Frank Martin, Les quatre éléments (The Four Elements)
by Byron Adams, University of California, Riverside
Written for the concert Human Elements, performed on Nov 18, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
“Forgive me if I ask you an embarrassing question. I am making up my programs for the winter of 1963-64. Do you think that the piece that you intend to compose for me will be ready for my final concert of the season, April 6, 1964?” So wrote the conductor Ernest Ansermet to his Swiss compatriot, Frank Martin, concerning a projected orchestral score then tentatively entitled Les quatre éléments. Martin had offered to compose a major work to celebrate Ansermet’s eightieth birthday, but its gestation period was longer than expected, as was typical of Martin, who was a determined perfectionist. In a contrite letter sent on New Year’s Day 1964, Martin, after offering uncharacteristically effusive seasonal greetings, admits to Ansermet that the score would not be ready in time for the projected premiere: “Therefore, it will be necessary, unhappily, for you to find something else for your concert by the end of March, and postpone my Éléments until the opening of the following season.”
Les quatre éléments was deeply influenced by Ansermet’s personality and style as a conductor. Martin wrote that the suite was a “portrait of Ansermet as the master of the iridescent orchestra of Debussy or Ravel…I imagined a series of movements that evoked different landscapes, different phenomena, all under the title Les quatre éléments: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire.” Martin further noted that “if my Petite symphonie concertante (1946) is, in a certain way, expanded chamber music, then Les quatre éléments is the essence of symphonic music, in the post-romantic sense of the term.” Despite invoking the names of the French impressionists, Martin was adamant that this work was neither “impressionistic” nor “symbolic,” for he sought to affect the emotions of the listener as concretely as possible. This score was a departure for Martin, who usually preferred to adapt classical forms; he testified that in Les quatre éléments the “musical ideas developed freely…[O]nly the third movement, Air, has the imprint of a traditional form, that of a Scherzo.”
This tribute to Ansermet was particularly fitting, as the conductor was one of the composer’s most loyal champions, and, furthermore, had exercised a decided influence over development of Martin’s style. Like Ansermet, Martin was originally drawn to mathematics, only beginning musical studies at the Geneva Conservatory in 1910; his teacher there, Joseph Lauber, was a conservative who had studied with Jules Massenet and Joseph Rheinberger. Ansermet introduced Martin to modern French music in 1919, urging him to spend time in Paris. Beginning in 1924, Martin lived for a year in the French capital, absorbing such disparate influences as Debussy, jazz, medieval music, and a variety of folk music, including that of the Far East. Out of these predilections, Martin fashioned a personal style that combined contrapuntal and orchestral mastery with a richly chromatic harmonic syntax. All of these aspects of Martin’s idiom pervade Les quatre éléments, a work that is less concerned with the physical elements themselves than with the myriad ways in which human beings perceive the world.