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Esa-Pekka Salonen

Publisher: Chester Music

Pollux (2018)
Chester Music Ltd
Year Composed
11 Minutes
Programme Note
Esa-Pekka Salonen Pollux (2018)
During the composition process of Pollux, I encountered a strange problem: my material seemed to want to grow in two completely opposite directions. Finally, I realised that these very different musical identities (I had referred to them as brothers in my sketches) would not fit into one cohesive formal unit, a single piece. They simply couldn’t coexist.

This made me think of the myth of the non-identical twins Castor and Pollux who share half of their DNA, but have some extreme phenotype differences, and experience dramatically different fates.
In the Greco-Roman mythology, Pollux was immortal as he was fathered by Zeus. Castor was mortal as he was sired by Tyndareus, the king of Sparta, although his status changed post-mortem.
The mother of both was Leda, who while being already pregnant by her husband had a tryst with Zeus, who seduced her in the form of a swan. (There's something intriguing in the idea of this famed beauty having a penchant for large water birds.)

My solution was to write two independent but genetically linked orchestral works. Pollux, slow and quite dark in expression, is the first of them. Castor, extroverted and mostly fast, will follow later.

Pollux has a ritualistic character, based on a mantra rhythm I heard some months ago during dinner in a restaurant in the 11th arrondissement in Paris. A post-grunge band played on the background track, and I wrote down the bass line on a paper napkin not knowing exactly what it was and who the musicians were. I couldn’t get it out of my head, and decided to use a heavily modified version of it in Pollux. The pattern has been distilled to pure rhythm, and slowed down to less than quarter speed of the original.

Another source of material is a chorale (here wordless) based on the first lines of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Die Sonette an Orpheus):

Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!
O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr.

(There rose a tree. O pure transcendence!
O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in the ear!)

I was very taken by the funny and surreal, Salvador Dali-like image of a tree growing out of the ear. The metaphor is far from obvious, but it is clear that Orpheus can unify art and nature by the sheer force of his song. Every musician I know would like to be able to do that.

Pollux oscillates between cloud-like formations (that’s where demigods dwell) and more clearly defined textures of the Orpheus music. After the final, fortissimo incarnation of the chorale, a nostalgic English Horn solo brings Pollux to home. At the very end there’s an aeolian echo (a scale used in Ancient Greece); a simple chord consisting of natural harmonics in the strings. I was trying to imagine something much older than most music.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Munich, March 23, 2018

Preview the score

  • 29 JAN 2020
    Tokyo Metropolitan Concert Hall / Tokyo / Japan
    Philharmonic Orchestra
    Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
  • 24 MAR 2020
    Freiburg Concert Hall / Freiburg / Germany
    Philharmonia Orchestra
    Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
  • 25 MAR 2020
    Henry Le Boeuf Hall / Brussels / Belgium
    Philharmonia Orchestra
    Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

“Pollux” was the evening’s strength. Salonen has the sound of an orchestra anchored in his ear and here brought out its full range of sonorities and color in a work that sounded thoroughly contemporary yet had a ­19th-century voluptuousness, as if someone were painting Mondrian but using Titian’s palette and brushstrokes. This is music by someone who still takes orchestras seriously as a medium of expression and is comfortable enough with them not to write reverentially or, as so often happens, in quotation marks. And for this, Dudamel is a perfect conductor. He, too, has orchestra music in his blood and brought out the lyrical nuance of a dark and lovely piece.
Anne Midgette, Washington Post,27/04/2018
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