Two days before Thanksgiving I put the double bar on Celestine (aptly subtitled “Prelude for Orchestra”), which will open the Manila Symphony Orchestra’s holiday program on December 9 and 10 at two venues in Metro Manila. When I received this commission last April, I had barely gotten started on Feuertrunken and knew I would have little time and energy to write a second orchestral score by the end of the year; but I’m glad I accepted. As it happens I first wrote the music to Celestine (I can’t remember why I chose the title, other than that I liked the sound of the word) November last year, for oboe and piano, which I performed in Houston with my friend Celina Hawkins. It is light-hearted and entirely hummable, meant only to charm and amuse; I knew I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to orchestrate it and expand it a little to give the orchestra more breathing room. One of the common complaints against new music is the lack of hummable tunes: of course this ultimately has nothing to do with whether a piece of music is good, but every now and then I do like to give in.
Unfortunately I will not be in the Philippines, as December 9 and 10 also happen to be the dates in which I will be in Detroit for the world premiere of Feuertrunken (Fire-Drunk), which, unlike Celestine, is neither charming nor hummable. For his final season with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Slatkin has chosen to commission works not from the great composers of his generation, but from their students; I am especially proud in this case to be a former student of Christopher Rouse, who is one of my musical heroes, and from whose bag of tricks I continually steal…. If you are not in Detroit, I do hope you can catch the live webcast on Sunday, December 10 at 3:00 PM.
Here is the program note I submitted to the publicity folks:
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.