El Purgatorio (1890, Cristóbal Rojas)

Feuertrunken (Fire-Drunk) (2017)

Commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Feuertrunken is a loud meditation (if one can meditate loudly) on joy. In the months that I spent composing the piece, between March–June 2017, I found little cause for celebration in the many goings-on both locally and abroad; perhaps this was the reason I thought the subject of joy had so much urgency.

During this time I also found myself absorbed in the Divine Comedy, especially the Purgatorio: Dante’s vision of purgatory is a giant mountain partitioned into seven terraces, each devoted to purification from one of the deadly sins. Dante ascends the mountain terrace by terrace, until at last he finds a great wall of fire between him and paradise. An angel of God encourages him to make the plunge into his final trial. Though my piece as a whole is not programmatic (meaning musical events generally do not correspond to anything in Dante’s story), there is a brief interlude in which I imagine Dante in devoted silence before he submits to the fire.

The title, meaning “fire-drunk” or “drunk with fire,” is of course from Friedrich Schiller’s famous “Ode to Joy:” “We enter, drunk with fire, Heavenly One, your sanctuary.” I thought some reference to Beethoven was the obvious route; instead I chose Mahler, whose music I think conveys joy so adeptly. Feuertrunken quotes the opening of Mahler’s first Symphony before veering off into various, intertwined episodes of supplication, blasphemy, and finally, praise.

Instrumentation: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in B flat, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players: almglocken, bass drum, 2 bongos, chimes, China cymbal, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, tambourine, wind chimes, xylophone), harp, strings

Duration: 10 minutes

Premiere: December 9, 10, 2017, Max M. Fisher Music Center, Detroit, MI • Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin, conductor