Ever since some bright human ancestor got the idea to rub two sticks together, fire has enthralled us. It’s the quintessential double-edged sword, protecting and nourishing when controlled, destroying lives when it’s not. It’s no wonder that fire has sparked the creativity of composers through the centuries. We’ll watch the sparks fly this hour on Harmonia as we survey music inspired by fire. We’ll also sample a new recording of Sephardic music by the Ohio-based ensemble Apollo’s Fire.
An air de cour by the French composer Honoré D’Ambruys, performed by Les Arts Florissants, under the direction of William Christie. “Le doux silence de nos bois” captures the quiet of a woodland disturbed only by “the birds brought by love.” D’Ambruys, a pupil of Michel Lambert, plays against stereotype in this air, depicting love not as a conflagration, but as peaceful idyll.
My Heart Burns for You
My heart burns for you. I’m ablaze with love. My heart is on fire…
It’s hard to talk about love without a fire reference or three. Since the dawn of metaphor, fire imagery has been used to describe the consuming, sometimes violent, yet somehow life-giving nature of human passion. In particular, composers and poets have turned to fire to convey the intensity and danger of both new love and unrequited love, with their peaks of pain and pleasure.
Let’s begin with an air de cour by the French composer Michel Lambert, “D’un feu secret je me sens consumer,” or, “by a secret fire, I am consumed.”
Lambert, originally a singer, had a particular affinity for the human voice. His contemporary, singer Anne de la Barre, dubbed him “the best singing teacher in Paris.” Let’s hear Lambert’s gift for vocal melody in a performance by Les Arts Florissants under the direction of William Christie.
“D’un feu secret je me sens consumer,” an air de cour by the popular French composer and singer Michel Lambert. We heard Les Arts Florissants under the direction of William Christie.
From secret fire to fire alarms! Before the advent of 911 and “break glass to sound alarm,” one of the most effective warning cries was the human voice. To the English composer Thomas Morley, these desperate cries were a clear echo of the pleas of the lovelorn, and his five-voice madrigal “Fyer, fyer” plays on this correspondence:
My heart! My heart!
Fa la la la la la
O, help! O, help! Alas, O, help!
Let’s hear a rendition by The Cambridge Singers, under the direction of John Rutter.
The Cambridge Singers offering a rendition of Thomas Morley’s alarm of a madrigal, “Fyer, fyer.”
What would a show devoted to fire be without a stop in Italy? The masterful Italian madrigalist Claudio Monteverdi set an almost uncountable number of texts that reference “il fuoco.” Let’s hear an early Madrigal, published in 1587, that mates fire and ice:
Upon the instant I am turned to ice.
No remedy to turn aside my gaze –
Unfailingly I feel my heart ablaze.
I am lost whichever way I turn:
Look, and I freeze, yet otherwise I burn.
We’ll listen to “Donna, s’io miro voi, giaccio divengo,” recorded by the group Delitiae Musicae.
“Donna, s’io miro voi, giaccio divengo,” a musing on ice and fire by the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. We heard a rendition by Delitiae Musicae.
Veni Creator Spiritus
If you were a 10th-century Catholic and you wanted to create a pope, elevate a saint, or crown a monarch, chances are you’d turn to the hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus,” or “Come, creator spirit,” for your soundtrack. The melody may predate the text, which first appeared in 10th century manuscripts and has been attributed, over the years, to authors as diverse as St. Ambrose, St. Gregory, Rabanus Maurus, and Charlemagne.
Whatever its authorship, “Veni Creator” is a hymn with staying power. For well over a thousand years now, composers have tinkered with it, shaping or quoting it to fit the tastes of their time. Its text invokes the fire of the Holy Ghost – “the living spring, the living fire, sweet unction and true love.”
Let’s hear this plea to the living fire as it resounds through the ages. We’ll start with the hymn as it might have been sung in its earliest days. The American vocal ensemble Anonymous 4 recorded this version.
Veni Creator Spiritus, a hymn dating from the 10th century or earlier, recorded by Anonymous 4.
Over the following centuries, “Veni Creator Spiritus” stoked the creative fires of composers across Europe. Born in Avila, Tomás Luis de Victoria longed for a quiet life as a priest. But he won renown as a composer of sacred music. Let’s hear Victoria’s setting of this tune, a four-voice version of the hymn, performed by Ensemble Plus Ultra under the direction of Michael Noone.
We’ll follow that with an even later setting of the text by Niccolo Jommelli, an Italian composer active in the mid-1700s, performed by Capella de’ Turchini.
Two very different works of music based on the early medieval hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus.” We heard a setting by Niccolo Jommelli, recorded by Capella de ‘Turchini. And before that we heard a version by the Spanish master of sacred music, Tomás Luis de Victoria, recorded by Ensemble Plus Ultra under the direction of Michael Noone.
Handel & Haydn
Fire can symbolize love. It can symbolize wrath. And it can light up the sky.
In 1749, at the behest of King George II of England, George Friedrich Handel premiered “Music for the Royal Fireworks” in Green Park in London to celebrate the end of the War of Austrian Succession.
Handel’s scoring, including three trumpets and three horns, was guaranteed to make a lot of noise! Just as well, as his music was competing not only with 101 brass cannons launching the fireworks of his title, but with the excitement of a real fire: one of the pavilions was set alight and destroyed during the show.
Let’s listen to Le Concert des Nations, under the direction Jordi Savall, perform three movements from Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks.”
We heard Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” written to accompany a fire-spangled sky. Jordi Savall led Le Concert des Nations.
For years, Haydn’s Symphony No. 59 in A major has been known as the “fire” symphony. It’s true that the violins burn through the symphony’s speedier movements, but the explanation for the nickname turns out to more prosaic. Some years after the work’s composition, several of its movements were used to accompany a play called Der Feuersbrust, or, “The Conflagration.”
We’ll hear the symphony’s fourth movement, performed the Concentus Musicus Wien under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Fiery music from the 1700s. We heard the fourth movement from Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 59, the “fire” symphony. Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducted the Concentus Musicus Wien.
Cleveland-based Apollo’s Fire has proved to be one of the most durable American period orchestras. In 2016, the orchestra released their recorded foray into the world of Sephardic music, entitled Sephardic Journey. Under the direction of Jeannette Sorrell, the orchestra surveys themes like “The Sabbath,” “The Temple,” and “Love and Romance.”
Let’s hear two tracks from Sephardic Journey. First, we’ll hear “Taksim,” an improvisation, played on the oud, a relative of the lute. Then we’ll hear a traditional tune, “La Komida la Manyana.”
Two pieces from Sephardic Journey, a 2016 release by the Cleveland-based ensemble Apollo’s Fire. We heard “Taksim,” an improvisation for oud, followed by “La Komida la Manyana.”
Break and theme music
:30, Sephardic Journey, Apollo’s Fire, Avie 2016, Tr. 5 Sonata in Dialogo detta la Viena
:60, Haydn: Symphonies Nos 31, 59 & 73, Concentus Musicus Wien, Elatus 2004, Tr. 7 Symphony No.59 in A major, ‘Fire’: III. Menuetto
:30, Sephardic Journey, Apollo’s Fire, Avie 2016, Tr. 17 Sonata sopra la Bergamasca
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia was Anne Timberlake.
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