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Composed: 2011
Length: c. 18 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo 2), 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongos, chimes, glockenspiel, gongs, sizzle cymbal, tam-tam, tom-toms, vibraphone, wood block), harp, celesta (= piano), and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: (West Coast premiere)

Nyx was commissioned by Radio France, the Barbican Centre, Atlanta Symphony, Carnegie Hall, and the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. It had its first performance in Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, in February 2011 in the final concert of the Festival Présences. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France was conducted by the composer. Salonen has recorded it with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, on a Deutsche Grammophon disc with his Violin Concerto, played by Leila Josefowicz. The composer wrote the following note:

Nyx is my return to 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 is the case mostly in my recent music, Nyx behaves rather differently. Its themes and ideas essentially keep their properties throughout the piece while the environment surrounding them keeps changing constantly. Mere whispers grow into roar; an intimate line of the solo clarinet becomes a slowly breathing broad melody of tutti strings at the end of the 18-minute arch of Nyx.

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 of the different layers and lines; something that Strauss and Mahler so perfectly mastered. 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 sometimes known as Nox) is supposed to have been another child of Gaia, along with Erebus. The union of Nyx and Erebus produces Day.

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.

She 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 made me decide to name my new orchestral piece after her.

I’m 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 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 from 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 symptomatic of growing older as we realize there are no simple truths, no pure blacks and whites, but an endless variety of half shades.

— Esa-Pekka Salonen