My newest choral-orchestral work, Fire of the Spirit, was commissioned to celebrate Sir Andrew Davis’s final season as Chief Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Initially, I sought to find a joyous, celebratory text from an Australian writer, and while I discovered many beautiful and certainly singable works, I struggled to settle on something that not only felt appropriate for the occasion, but also meshed well with Sir Andrew’s personality. (I should clarify: Sir Andrew is my father, so I know him better than most!) Perhaps, I thought, the answer lay in a text from neither a British nor Australian writer, but rather from someone with historical relevance to the world at large. To that end, I settled on a text by 12th-century polymath Hildegard of Bingen, one of the most impactful figures in all Western music history.

Ed Frazier DavisEd Frazier Davis

Hildegard’s words exalt the Holy Spirit vividly and ecstatically, and my intent was to match this text with music of comparable ecstasy, richness, and complexity. The harmonic and melodic structure of Fire of the Spirit derives entirely from a twelve-note (though not dodecaphonic) melody, sung by the first sopranos on the opening words “O fire of the Spirit and Defender”; fragments of this melody are scattered throughout the work. The harmony often returns to a specific polychord: an A Major seventh chord over a G Major seventh chord, the defining pitches of which (the sevenths; G and F Sharp, A and G Sharp) are found in the main melody; to me, this sonority was the most vivid harmonic representation of ‘fire’ I could conceive.

This was my first time composing for an orchestra as large as the MSO, so I was thrilled to explore its vast potential for colour combinations. The orchestration includes a large battery of percussion and divisions in the strings up to 22 parts, as well as a number of extended techniques, my favourite of which combines the violins playing beneath the bridge with the cellos playing the ‘seagull effect’ (championed by George Crumb) resulting in a ghostly soundscape, underpinning the text imploring to “guard those enchained in evil’s prison”. At one climax near the middle of the piece, I quote one of my favourite and most influential works, James MacMillan’s Quickening, as a tribute both to MacMillan and to Sir Andrew, who conducted the piece’s premiere performance.

It has been an absolute joy to compose this work for my dad and the MSO, and to say that my inclusion in this special concert is an honour is a massive understatement

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra premieres Ed Frazier Davis’s Fire of the Spirit at Arts Centre Melbourne, November 22 – 25