Classical music has long been inspired by a wide range of subjects, and one of the recurring themes is fire. Fire symbolizes various emotions and concepts such as passion, energy, destruction, transformation, and even spiritual purification.
From fiery passions to destructive conflagrations, classical music about fire explores the multifaceted nature of this elemental phenomenon.
Classical Music About Fire
1. Manuel De Falla “Ritual Fire Dance”
I love the story behind this thrilling piece. De Falla composed a ballet called El amor brujo in 1915 from which this piano arrangement was made. In some ways, this arrangement, made by the composer, proved to be more popular than the actual ballet.
An Andalusian gipsy girl called Candela finds herself in the unfortunate position of being troubled by the ghost of her deceased husband. The valiant gipsies decide that they will exorcise his spirit and form a circle around their campfire.
The Ritual Fire Dance is then performed by Candela. The ghost of the dead husband appears as she dances. Together they dance, faster and faster in a frenzied whirlwind until the spirit of the husband is drawn into the fire and disappears forever.
As you might well anticipate, the tempo of this piece is quick. It is in C major but the brightness of this key is obscured by the dominance of rapid trills and ever-thickening chordal rhythms.
The intensity of the piece subsides only briefly in the Piu mosso, ma giusto passage which effectively is the coda. As the ghost vanishes there’s a rapidly descending arpeggio that plunges to a conclusive final low note on the piano.
2. The Origin of Fire by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
Hildegard von Bingen was a remarkable woman. She was not only an abbess but also a composer, poet, mystic and visionary. Her life was a long and devout one.
She was a powerful voice for the injustices she experienced and many held her visions in high regard. Many of her compositions refer to the four elements, fire, air, earth and water and this piece exemplifies this.
In this vocal work, Hildegard von Bingen chooses fire as the creative source of God.
The music draws on plainchant and is written for two voices. Hildegard von Bingen’s setting of the text is beautifully clear and uncomplicated.
The phrases of each line gently flow from one to another underlining the importance of the words. Her music has a luminescent quality to it that is both inviting and haunting.
3. Joseph Haydn Symphony No.59 in A major H.1 “Fire”
Haydn composed this music for a marionette-singspiel, called The Conflagration or The Burned Down House.
The music was to accompany the play by Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Grossmann at the Esterházy palace in 1774. From this venture probably came the “Fire” in the title of the symphony.
It would seem though that Haydn composed the music as early as 1769 quite a while before the publication of the play. The marionette plays were very popular and Haydn often composed music for the delight of Empress Maria Theresa and her marionette theatre.
The symphony is formed in four movements beginning with a fiery presto and concluding with an Allegro assai. The central movements are an Andante followed by the traditional, elegant Menuetto.
In a similar way to the opening movement, the finale is brimming with sparks and flames that are crafted through virtuosic melodic lines and clever orchestration. The is a celebratory feeling to this conclusion that Haydn always composes so well.
4. The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky
This ballet score was a major factor in establishing the young Stravinsky as a significant Russian composer. Stravinsky wrote the score to a commission from Diaghilev and the recently created Ballets Russes.
Stravinsky was only twenty-seven years old but this score feels like the work of an older and more seasoned composer such as the brilliance of the orchestration. The score was completed in 1910.
The story of the Firebird is an old Russian folk tale and Stravinsky threads some traditional folk melodies through the work to reflect this. As legend tells, the Firebird is a force for good. It protects the earth and her people and represents beauty.
An evil magician, Kashchei has imprisoned the princess who Prince Ivan Tsarevich desperately loves. Ivan has been kind to the firebird and it comes to the aid of the Prince.
As a result of the firebird’s heroism the princess is saved and she marries the Prince. The wedding music is one of the best and most memorable sections of ballet.
5. Claude Debussy: (Preludes: Book Two) Feux d’artifice
Of the two books of Préludes that Debussy composed this piece arrives as the last in the second book.
The books do not follow any particular harmonic pathway like the Bach, Chopin or Shostakovich Preludes, instead, they can be performed as individual pieces if as some performers prefer, as an entire book.
Feux d’artifice or fireworks is an extremely demanding piece to perform well. Its technical challenges are well known.
What you hear in this composition is the depiction of a firework display over Paris. The spectacular pyrotechnics are colorful from the first rippling figure that sounds in the piano.
Furiously rapid runs cascade across the piano like rockets flying in the night sky. Chordal passages bring a lighter melodic section that dances with light and energy. Just before the conclusion listen for a diminished version of La Marseillaise.
6. The Perfect Fool (Op. 39), Ballet Music: IV: “Dance of Spirits of Fire”
Gustav Holst is probably better known for his Planets Suite than almost anything else he composed. Rightly so in many ways, as it is a stunning piece of orchestral music but by no means the summation of his work. Holst composed the opera between 1918 and 1922. The opera is in a single act.
The project was ambitious, even risky as it is intended to make a mild mockery of the operas of Wagner, Verdi and others. The issue with audiences was that they found the plot a little too muddled and confusing.
The whole opera begins with a ballet that is danced by the Spirits of the Earth, Fire and Water. Listen for the trombone at the start that conjures the Wizard who as you might imagine summons the Spirits.
Holst designed the opera to be a comic one where the Fool, for instance, does not sing. The Fool only says one word no! Eminent musicologist, Donald Francis Tovey suggested that the Princess symbolizes the opera world and the Fool the British public. If this is the case, you could understand the public’s reaction.
The ballet music that is integrated into the opera and often performed as a suite consists of four sections. The first dance is an “invocation” followed by three more dances as follows: Earth, Water and Fire.
If you’re someone who enjoys Holst’s work, then you’ll discover familiar traits in these dances and the opera as a whole. Despite its lack of success, Holst did write some superb music for The Perfect Fool but perhaps his choice of subject was somewhat misjudged.