The title of this work refers to Patrick White's book The Tree of Man, which apart from being a particularly fine work includes a spectacular description of a bush fire that threatens the local township of Durilgai around which much of the action is set, and which does actually destroy a large country mansion nearby. The impulse provided by this magnificent piece of writing was reinforced, in providing the idea for this composition, by two extra elements, one of which is the fascination that Australian landscape holds for me. The other is more personal, in that as a child I was very badly burnt in a fire and suffered sever ill-health for a number of years as a result.
The curious thing is that fire has nevertheless become something of absorbing interest for me - bonfires, indeed, are an occasional hobby (and were for Elgar, I believe). This early experience obviously did not act in any way as a kind of aversion therapy! What is fascinating about fire is the ebb and flow of its gradual build-up of structure within the overall context of continual enlargement, and the odd twists and turns that it takes - though there is always a clearly perceptible and logical pattern, what seems to be developing in a very thorough manner suddenly stops and a new line starts somewhere else.
This is the essential structural idea behind the concept of this piece. It falls very much into the tradition of the symphonic poem, and in particular the examples by Sibelius - Pohjola's Daughter was especially an influence on the thinking in this work. There is no attempt whatever to write music that would attempt to evoke the sounds of a fire, or indeed to follow rigorously the ideas outlined above - rather, the piece is an expression of my fascination with the inexorable development that fire represents, and to an extent the changes in direction that it takes.
There is a slow first section, inspired by the vast Australian night sky - the chords heard in the strings outline both the harmonic material of the work and the essentially simple, scalic melodic outline that in one form or another runs through the piece. Interruptions of fast music foreshadow the large quick section which forms the main part of the work, a large-scale scherzo which pursues and develops a varied course leading to the major climax and a slow final section in which a massive chord gradually builds up and grows louder as it does so. At the close, it is suddenly and sharply cut off.
The work, which lasts about 20 minutes, was commissioned by the BBC, and is dedicated to Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, with both of whom I have had such pleasure in working over the years. The piece represents an expression of something which, inevitably, has had a deep effect on my own life - I only wish I knew precisely how the significance and nature of fire itself has affected by subconscious. Perhaps, hearing the work, I will find out!
© 1988 John McCabe