HomeGenresClassicalKaija Saariaho: Five Essentials Works

Kaija Saariaho: Five Essentials Works

Kaija Saariaho (1952–2023) was a seminal figure in contemporary music, shaping her distinct sound from Helsinki to Paris, where she lived from 1982 until her death. Her formative years included advanced studies at institutions like IRCAM in Paris, which profoundly influenced her compositions, blending electroacoustic elements with live performances to create rich, enigmatic textures. Saariaho achieved international acclaim with orchestral works and operas, celebrated globally for their innovative use of voice and orchestra. Her achievements garnered many prestigious awards, including the Grawemeyer Award and the Polar Music Prize. She was also recognised as the ‘Greatest Living Composer’ by BBC Music Magazine in 2019. Her life and prolific career were tragically cut short in 2023 after a battle with brain cancer, but her impact on the music world endures.

Saariaho’s legacy, marked by a passion for merging technology with artistic expression, continues to influence the music scene. To mark one year since her passing, our contributor BP revisits five of Saariaho’s works, including posthumously published works, made available through her publisher, Chester Music.

NoaNoa (1992)

Kaija Saariaho NoaNoa

NoaNoa draws inspiration from Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian woodcuts and his travel diaries of the same name, “Noa Noa”, intended to capture his experiences through expressive art. The piece, originally conceptualised while Saariaho was composing ballet music for Maa, involves the flautist engaging in an array of techniques including playing, breathing, singing, and whispering into the flute, all while interacting with a computer system to manipulate both live and prerecorded electronic sounds. Performance of NoaNoa requires extensive setup including a computer, sound processing equipment, and an assistant engineer to ensure the balance and coordination of the electronic components. The piece represents a synthesis of traditional flute playing with modern electronic manipulation, creating a “super flute.”

The score for NoaNoa is available here.

Judith Weir Oi Kuu

Oi Kuu (1990)

Oi Kuu (For a Moon) was written as an interlude between two major orchestral works, Du Cristal (1989) and ..À La Fumée (1990). This piece for bass clarinet and cello, approximately six minutes in length, explores the unique blend of timbres and articulations between the two instruments. Saariaho focuses on harmony derived from the multiphonics of the clarinet and the colour transformations of the cello, examining their interactions within the same registers. Commissioned by and dedicated to Kari Kriikku and Anssi Karttunen, Oi Kuu highlights Saariaho’s characteristic use of expressive, unconventional sound techniques and manual effects, creating a richly textured auditory experience that reflects the celestial theme of the moon.

The score for Saariaho’s Oi Kuu (for bass clarinet and violoncello) can be purchased here.

Kaija Saariaho at Home
Kaija Saariaho composing at home, 1986. Credit: Saariaho.org
Kaija Saariaho L'Amour de Loin

L’Amour de Loin (2000)

Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar) is based on “La Vida Breve” by the twelfth-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel. The story revolves around Jaufré, a prince suspicious of superficial aristocratic life, who becomes enamored with Clémence, the Countess of Tripoli, after hearing of her from a pilgrim. Driven by his idealised passion, Jaufré journeys to meet Clémence but falls gravely ill, culminating in their meeting and his death shortly after confessing their mutual love. The opera, known for its minimalistic cast of three characters, is underscored by Saariaho’s ethereal music, which features lush vocal lines and a delicate orchestration that includes harps and quarter-tone harmonies, creating an atmosphere of medieval and oriental influences.

Discover the official score for L’Amour de Loin here, with the vocal score for Mixed Choir and accompaniment available here.

Kaija Saariaho Sept Papillons

Sept Papillons (2000)

Sept Papillons (Seven Butterflies) was the first piece Saariaho wrote after her opera L’Amour de Loin. Composed during the opera’s rehearsals in Salzburg and first performed in Helsinki in September 2000 by Anssi Karttunen, this piece was commissioned by the Rudolf Steiner Foundation. It consists of seven miniatures, each a delicate study in transient and fragile movement, symbolising the ephemeral nature of a butterfly— a stark contrast to the eternal motifs of love, yearning, and death in L’Amour de Loin. These short pieces embody no clear beginning or end, reflecting a deliberate departure from the opera’s expansive time spans and stylistic language.

The score for Sept Papillons (for Solo Cello) is available to order here.

Trois poèmes de Jacques Prévert (2020)

Kaija Saariaho Trois poemes de Jacques Prevert

Kaija Saariaho’s Trois poèmes de Jacques Prévert (Three poems by Jacques Prévert) displays her affinity for the lyrical and playful qualities of Prévert’s poetry, set to music as a series of birthday dedications. Each poem was selected based on personal associations with the celebrant, mirroring the approach she took in composing The Tempest Songbook. Saariaho’s compositions in this series are noted for their lightness and a novel approach to her typical violin idiom, incorporating elements that blend spoken text with instrumental music—a technique she further explored in her opera Innocence. This innovative blending of voice and violin allows for performances in various languages, provided translations fit the rhythmic structure of the original French.

Although Saariaho had plans to expand this series and publish the complete cycle, her work was tragically halted by her sudden death. In performance, these pieces often functioned as whimsical and poignant interruptions at birthday gatherings, with scoring designed specifically for violin and actor, emphasising the intimate and versatile nature of these compositions.

Discover the sheet music for Trois poèmes de Jacques Prévert here.

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