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Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet, 3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabasssoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bamboo chimes, bass drum, glockenspiel, log drum, marimba, metal chimes, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, temple blocks, triangle, tubular bells, vibraphone, wood blocks, xylophone), harp, piano (= celesta), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
After graduating from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, Qigang Chen went to France in 1984, where he was Olivier Messiaen’s last student for four years.
“Since I left the Conservatory, Qigang Chen has been my only pupil, and if I agreed to work with him for four years, it was because I hold him in high esteem,” Messiaen wrote. “Endowed with exceptional intelligence and an excellent internal ‘ear’, he has very quickly assimilated European music and all contemporary music.
“I have carefully read all his musical works, and I can state that his compositions display real inventiveness, very great talent, and a total assimilation of Chinese thinking to European musical concepts. All his works written since 1985 are remarkable by their thought, their poetry, and their instrumentation.”
Chen’s colorful integration of Chinese and Western traditions has drawn adulatory attention in Europe and China, earning him numerous prizes and commissions. One of these, a commission for a short orchestral piece, came from Radio France in 1998.
“This commission immediately raised all my interest, for the proposition coincided with a period of personal quest,” Chen wrote. “The challenge pleased me and I took it up as a style exercise, supported by the pressure of the duration [limitation]...
“Before going further in my process, I undertook to characterize each piece by a different symbol. From there was born the idea of representing the five elements (Wu Xing). Because according to the Yi King, five elements constitute the universe: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth....
“To characterize musically a symbol in an extremely short time and to present a tangible material in an abstract language were my lines of strength. But even more, to establish relationships between the materials, so that each element generated the next one, as if the last was the consequence of the first.”
The result was a small suite of five two-minute movements, with the five Chinese elements in an order based on generation (other orders traditionally suggest other themes, such as production or overcoming). According to the foreword in the printed score, water is the strongest element for Chen, but characterized by calmness. Wood is the richest element, with a lot of variations; fire represents life (warm, but not aggressive); earth, a generative principle, is the matrix; and metal refers to strength and light.
The Five Elements was a finalist in the 2001 Masterprize competition in the UK, and it has been recorded by Didier Benetti and the National Orchestra of France.