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Kaija Saariaho

Publisher: Chester Music

Quatre Instants (orchestral version) (2002)
commissioned by the Tammisaari Music Festival and the Leipzig Gewandhaus
Work Notes
dedicated to Karita Mattila and Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Text Writer
Amin Maalouf
Chester Music Ltd
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
20 Minutes
Programme Note
Kaija Saariaho Quatre Instants (orchestral version) (2002)
Quatre instants was born from Karita Mattila's desire to have a new work to perform at recitals she was giving at the Châtelet Theatre and Barbican Centre in April 2003. From my initial discussions with her, and knowing the vastly expressive spectrum of her voice, I immediately had a clear idea of the feelings that I wanted this work to evoke. I imagined a whole section of music built of contrasting images, sub-sections of which would be compressed into short but powerful moments. This reflection also gave the work its title: ‘Four Instants’. The fact that these instants are associated with different faces of love is without doubt connected with the fact that I have seen Karita playing the role of a loving woman in so many opera productions.

The cycle was originally written for soprano and piano. Trying to extract the colours I had in my mind from the piano, and at the same time adapting its vast expressive scale to the diminutive vocal lines, reminded me of the work of a jeweller, who, with the help of a loop, creates rich, microscopic details. I had always planned to make an orchestral version of these songs, yet when I finally did, it was not so easy because, in reducing everything onto the piano, I had tried hard not think in orchestral terms. But I wanted in the new version to achieve the same very clear, bright sound as in the original, and I’m pleased that, because this version was made for a Classical-sized orchestra rather than a big Romantic one, it retains some of the piano version’s chamber-music feel, so that the phrases we hear from the orchestral instruments – from the wind, and so on – are, in a way, in dialogue with the singer. The two versions are not completely similar, however: there are tiny differences of details. In the original, for example, the singer starts the third song, while here it begins with a phrase on the flute. In both versions, though, the instrumental writing is integral to the overall texture and not just an accompaniment to the singing. Rather, it is a musical extension of the text that sometimes develops several musical ideas simultaneously.

Since Karita and I are both from Finland, I first researched texts in our native language but I couldn't find anything that suited my musical ideas. I then contacted Amin Maalouf, whose texts I had worked with for previous projects, and asked him to suggest some to me. Amin gave me some short texts, from which I chose three, and I then asked him to write a fourth text based on the first three. It is this text that closes the cycle: in it the singer returns to the atmosphere of anticipation that is set at the beginning, but now her mind is full of memories. The apparent simplicity of Amin's texts gives space for music. The words and short phrases are codes which hide a rich world of sensations, colours and fragrances.

Kaija Saariaho

Preview the score

Of the three works played last night, this cycle of four songs–turned into a monodrama which could rival Schoenberg’s Erwartung in style–was the most stunning and unexpected work on the program. [...] In an evening which promised to be “an enjoyable one”, Quatre Instants was an ecstasy that transcended mere enjoyment. Turning the ephemera of music into (I foresee) an everlasting memory.
Harry Rolnick,,09/03/2012
Their dramatic power over exquisite orchestral backdrops seems perfectly tailored to Mattila's histrionic abilities.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,12/11/2007
It was a bold statement of intent to start the [BBCSO] season with the British premiere of the orchestral version of Saariaho's song cycle … The first of the four songs suspended Brewer's voice in a fluid orchestral texture, a musical metaphor for the image of a lover as a 'boat adrift' on the sea. There was a sharper sense of drama in the second, Torment, as Brewer submitted to the desires of her lover. The final songs returned to the ambiguity of the opening song, evocations of intimacy and despair brilliantly realised by Brewer. Saraste has become Saariaho's most sympathetic interpreter, and he coaxed a diaphanous soundworld from the BBCSO.
Tom Service, The Guardian,05/10/2004
[Christine] Brewer is impressive and impassive in equal measure … the orchestral arrangement was all gain, with Saariaho summoning up a lush, fascinating soundscape, sensuously charged in the way a piano could never evoke. Saraste again showed his special feeling for Saariaho's music.
John Allison, The Times,04/10/2004
Finland is probably one of the least musically elitist countries in the world. The evidence for this is the country’s recent enthusiasm with contemporary music in the past few years. 'As at the time of Sibelius, people come from their home towns just to hear new compositions, because they think that they might miss something of great importance if they fail to attend the premiere of a piece.' This happened with the performance of the new version of Quatre Instants, by Kaija Saariaho. Of course this was intensified by the fact that the soloist was the great Karita Mattila, the Finnish diva who is not often heard in her own country. In commissioning Kaija Saariaho for the chamber orchestra version of Quatre Instants, Jukka-Pekka Saraste managed to create the summer event of Finland. The original vocal cycle was performed in April in Paris by Karita Mattila with pianist Tuija Hakkila.
Pierre Gervasoni, L'Edition,05/08/2003
Finnish soloists were the driving force of the fourth Ekenäs Festival...The soprano [Karita Mattila] has revealed herself to be irresistible in any genre. When she appeared at the world premiere with the orchestra of Quatre Instants by Kaija Saariaho, dressed in a roman style, in captivating red, she seemed surrounded by an aura of mythology. In reality she managed to immerse herself with body and soul into a wave of intense sensuality. 'Je suis la barque qui derive' (I am the small boat who drifts), she [Karita Mattila] says in perfect French reciting poems by Amin Maalouf, and everyone is ready to 'keel over' with her. This vocal cycle will surely become a core work within the repertoire of the 21st century. It [Quatre Instants] represents an important evolution in Saariaho’s lyricism after her opera, L’Amour de loin, written from a libretto by the same author. The music ceases to be subliminal and becomes the transmission of real-life.
Pierre Gervasoni, Le Monde,04/08/2003
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