In mid-July, 64 C.E. a fire started in Rome that became known as the Great Fire of Rome, and when the Romans call something "great," they're usually not messing around. The blaze rampaged for six days, entirely destroying three whole districts and damaging another seven. Granted, big fires were common at the time because large cities filled with wooden structures is porno for pyros, but by all accounts this one was special.
It was also the setting for one of the bitchin'-est string solos since Johnny outplayed Satan for a golden fiddle. The rumor was that not only did Emperor Nero set the fire himself in order to clear land for a new palace, but that he played the fiddle as the city roasted. Some accounts say the lyre, but it's really not meshing with the heavy-metal album cover in my head, so I'm going to discount those as "not awesome enough."
It's also complete bullshit.
Nero wasn't even in Rome when the fire happened. He was in Antium, and when he heard of what happened he rushed home and began relief efforts immediately out of his own pocket. Not only did he turn palaces into temporary public housing, he personally managed food supplies to keep off starvation and instituted a brand-new urban planning campaign to rebuild everything farther apart and made of brick to prevent things from getting too firetrappy again.
So why do we remember Nero as such a dick when by all accounts he sounds like a competent chief executive? Well, he did build a palace in recently cleared parts of central Rome, and people were understandably miffed about that. It would be like if George W. Bush has set up a ranch in the middle of New Orleans.
To diffuse the situation, Nero blamed early Christians for the blaze, and according to the historian Tacitus, had them executed by either being thrown to dogs, crucifixion, or set on fire themselves.
So that most metal of imperial concerts didn't happen, but what if we had the opportunity now? Let's say that for some reason Mayor Annise Parker wanted to build a mansion in Montrose and made gleeful arson in order to clear the land without all those pesky yard signs and bumper stickers that crop up whenever you try to build anything there.
Nero supposedly sang part of the Fall of Troy. I reached out to Jerry Ochoa of Houston's Two Star Symphony for a proper piece to accompany the hypothetical burning of our own city.
"There's a piece called 'Quartet for the End of Time,' written by Olivier Messiaen for violin, cello, clarinet and piano. It's one of the most beautiful, eerie, unearthly songs I've ever heard," Ochoa says. "Olivier wrote it as a prisoner of war in WWII (he wrote it for those instruments because they were literally the only ones in the camp) and world-premiered it in the prison camp for the inmates and guards.
"If I was in the position to do so, I'd play that piece while shit was ending," he adds. "Just to set the mood, make sure people know it's really going down."
Messiaen did indeed write the piece while a POW for the French Army after being captured. He happened to meet a clarinetist, a violinist and a cellist while incarcerated, and wrote out his 50-minute apocalyptic masterpiece on paper borrowed from a sympathetic guard. They debuted to work in the freezing winter, with Messiaen playing a poorly maintained upright piano.
It's certainly an appropriate work for the burning of a city. So if you ever hear of Two Star Symphony being booked for a private government function, check your sprinkler system.
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