• Iain Bell
  • London's Fatal Fire (2016)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the New London Chamber Choir and Spitalfields Music with funding from Minjas Zugik, John McLeod, the Skinner's Company Lady Neville Charity, Christine Billings, Elaine Gould and Isabel Nisbet

  • SATB
  • Soprano, Tenor
  • 20 min
  • Samuel Wiseman
  • English

Programme Note

When it dawned on me that the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London was approaching, I knew I wanted to mark it musically. After a little research, I came across the 1667 poem London's Fatal Fire by Samuel Wiseman and knew it was 'the one’. The poetry is so atmospherically rich, yet human. One can feel the brightness of those few sparks that caused the fire and moments later feel completely bruised and shaken by the hurtling panic that ensued.

More theoretically, the poem is in a seven-movement structure, each with its own feel and story to tell in charting the progress of the fire. This inherent structure was essential in focusing each movement of the work, ensuring that each section would have its own sound-world. I then decided which of the movements would be chorus only, and of those, which would be more male or female heavy, also which of those would lend themselves to a more homophonic or polyphonic treatment. Thereafter, I chose when the operatic tenor and soprano soloists would figure.

The chorus tends (but not solely) to provide the atmospheric background and underpinning; speaking of the environment, the havoc and in a non-verbal way portraying the blaze through varied melismatic attacks and extended techniques evoking the sparks, the licking flames, the wind etc. The operatic soloists tell of the more singular human experience and are both 'coloratura' specialists, meaning they too have the vocal dexterity to portray the fire, breeze etc at its most brutal and rapid.

The piece is my tribute to an event, as harrowing as it was, that shaped the London we know today.

Programme note © 2016 Iain Bell