 2 side-drums).

I spent hours listening to that recording while looking through my older brother’s high school yearbooks. He was attending a military academy at the time, so the martial nature of Handel’s work accompanied the images perfectly. It may have also contributed to my fixed memory of the recording.

Years later, after speaking to a friend who personally knew Johannes Somary, I discovered two things previously unknown to me about the recording.

(1) Although I had always pronounced Somary’s last name just like the word “summary,” it is in fact pronounced “So-MAH-ry.”

(2) The pair of serpent players, who are supposedly playing on the recording (both members of the London Serpent Trio) and whose photograph appears on the inside jacket, were sent home during the recording session because they could not create enough volume to be heard*. (So much for mixing period and modern instruments—like oil and water.)

This wasn’t Somary’s first Handel recording, however, because he was best known (now remembered) as a champion of the composer’s oratorios.

Learn more: Johannes Somary Obituary (New York Times)

*Oddly enough, Handel scratched out “serpent’ from his score. He may experienced the exact same thing in rehearsal.

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