8 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Fire
Fire is immensely important to man. At the most basic level, it keeps us warm and fed. Who can resist logs blazing in the grate of a winter's evening?
Composers, too, have been drawn to fire as their inspiration, whether as a celebration or as a symbol tied to mythology and folklore.
Georg Friedrich Handel 1685-1759
1. Handel. Music for the Royal Fireworks
In response to George II's request, Handel composed the Music For the Royal Fireworks to celebrate the signing of the peace treaty at Aix-la Chapelle in 1748 which ended the War of the Austrian Succession.
As you might imagine the event was an elaborate affair, though not everything went to plan. An enormous mock doric temple was erected in wood and canvas and caught fire1 and as the weather was rainy, some of the appliances misfired, and fireworks injured at least four people.
Happily the music went off (unlike some of the fireworks) without a hitch, on the night at least. Handel had argued to include violins but the king had issued instructions for military type instruments only. As it was a vast open air concert, the forces Handel called for were pretty enormous - 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, nine trumpets and the same of horns.2 Must have been ear splitting if you were in close proximity. I can only speculate how they got hold of so many bassoons, they must have been shipped in from all over.
Handel reworked the score to include his favoured strings for a later concert to raise money for the Foundling Hospital. You won't be astounded to learn that normal orchestral forces are favoured in recent times.
The suite includes dance movements as is usual form this type of music- a French quick stepped bourrèe follows the lengthy heavy overture and two minuets close the rather rowdy proceedings. In between are two references to why the celebrations were taking place - La Paix - peace in the form of the dainty siciliene - another Italian dance - and La Rèjouissance, a regal jubilation to mark the end of hostilities.
Sergei Prokoviev 1891-1953
2. Prokoviev. Opera:The Fiery Angel/Symphony No 3
A disturbing story if ever there was one, a young woman, Renata, determined to pursue a sexual fantasy, infused with hallucinations, is in love with a glowing red angel who has promised to manifest itself in human form so she can consummate her desire.
When Renata mistakes a count for her angel who subsequently rejects her, she goes mad, and enters a convent to salve her soul. The nuns believe she is possessed, attempt exorcism to no avail, and she is condemned to be burned at the stake.
This is the outline for Prokoviev's opera The Fiery Angel. With a dark storyline steeped in sorcery and the occult there has to be a score to match, as fiery as the absent angel, the faraway voices of an off stage chorus channelling a mystic wind of voices to the volatile scenes acted out in front.
It won't come as a surprise that Prokoviev didn't live to see it performed in its entirety during his lifetime. Instead he saved the music from the ashes and reworked it into his third symphony which acquired the identical title, acknowledging the origin of much of the composition.
Symphony No 3 though, still hasn't made onto the popularity list; it remains obscure, little played, and, to put it politely, in your face, out it's face, disconcertingly distant and unnervingly close.
There is nothing pretty about it, though not as dissonant as one might expect given the provenance, and no respite apart from the preoccupied sliding divided strings, skating and slithering in the third movement. Certainly it's listenable if you don't mind the hovering disturbance and unfathomable symphonic creature Prokoviev presided over and can tolerate living for half an hour in a shuttered environment with only the smallest shafts of light.
Joseph Haydn 1732-1809
3. Haydn. Symphony no 59 'Fire'
Fiery it certainly is. Haydn lights the touch paper from the word go at. Poker jabs of repeated 'A's and the rapid licking tremolandos of the strings heat up the concert hall. As a strong wind whips up the flames, ladies wave elaborate fans to cool their faces.
The fire is damped down for the two middle movements, the windows opened to admit some cooler, calmer air, The flames are fanned once more for the fourth movement, Haydn providing its audience with a scorching finale.
Claude Debussy 1862-1918
4. Debussy. Preludes Book 2. Feu d'Artifice
Fireworks in name, fireworks in terms of difficulty, Debussy's twelfth prelude from Book Two is a miniature display for the ear and the imagination.
Pinpricks of tiny lights get Debussy's firework display underway, pretty sprinklings spill out of the night sky, before setting off great spreads of stars, cascading flashes of illuminated dots. Tiny beams dance over water like glow worms and the last of the fireworks smoke away to nothing.
Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971
5. Stravinsky. The Firebird
An exotic creature bidding any young composer to come up with a score to match. Stravinsky's Firebird does not disappoint. Used more times than I could possibly count for ice dancers to perform death spirals to at the closing chords the fantastical writing has captivated audiences for well over one hundred years.
In 1910 Stravinsky was a young ambitious and highly talented composer who had come to the attention of Sergei Diaghilev, now looking for just such a whiz to realise his vision for his latest project for the Kirov Ballet. Stravinsky presented him with a potent concoction of sparkling instrumentation to spice up the Russian folk tunes that litter the score.
It's impossible not to be intrigued from the first bar, growling strings creep about inviting you to wonder what is coming next, the equivalent of a page tuner. The mystery gives out to the fluttery all-over-the-place episode before acceding to a tender section using one of the Russian folk melodies prevalent in the music.
Heavily influenced by his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, the compositional style is painted in bright colours, highlighted in silvers and golds, bejewelled and sequined, drawn through with dark stripes for the menace of King Kashchei's dance. Stravinsky was quite open about his teacher's effect on his writing, saying the Firebird was "Rimsky-Korsakov with pepper".3 He uses all the tricks in the book, glissandis from both trombones and strings, colours his themes in unusual lustres - solo bassoon, and alto flute, looking forward three years to his epic The Rite of Spring - to both mesmerise and overlay with oriental fantasy.
In a true dramatic flourish the suite concluded with a sudden drop in dynamic and one of the most thrilling crescendos a the final bars of all time. How could the audience have possibly not gone wild with applause at the first performance?
Overnight The Firebird propelled Stravinsky into the limelight and was illuminated by it until his death, a giant of twentieth century music.
Dmitri Shostakovich 1906-1975
6. Shostakovich. Novorovsky Chimes, The Fire of Eternal Glory
Quiet chimes are the introduction to full strings in the vein of a national anthem. It isn't of course the Russian National Anthem, but if they hadn't already had one in the bank, this would have fitted the bill. It's rousing and you can easily imagine a choir singing its heart out to the patrioitc style theme.
It was written for the consecration of the war memorial in Novorrossky in 1960 and has been playing in a loop ever since4 - it may be a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records for the most frequently played piece of classical music.
Manuel de Falla 1876-1946
7. Falla. Ballet Love the Magician: Ritual Fire Dance
There's more than a passing comparison with shamanistic rituals with the fire dance. Exorcism at its core, a young woman thrust in front of flickering flames to cleanse herself of the ghost of her late husband through movement.
The dance begins cautiously, as if the dancer is uncertain, carefully choosing her steps. The fire begins to shoot up, the heat burns and the spectacle is underway.
Spanish to the core, a swaying lilt from the oboe extends a hand to the dancer, her partner as she begins to bend and curve with the shape of the flames.
The Ritual Fire Dance, though far shorter than Ravel's Bolero has a similar ending, a concentrated push after the mesmerising steady beat, when the ghost, having been entranced is consumed by the bonfire.
8. Beethoven. Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus
Prometheus famously was a Titan who modelled humans out of clay and stole fire from Zeus to give to mankind. In retribution Zeus chained Prometheus to a mountain for eternity. Each day an eagle, the symbol for Zeus, flew down and pecked out his liver which regrew only for the scenario to be repeated in perpetuity.5
in Vienna, The Creatures of Prometheus was the only music for ballet Beethoven composed. The venture was a success, 16 performances during 1801 and a piano transcription made to increase its popularity.6
Today only the overture from the ballet is performed on a regular basis, but the last movement of Beethoven's third symphony 'Eroica' is also based on variations from the finale to the ballet.
The overture begins with a question mark - a chord inviting an answer, a small slow introduction to a lively quick stepping strings, Schubertian in manner (compare it with the Allegro Vivace of the first movement of his 2nd symphony, which was composed some ten years later) infused with a hint of another of Beethoven's overtures, Leonore No 3. No inkling of the terror about to be inflicted on either Prometheus, or his creatures - plague, misfortune, envy and misery - let out of the box by Pandora.
1 The New Cavalier
3 Chris Myers. Redland Symphony Season
4 Hal Leonard
5 Classical Wisdom
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© 2018 Frances Metcalfe