Brussels Philharmonic | The Elements

The Elements

programme notes

28.10.2022 THE ELEMENTS

written by Aurélie Walschaert*

*the part on Debussy’s La Mer was freely reworked based on a text by Kristin Van den Buys

[see all programme notes]

The natural elements have for centuries inspired and intrigued countless artists, philosophers and scientists. Many religions, including the Tibetan, honour not only the elements of ‘fire’, ‘earth’, ‘water’ and ‘air, but also a fifth, all-encompassing element. That element, which brings everything together, was the inspiration for the orchestral work Vajrayāna by the French composer Camille Pépin (°1990). Scientists, too, believed for a long time in the existence of a fifth element. Until the scientists Michelson and Morley in 1887 disproved the existence of “ether” in their ground-breaking experiment. In The Light, Philip Glass (°1937) sketches a portrait of that historic moment, using his characteristic repetitive style of composition.

Thoughts of water and wind inevitably call to mind the impressionistic music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). His music first and foremost evokes an atmosphere: one that is fluid and slippery, consisting of clouds, water, wind and turbulence. In La Mer - 3 esquisses symphoniques, he brings the sea in all its forms to life. In the Harp Concerto by the American composer Geoffrey Gordon (1968), the wind once again has free play.

Four or five elements?

The French composer Camille Pépin has, despite her young years, obtained a number of international prizes. For example, her orchestral work Vajrayāna – a commission by the Orchestre national d’Île de France and Radio France – won the jury prize as well as the audience prize at the Concours Île de Créations in 2015. Vajrayāna means ‘ether’, an all-encompassing state of equilibrium that undergirds earthly and spiritual existence. Pépin drew inspiration for this work from the five elements of Tibetan Buddhism: “I conceived the piece as a progression through the different stages of the spiritual world. I have designated these stages by means of rhythmic musical motifs – more often than not – because rhythm is at the core of nature and energy. Each element corresponds to a [different] musical motif. Ratna (Earth) is a primary, powerful but repressed energy. Vajra (Water) expresses anguish in its defensive aspect – the storm – which fades into a peaceful body of water. Padma (Fire) represents a spiritual place that can be reached by violent, burning emotions lacking inner control; it is a place of chaos. Karma (Wind) corresponds to an impalpable element, weightless and fleeting. Finally, Vairocana (Space) combines all these elements. Existing outside time, it is the most powerful state in this quest for transcendence; the ineffable fulfilment of the elevation of the soul; healing."

In scientific circles as well, it was long thought that in addition to the four elements, there was also a fifth, ‘ether’. Natural scientists believed that ether was the physical medium that transmitted light waves. Until the scientists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley conducted an experiment, in 1887, in which they sought to measure the relative movement of matter in comparison to ether. The idea behind it, in brief, was as follows: if the Earth moves through the ether, the speed of light should be different depending on whether it moves in the direction of or contrary to the ether. To their surprise, they found that the speed was the same for both. The presence of ether could not, in other words, be confirmed. The research represented a significant breakthrough in science: it paved the way for Albert Einstein’s famous theory of relativity.

"Vairocana (Space) combines all these elements. Existing outside time, it is the most powerful state in this quest for transcendence; the ineffable fulfilment of the elevation of the soul; healing."

When the American composer Philip Glass was asked, in 1987, by Case Western Reserve University to write a work in honour of the hundredth anniversary of the ground-breaking experiment by Michelson and Morley, he was pleased to accept: “During the period in 1975 when I was writing Einstien on the Beach with Robert Wilson I had researched the years prior to Einstein's first published work on relativity in 1905 and had come to realise the critical importance of the Micheslon-Morley work to scientists of the time. Quite simply, their discoveries were perhaps the final blow to the system of Newtonian physics which had dominated scientific thought until that moment.” Glass took the occasion as the starting point for the musical structure of his orchestral work The Light: "In a way, these experiments formed in my mind an almost 'before and after' sequence. The 'before' represented something like 19th century physics. The 'after' marks the onset of modern scientific research. Perhaps this may appear somewhat simplified from a scientific point of view, but for a musician it provided a dramatic contrast… The music begins with a slow, romantic introduction and leads abruptly to the main body of the work - a rapid, energetic movement which forms the balance of the music. The opening bars are heard again just before the final moments and the music ends quietly.”

From wind and water

Of all the elements, it is air that probably appeals the most to the imagination: it is intangible, almost invisible, but essential for life. The American composer Geoffrey Gordon (1968) took as his starting point for ‘Eolian’, a Concerto for Harp the poem The Eolian Harp by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). It speaks of the eolian harp, a small airy instrument that produces sounds as the wind blows through its strings. Both the poem and the composition constitute a personal contemplation of human beings and their relationship to nature and the divine.

Debussy, too, tried to represent the sound of the wind in one of his works. The first movement of his Nocturnes evokes, among other things, “the solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones.” In La Mer, in turn, he gives expression to the interplay of waves and wind by means of unusual sound combinations in the orchestra. Debussy wrote the work between 1903 and 1905, chiefly in his workroom in Burgundy, based on the “countless memories” of the sea. The three movements that make up the work – in order De l’aube à midi sur la mer [From dawn to noon on the sea], Jeux de vagues [Play of the waves] and Dialogue du vent et de la mer [Dialogue of the wind and the sea] constitute a symphonic triptych. The music evokes the airy and fleeting perceptions that are reflected in a refined way. Like a never-ending play of colours and nuances, without either beginning or end.