As we celebrate the planet we live on for Earth Day, we can also celebrate how the beauty of nature has inspired composers to write some of their best works throughout the centuries. Over the next few weeks, we'll be highlighting music inspired by the four elements: water, fire, earth and air. Take a journey across our world with beloved and lesser-known classical works.
This week, we'll be exploring works inspired by fire. Listen and learn about how this element, in its many forms, influenced composers throughout history.
Eric Whitacre — Lux Aurumque
Lux Aurumque, or "Light and Gold," is the flagship piece of composer Eric Whitacre. Originally intended for Christmas, the lyrics come from a poem by Edward Asch: "Light, warm and heavy as pure gold, and the angels sing to the newborn baby." However, the piece is performed year-round in both its choral and wind-ensemble versions by many groups all over the world.
Frederick Delius — Florida Suite: Daybreak
English composer Frederick Delius resisted the idea of joining the family wool business — to the great disapproval of his father — and studied music instead. As a young man, he was sent to Florida in 1884 to manage an orange grove along the St. Johns River. However, he also neglected his orange grove duties in favor of music lessons and music pursuits. There, he was introduced to spirituals and fell in love with the music sung by local African-American performers and workers. After leaving Florida in 1885, he moved to Leipzig, Austria, and composed one of his first orchestral pieces, The Florida Suite, inspired by his time in the Sunshine State and the music that he had heard there, as well as the style of one of his compositional heroes, Edvard Grieg.
Terry Riley — One Earth, One People, One Love (From Sun Rings)
Terry Riley's Sun Rings was commissioned by none other than NASA. The space agency asked him to compose a piece to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Voyager space missions. He delivered with a work for string quartet inspired by many astronomical phenomena, including "whistlers," noises caused by deep-space lightning. These sounds, picked up only by strong instruments, are noises that are a part of nature that we aren't normally privy to hearing. From the spontaneous combustions occurring on Jupiter to the fire from the sun, it's awe-inspiring to hear music inspired by the farthest reaches of what we know.
Guiseppe Verdi — Dies Irae
The Dies Irae, Latin for "Day of Wrath," is part of the traditional Christian Requiem Mass. This dramatic movement describes the end of the world when all souls will be judged before God for their actions in life and sent to heaven or hell accordingly. And if you're sent to hell, get ready for a lot of eternal fire and suffering. This medieval text has been set to music by many composers in the Western classical canon, including this particularly famous and terrifying version by Guiseppe Verdi. He wrote this Requiem in memory of his friend Alessandro Manzoni, who was the leading Italian literary figure of the 1800s. Verdi conducted the premiere in Milan a year after Manzoni's death.
Ola Gjeilo — Northern Lights
Composer Ola Gjeilo lives in New York but is a Norway native. His homeland prompted Northern Lights, inspired by the aurora borealis. Looking outside his window, the cold and quiet snow-laden land was struck by the vibrancy and warmth of the northern lights. This piece showcases the joy, as well as the terror, that great natural phenomena can incur.
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