The Kennedy Center

Nymphea Reflections

About the Work

Kaija Saariaho Composer: Kaija Saariaho
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document

Nymphea Reflection, commissioned by the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, was composed last year and was given its premiere in Elmshorn, Germany, by the Sinfonietta Cracovia under John Axelrod on August 16, 2001. The present performances, the first in the United States, will be repeated by Mr. Slatkin and the orchestra at Carnegie Hall two weeks from now.

The scoring is for the strings alone. Approximate duration, 15 minutes.


Kaija Saariaho, who celebrated her 50 th birthday only a few days ago, is one of the most eminent members of her generation of Finnish composers. Following studies in composition with Paavo Heininen at the Sibelius Academy she took further work with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber at the Musikhochschule in Frieburg, receiving a diploma from that institution in 1983. In the previous year she took part in computer courses at IRCAM, and since then has made her home in Paris. Electronic elements have been given prominence in several of her works, but by no means all of them. Among these are Verblendungen, for orchestra and tape (1982-84), Lichtbogen, for chamber ensemble and electronics (1985-96), and Nymphea, for string quartet and electronics (1987). The last-named was commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Kronos Quartet, which introduced and recorded it. The conjoined orchestral works Du cristal and ...à la fumée (the one commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Helsinki Festival, the other by the Finnish Broadcasting Company) were given their premieres in Helsinki and Los Angeles in 1990 and 1991.

Since then Saariaho's violin concerto Graal Théâtre, composed for Gidon Kremer, was introduced by him in London in the 1995 BBC Proms; the orchestral song cycle Château de l'âme was given its premiere by the soprano Dawn Upshaw at the Salzburg Festival in 1996; another song cycle, Lonh, had its premiere in that year's Wien Modern Festival; and in November 1999 Kurt Masur conducted the New York Philharmonic in the first performance of Oltra mar, a work for chorus and orchestra commissioned by that orchestra in its Millennium Series. Saariaho was conspicuously present in our country during the recent summer: at Santa Fe for the American premiere of her first opera, L'Amour de loin, a joint commission from the Salzburg Festival and the Théâtre du Châtelet, which had its premiere in Salzburg in August 2000; then at Tanglewood for a teaching residency and performances of some of her works. Her Flute Concerto Aile du songe was given its American premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia in July; this season performances of her works are scheduled in Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia as well as in Washington and New York.

Among the honors and awards Kaija Saariaho has received are the Kranichsteiner Preis at the New Music Summer Courses in Darmstadt (1986); the Prix Italia, for her Stilleben (1988); the Ars Electronica Prize for that work and Io (1989); the Nordic Music Prize, for Lonh (2000); the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's Stoeger Award for outstanding service to chamber music (2000), and both Sweden's Rolf Schock Prize and Germany's Kaske Prize in 2001.

The title of the present work, Nymphea Reflection, is an allusion to Saariaho's 1987 work for string quartet and electronics, Nymphea. As the composer herself explains in her own authoritative note, however, the newer work is not a mere revision or arrangement of the earlier one, which actually served only as a point of departure in creating something essentially new.


The starting point for Nymphea Reflection came with the idea of arranging my string quartet Nymphea. Then, when I actually started working on the piece, I realised that, for many reasons, a straight arrangement was impossible and that I would need to find a completely new starting point. I ended up designing a formal concept of six separate sections, each being of a very different character. These six sections are named for their expressive nature: SOSTENUTO; FEROCE; DOLCISSIMO; LENTO ESPRESSIVO; FURIOSO; MISTERIOSO.

I started off by keeping some of the string textures of the quartet; instead of actually using electronics I decided to simulate some of the electronic processing by means of orchestration. In the last part I have used as a timbral effect a poem by Arseniy Tarkovsky, which is whispered by the musicians. The text is not heard as such, but its spirit is present in the whole work. Reading this poem might be much better preparation for listening to the piece than my attempts to trace some of the compositional elements, which reveal so little of the music itself.

Now summer is gone
And might never have been.
In the sunshine it's warm,
But there has to be more.

It all came to pass,
All fell into my hands
Like a five-petalled leaf,
But there has to be more.

Nothing evil was lost,
Nothing good was in vain,
All ablaze with clear light,
But there has to be more.

Life has gathered me up
Safe under its wing.
My luck always held,
But there has to be more.

Not a leaf was burned up,
Not a twig ever snapped.
Clean as glass is the day,
But there has to be more.

© Kaija Saariaho
Poem translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair