Flute (doubling Piccolo and Alto Flute), Oboe (doubling English Horn) and Piano
Duration: ca. 9 minutes
Publisher: C. F. Peters Corporation, Edition Peters 67675
Commissioned by and dedicated to oboist Charlyn Bethell and pianist Guy Urban, A Consuming Fire was completed in January of 1995. The title actually has two sources. The first of these is a biblical reference from the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament: "For our God is a consuming fire." I have vivid memories of hearing for the first time Stravinsky’s stark, powerful setting of these words for chorus and orchestra in his A Sermon, A Narrative and a Prayer (1961). Thinking of that musical setting reminded me of another, very different image of a consuming fire by the poet Robert Herrick in his To Musique, To Becalme His Fever [see Composer's Program Notes for To Becalme His Fever]. Referring to the fever of the title, he writes, "Thou sweetly canst convert the same/From a consuming fire,/Into a gentle-licking flame,/And make it thus expire." Once again, it was through a choral setting, Elliott Carter’s wonderful To Music (1937) that I first came to know this text.
Cast in a single movement lasting roughly nine minutes, A Consuming Fire begins with a fast, tumultuous section marked molto agitato-violento. In the midst of this portion of the piece, the oboist switches to English horn, the first such change of instrumental color in the work. The rhythmic intensity of the music continues unabated, finally seeming to hit a wall, as any obvious sense of pulse is suddenly obliterated, abruptly beginning a slower, more lyrical (though no less intense) middle section. At this point another new timbre, that of the alto flute, is introduced, further darkening the overall hue of the woodwind writing. The music gradually becomes more active, and trills in all the instruments herald the arrival of a third section, at an even faster tempo than that of the beginning of the piece. Higher, more brilliant registers gradually begin to assert themselves again, as the alto flute changes to flute, and after a brief piano interlude, the final timbral and registral transformation in the two wind parts is effected: the flute turns into a piccolo and the English horn back into an oboe. After a short while, the rhythmic activity is again abruptly halted, and a very brief coda at a much slower speed (dying embers, perhaps?) features the winds, marked placidamente, accompanied by hand-stopped single tones on the piano.