Playing with fire

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and plot.
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

gun-powderBonfires feature in a number of different traditions around the world, but perhaps the largest celebrations are held in Britain every 5 November. On this day, the above rhyme is traditionally chanted as the bonfire rages and consumes an effigy of Guy Fawkes, the English soldier and Catholic conspirator who attempted to blow up the entire English Parliament with a cache of gunpowder. The plot was foiled, Fawkes was arrested on 5 November, 1605 and fireworks now traditionally accompany those annual bonfire rituals to mark the event.

fireworks‘Musical fireworks’ is a handy way of summing up a virtuoso performance or a scintillating composition. Some works, however, make a direct reference to the entertaining explosives. Sergei Diaghalev, the ballet impresario, was so taken with Stravinsky’s five-minute splash of colour in Fireworks (8.571221) that he commissioned a new work from him for his Ballets russes as a result. Listen here to the opening minute of Stravinsky’s 1908 showpiece, in which the blue touchpaper fizzes before the rockets start to ascend in rapid succession, cleverly depicted through overlapping entries, before a final big bang.

Five years later, over in some public park in Paris, Debussy was capturing the shimmering effects of fireworks lighting up the sky for his piano prelude Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) (8.553293), drawn more in pastel tones than Stravinsky’s oils, but every bit as suggestive, as the closing scene demonstrates.

handel-fireworksAcross the English Channel in London, Handel had experienced a rockier launch for his Music for the Royal Fireworks (8.557764). This music, commissioned to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1749, enjoyed a more spectacular popularity than the pyrotechnics it accompanied at a royal occasion in Green Park: the fireworks were disappointing and a mechanical contraption involved in the display caused a nearby pavilion to catch fire. Listening to this extract makes one wonder if the mishap could ever have proved more exciting than the music.

Johann Strauss the Elder’s Ball-Racketen (Ball Rockets) (8.225287), a set of short waltzes, was first performed in 1827 at a high society summer gala in Vienna, with the Schönbrunn Palace providing the imposing backdrop. No doubt champagne corks popped as merrily as the cascading rockets, which Strauss alludes to in this opening extract from the work.

Christian-Friedrich-SchonbeinTwenty years later, Johann Strauss II reflected an event that was fascinating Viennese society at the time: the scientific discovery of Christian-Friedrich-Schonbeinguncotton (nitrocellulose) by Christian Friedrich Schönbein who chanced upon the substance in his kitchen when he mopped up some spilt nitric and sulphuric acid with his wife’s cotton apron. The notion of “exploding cotton wool” caught the attention of other scientists, including one Professor Kraysky who, by using a cord made from the new substance, succeeded in almost simultaneously lighting all the candles in a chandelier. All things ‘explosive’ became the rage, so it was perhaps inevitable that Strauss would write an Exploding Cotton Wool Polka, which received a report in Der Wanderer in February, 1847 as follows:

“Modern progress. Strauss Son will yet let loose an ‘Exploding Cotton Wool Polka’ during this carnival. We hope that it hits the mark.”

Now known simply as the Explosions-Polka (8.223225), the music’s sedate trot is initially deceptive with nothing to scare the horses as this short extract demonstrates. Strauss made everyone wait until the very end before giving them what they wanted to hear, which is revealed in this closing section.

oliver-reedTo return to where we started, we conclude today’s burning thoughts by picking up again on Guy Fawkes. He was, in fact, sentenced to be hanged for his treasonous plot and not burnt at the stake as the Bonfire Night tradition of throwing his effigy into the flames would suggest. The pain of being roasted alive is unimaginable. This fate befell the character of Urbain Grandier in Aldous Huxley’s 1952 non-fiction novel The Devils of Loudun; Grandier is accused of making a pact with the devil and seducing all the nuns of an Urseline convent in France during the early 17th century. In 1971, Ken Russell adapted the story for his highly controversial film, The Devils, which contained outstanding performances from Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed but which still remains available only in heavily censored versions. Peter Maxwell Davies wrote the score for the film and subsequently made a distillation of the music in his The Devils Suite (8.572408). Let’s end with this clip from Execution Music. Roast chicken on the spit may never taste the same again.

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