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