Five composers discuss each of their movements for a new concerto, The Elements, commissioned by violinist Joshua Bell

The elements fall into place

Early during the Covid lockdown, while Joshua Bell was isolated with his family in rural upstate New York, he started thinking about commissioning a new piece for violin and orchestra — a kind of modern-day answer to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. He hadn’t commissioned a large work since John Corigliano’s Red Violin Concerto two decades earlier. At some point, he landed on the ancient idea of the four classical elements — Earth, Water, Fire, and Air — to which he decided to add Space, a fifth element in some cultures. 

He then turned to five composers he admires, all of whom write music steeped in tonality and melody. Kevin Puts, who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his first opera, Silent Night, is best known today for The Hours, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2022 and was revived last month. Edgar Meyer, a MacArthur Award winner and seven-time Grammy Award winner, is well known both as a genre-bending bassist, who plays everything from Bach to bluegrass, and as a composer. Jake Heggie is the composer of some three hundred arts songs and nine operas, including Dead Man Walking, the 2000 score which opened the Metropolitan Opera season in September in a new production by Ivo van Hove. Jennifer Higdon won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for her violin concerto; the Chicago Symphony gave the world premiere of her Low Brass Concerto under Riccardo Muti in 2018. Jessie Montgomery, who concludes her role as the Chicago Symphony’s Mead Composer-in Residence this season, won the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Composition, Classical, for Rounds; the Orchestra gave the world premiere of her Percussion Concerto, with Cynthia Yeh as soloist, on May 30.

Pairing composers with elements and then finding the right sequence of pieces took some time and experimentation in workshop situations. The resulting suite, celebrating the beauty of the natural world, is by intention both one large piece and five individual works that can stand on their own. The five composers’ comments follow. 

Earth and Earth (Reprise and Finale) by Kevin Puts

The piece begins on solid ground, with a repeating four-note ostinato over which the solo violin and the orchestral violins trade lyrical phrases. This opening idea was drawn from my Violin Concerto (2006) but takes a different journey here, eventually “taking flight” for a brief period. The Reprise and Finale flows seamlessly from the end of Jessie Montgomery’s Space, resuming the development of ideas begun at the suite’s opening and reaching grander heights here. Beyond the fundamental sense of stability and endurance the element earth suggested to me, I hope the music also conveys a more spiritual reverence for the planet Earth itself and, in some minute way, might inspire its protection.

Water by Edgar Meyer

This movement deals with both a gentler side of water and a more forceful side. Music early in the movement is non-specific and maybe evocative of a gentle rain. The music later in the movement comes from a specific vision. I thought of being a particle of water in a high South American waterfall, hurled in seconds down into the swirling silt and sludge at the bottom, and onward from there. I’m not sure if it’s what I would see if I heard this music for the first time, but it certainly is what I saw when I wrote it.

Fire by Jake Heggie

My score for Fire begins with a spark. Something possibly beautiful and essential emerges, fascinating and elusive. We cannot hold fire, but it can consume us. It is essential for life but can also be the cause of immense destruction. And then, miraculously, for rebirth. We need it. We fear it. We try to tame and contain it, but it can quickly run out of control. I wanted to explore both physical and metaphysical fire: the passion, the flame that is essential to our spirits — to all spirituality. Where will that initial spark lead? We may never know. And that is part of a beautiful, inexplicable chaos.

Air by Jennifer Higdon

Air, an element that is everywhere. It feeds our bodies (in our first breath as we enter the world) and the plants and the oceans; we feel it with every change of season. It is also the sigh that we make when listening to the beautiful tone of Joshua Bell. Knowing that this movement would likely be in the middle of all these other dramatic elements with high energy and swirling notes, this moment is a calm spot, a space for breathing and quiet reflection.

Space by Jessie Montgomery

I was tasked with musically conveying the fifth element, space: one which encompasses all of the elements, all of the planets, and all the matter of the universe. It’s no small feat to try to encapsulate such immense kinetic energy by portraying all of these elements together. In my composition, the solo violin takes on a melodic journey, pulling the listener both inward, into their own imagination of the universe, and outward, into the very depths of outer space. There are some subtle references to the other elements throughout the piece, particularly in its motivic language and its feeling, while being expansive in its transformative nature.