Nyx is my first composition in the genre
of pure orchestral music since Helix
(2005). It employs a large orchestra, and has exposed concertante parts for
solo clarinet and the horn section. Rather than utilizing the principle of
continuous variation of material, as has been the case in most of my recent music, Nyx
behaves rather differently. Its themes and ideas essentially keep their
properties throughout the piece, while the environment that surrounds them
changes constantly. Mere whispers grow into roars; an intimate line in the solo
clarinet becomes a broad, slowly breathing melody of tutti strings at the end
of the work.
I set myself a particular challenge when starting the composition process,
something I hadn’t done earlier: to write
complex counterpoint for almost 100 musicians
playing tutti at full throttle without losing clarity in the various
layers and lines—something that Strauss and Mahler mastered so perfectly. Not
an easy task, but a fascinating one. I leave it to the listener to judge how
well I succeeded.
Nyx is a shadowy figure in Greek mythology. At the very beginning of
everything, there’s a big mass of dark stuff called Chaos, out of which comes
Gaia or Ge (the Earth), who gives birth (spontaneously!) to Uranus, the starry
heaven, and Pontus (the sea). Nyx—also known sometimes as Nox—is supposed to
have been another child of Gaia, along with Erebus. The union of Nyx and Erebus
Another version says that Cronos (as Time)
was there from the beginning. Chaos came from Time. Nyx was present as a sort
of membrane surrounding Chaos, which had Phanes (Light) at its center. The
union of Nyx with Phanes produced Heaven and Earth. Nyx is an extremely
nebulous figure altogether; we have no sense of her character or personality.
It is this very quality that has long fascinated me and that made me decide to
name my new orchestral piece after her.
I am not trying to describe this mythical goddess in any precise way
musically. However, the almost constant flickering and rapid changing of
textures and moods, as well as a certain elusive character of many of the
musical gestures, may well be related to the subject.
I have always enjoyed the unrivalled dynamic range of a large symphony orchestra, but Nyx
seems to take a somewhat new direction than my earlier orchestral music: There are many very delicate and light
textures, chiaroscuro instead of
details bathing in clear direct sunlight. I guess this is a symptom of growing
older, as we realize there are no simple truths—no pure blacks and whites—but
an endless variety of half-shades.
Le poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy, Symphony No. 4),
June 1905, Alexander Scriabin began work on an intended multi-movement symphony entitled Poème orgiaque.
However, Scriabin encountered great difficulty with his original concept. In
spring 1907, Scriabin announced he had completed his “finest composition,” the single-movement Poème de l’extase (Poem of Ecstasy). In summer 1907,
conductor Modest Altschuler, a champion of contemporary Russian music, assisted
Scriabin with revisions to the orchestration. Altschuler observed:
Scriabin is neither an atheist nor a
theosophist, yet his creed includes ideas somewhat related to each of
these schools of thought. There are three divisions in his poem: (1) His soul
in the orgy of love; (2) The realization of a fantastical dream; (3) The glory
of his own art.
Scriabin himself authored an accompanying and lengthy explanatory poem, the
opening lines of which read as follows:
Pinioned on its thirst for life,
Soars in flight
To heights of negation.
There in the rays of its fantasy
Is born a magic world
Of wondrous images and feelings
The playing spirit,
The suffering spirit,
The spirit that creates sorrow in doubt,
Gives itself to the torment of love.
The premiere, originally scheduled for February 16, 1908, in St. Petersburg,
was delayed due to lack of sufficient rehearsal time; the first performance of The Poem
of Ecstasy finally took place in New York at Carnegie Hall in December
The Poem of Ecstasy is set in a
single uninterrupted movement that comprises numerous diverse episodes. During the slow opening section
(Andante. Languido), the flute introduces a wide-ranging motif based
upon triplets. A solo clarinet plays a melody over undulating string
accompaniment. During a more agitated
passage (Allegro non troppo), trumpets play the work’s central theme, a
rising fanfare juxtaposed with a chromatic descending passage. The themes
appear in various forms, couched in a wide variety of orchestral textures and
colors. The presentation of conflicting moods throughout The Poem of Ecstasy
finally resolves to a glorious C-major apotheosis.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30
In summer 1909, Sergei Rachmaninoff received an invitation to make his first
concert tour of the United States. The Russian pianist, composer, and conductor
had grave misgivings about leaving his family and homeland for such an extended
period of time. But Rachmaninoff—who had developed a passion for motorcars—was
swayed by the generous fees offered. As he confessed to a friend: “I don’t want
to go. But then perhaps after America, I’ll be able to buy myself that
automobile … It may not be so bad after all!”
The American concert tour featured
Rachmaninoff as both pianist and conductor in performances of his compositions.
During summer 1909, he authored a new work for that tour, his Third Piano
Concerto, and in October, he began his voyage to the US, during which he
practiced on a silent keyboard.
On November 28, 1909, at the New Theater in New York City, Rachmaninoff
appeared as soloist in the world premiere of his Third Piano Concerto, with
Walter Damrosch conducting the Symphony Society of New York. On January 16,
1910, a historic collaboration took place at Carnegie Hall, when Rachmaninoff
again performed the concerto—this time with the New York Philharmonic. The
conductor was the orchestra’s music director, the great Austrian composer
After that performance, the critic for TheNew York Herald offered this prophetic
commentary about the Rachmaninoff Third:
The work grows in impressiveness upon acquaintance and will doubtless rank
among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years, although its great
length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of
exceptional technical powers.
We are fortunate that there have been many
superb artists willing to tackle the phenomenal demands imposed by Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest
pianists. When the hurdles are
overcome, the Rachmaninoff Third emerges as a summit of the Romantic piano concerto—a masterful fusion of virtuoso
pyrotechnics, unforgettable melody,
and lush orchestration.
ma non tanto. After two bars of orchestral
introduction, the soloist enters with the undulating principal melody, scored
in octaves, with each hand playing a single note. The soloist’s lightning-quick
passagework serves to accompany the orchestra’s restatement of the theme. A
brief unaccompanied episode for the soloist
leads to a broader presentation of the opening theme. Fanfares herald
the second theme, soon played in its complete form by the soloist. The development section begins in much
the same manner as the opening of the movement, but soon ventures into flights
of stunning display for the soloist. An extended, fully composed cadenza for
the pianist also briefly incorporates the solo flute, oboe, clarinet, and two
horns. Instead of the traditional full recapitulation, the movement closes with
a restatement of the opening melody and a brief reminiscence of the second
The second movement begins with an extended, somber orchestral introduction
whose central theme—initially played by a solo oboe—bears a kinship to a
portion of the principal melody of the opening Allegro. The soloist enters with
rhapsodic variants of the theme. A contrasting, vivacious scherzando passage
features yet another transformation of the
opening movement’s principal melody, now played by a solo clarinet and
bassoon. After a brief reprise of the opening portion of the Intermezzo, the soloist launches a dramatic
passage. This serves as the bridge to the Finale, which follows without
Alla breve. The soloist presents the
fanfare-like opening theme, derived from the introductory measures of the first
movement. A series of syncopated chords by the soloist develops into the
flowing second theme. Two subsequent episodes—a breezy scherzando and more
reflective lento—present echoes of the opening Allegro. A varied reprise of the
Finale’s first section leads to the grand resolution of the concerto—a glorious
declaration of the second theme, capped by a dazzling cascade by the soloist.