If we imagine the history of art as some kind of Darwinian survival game, Sappho stands out as a genetic miracle. No (almost no) whole organism (poem) has survived; instead we have a couple of dozen pages' worth of fragments. Some of them are almost complete little poems, most of them are isolated groups of words or single words far apart.
Almost every generation of poets has tried to translate theses scattered messages from a woman of whom we know very little. As always, interpretation tells more about the interpreter, and his time and culture, than the work itself.
Our modern view of Sappho is similar to that of other art forms, more scholarly than romantic. It is important to remember that the best Sappho translation today (or the best Beethoven interpretation) will be seen as interesting, but slightly ridiculous, by future generations. We are prisoners of our own time and generation.
It is the fragmentary nature of the material, and therefore an almost open form, that makes Sappho so fascinating to set to music. (After having typed this sentence I realised that I am still trying to give an intellectual, formal explanation wildly off the mark in the good old serialist tradition. That is exactly what I mean by being a prisoner of one's own generation.)
It is the tremendous energy of suffocated sexuality and the vibrant eroticism in Sappho that got my imagination going. Sappho reveals to us secrets of the female soul like nobody else. There is no subject more interesting.
Between these small islands of words one can hear music.
I set out to compose a cycle in which I would describe a woman's life from childhood to old age and death. Timing was not right: my son Oliver was born in the middle of the composition period, and it became totally impossible for me to imagine death and loneliness. I decided to concentrate on the first part of life instead.
1. Tell everyone
The singer explains that she is going to tell a story. Music is fanfare-like , except for the word "beautifully".
2. Without Warning
The first awakening of love. Descending figures in the beginning are metaphors of a gentle whirlwind.
3. It's no use
A young girl is unable to concentrate on household chores. She is trying to explain to her mother why, but gets so excited that she can only stutter. Finally, she manages to get the words "that boy".
4. The evening star
I imagine: a girl is lying in the grass in the evening, gazing at the stars. For the first time she understands that even she will be old one day. The strings and the celesta describe the flicker of the stars.
I combined several poems here to create a larger form. The singer has different roles in this song.
In the refrain the crowd greets the bridegroom. it returns twice in different guises.
After the interlude the bride has a brief moment of despair, but is comforted by an older woman ("listen, my dear"), who has a very balanced point of view, in my opinion.
After the second refrain girls gather outside the nuptial chamber and sing teasingly a song ("Come bride").
After the third refrain and an orchestral culmination, a voice describes the couple sleeping peacefully in each other's arms.
© Esa-Pekka Salonen, 1999
The first of three Salonen works was “Five Images after Sappho” (1999), a stunningly effective 25-minute setting in translation of poems by that celebrated Greek. As a whole, it demonstrated the clarity, the cohesiveness, and above all the brilliant sense of color that mark Salonen’s musical thinking. Taken in parts, it proved a small, multi-faceted drama that reflected the words beautifully and, as it progressed, opened one delicate or dramatic vista after another. The solo soprano part, sung with elegant purity by Laura Claycomb, was often submerged into the instrumental texture, but even this was acceptable, adding another thread of color to the entire fabric.
Sappho seems to have had a pleasantly everyday sense of life, although Salonen remarks in his program note that it was “the tremendous energy of suffocated sexuality and the vibrant eroticism in Sappho that got my imagination going.” But her take on love is—until the fifth “Image”— almost lighthearted. (“Mother dear, I can’t finish my weaving. You may blame Aphrodite, she has almost killed me with love for that boy.”)
Salonen’s score (for five strings plus winds, brass, and moderate percussion) moves from a high, shimmering opening through a beautiful evocation of the whirlwind of love that shakes the singer’s heart, to the restless, distraught (but never tragic) confession of the inability to stick to that loom. The fourth section, paean to the evening star, glitters and twinkles like crystal; the final, and longest, “Image,” a celebration of the approaching nuptials and wedding night, is the most heated and intense. But no matter how much excitement the music generates, one is always aware of the interaction of coherent vocal and instrumental lines. It is the kind of piece that, at the end of its 25 minutes, one would happily hear over again.
Shirley Fleming, MusicalAmerica.com, 22/12/2000
In contrast Salonen’s Five Images after Sappho, receiving its European premiere, had immediate rewards. The soprano Laura Claycomb bewitched, as did the virtuosic musicians.
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer, 19/12/1999
The biggest surprise came in Salonen’s own music, a new piece commissioned by the Sinfonietta: in its first European performance, Five Images after Sappho revealed a glowing warmth not found in his work before. Inspired by fragments of Sappho’s poetry, the five short movements for soprano and chamber ensemble go straight to the heart of the matter by conjuring up immediate and affecting images.
Laura Claycomb was the soloist, and in the fourth movement, for instance, she used her bright soprano to conjure up the evening star with her soft, high notes cushioned on the flickering textures of the celesta and strings.
The cycle describes a woman’s life until marriage. The awakening of love is captured in a oft cascade of sound, while the final movement is a celebration with reflective interludes.
John Allison, The Times, 14/12/1999