In anticipation of Guy Fawkes Night, we have been listening to some explosive music inspired by fire. From pieces written especially for firework displays to works inspired by volcanos, fire has been the impetus for some thrilling music over time.
Whether you’re building a bonfire, hosting a firework party or just want something to drown out the loud pops and bangs, here are six of the best pieces of music to listen to on Firework Night.
1. George Frideric Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks
In 1749, King George II requested that Handel compose a suite to accompany a grand firework display in London’s Green Park. The work was so highly anticipated that over 12,000 people tried to travel to Vauxhall Gardens to watch a full rehearsal, bringing the surrounding streets to a complete standstill for several hours.
On the day of the firework display, Handel’s music outshined the fireworks themselves – the weather was poor and one of the wooden pavilions built specially for the occasion caught fire.
The music is full of pride and vigour and continues to be frequently performed for stately occasions. At the 2012 Proms Hervé Niquet and French Baroque group, Le Concert Spirituel, performed the work on period instruments.
2. Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 59 in A major ‘Fire’
The nickname ‘Fire’ was not given to his Symphony No. 59 by Haydn himself, but it’s not difficult to see why the name has stuck. With a first movement marked ‘presto’, the work begins with a fast and brave tempo that most composers would use for a climactic final movement.
The energy continues throughout, even in the andante second movement, which crackles with ornamentation above a constantly shifting bass part. The third movement, a minuet and trio, relies on an antiphonal theme between the high and low sections of the orchestra, and the final movement is punctuated with the bright call of horns.
The symphony’s nickname is also supposed to have derived from the fact that it was used as incidental music for Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Großmann’s play Der Feuersbrunst – or ‘The Conflagration’.
3. Jean Sibelius: Tulen Synty
The myths depicted in the epic Finnish poem Kalevala have inspired countless Nordic artists and Jean Sibelius was no exception. Tulen Synty, which translates as ‘The Origin of Fire’, is a cantata for baritone, male choir and orchestra based on the saga, first performed in 1902.
The soloist’s opening passage laments the struggles faced by the dark land of Kalevala after the theft of the sun, the moon and fire. This sombre section is complimented by a mournful orchestral accompaniment, reflecting the hardships brought upon the land.
When the chief of the gods creates new fire, the chorus are brought in, first quietly smouldering and then, in a glorious crescendo that burns bright.
4. Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird – Finale
The explosive Finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird, one of the BBC’s ‘Ten Pieces’ to inspire children, is difficult for even the most seasoned listener to tire of. The modernist masterpiece marked the beginning of the historic collaboration between Stravinsky and choreographer Sergei Diaghilev in the famous Ballets Russes.
Diaghilev’s 1909 season had attracted criticism from the Parisian press for a lack of novelty and he answered this by commissioning a work based on the most exotic Russian fairy tale he could think of: Zhar′-ptitsa – ‘The Firebird’.
5. Michael Daugherty: Fire and Blood – I: Volcano
During his time as composer-in-residence at the University of Michigan, Michael Daugherty became inspired by artist Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals and the paintings of Freida Kahlo, which document the tempestuous relationship between these two artists.
In response to their highly emotive creations, he wrote what he has called his own ‘musical fresco’ – a violin concerto rather gruesomely entitled Fire and Blood. The first movement of the work, ‘Volcano’, is a forceful and threatening piece, constantly teetering on the edge of eruption.
The soloist’s cadenza is full of suspense, hissing and flickering like a flame, and the movement ends with a bang.
6. Oliver Knussen – Flourish with fireworks
Taking a strong influence from Stravinsky, Knussen’s short orchestral piece Flourish with fireworks captures the characteristics of every kind of firework imaginable – there are soaring chromatics that fly high like rockets, trills that spin like Catherine Wheels and pizzicato sections that are as bright as sparklers
Of course, on Firework Night, the anticipation is as important as the explosion itself, and Knusson’s ingenious use of rests only adds to the building excitement.