Congress of Passions, A - Cantata on poetry by Sappho


by David Matthews

medium voice, oboe and strings (44321)
Mezzo-soprano, Solo Instruments with Orchestra, Solo Voices with Orchestra
strings (44321)

Commissioned by St Mary's in the Castle

First Performance
23.5.01, Bury St Edmunds Festival, Bury St Edmunds, UK: Michael Chance/Nicholas Daniel/Britten Sinfonia/Nicholas Cleobury

Score and parts for hire

Programme Notes

A Congress of Passions, op. 62 Cantata on poetry by Sappho My title comes form Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime, the only source for one of the few almost complete poems by Sappho – the central poem of this cantata. Longinus comments that it displays “not one passion, but a congress of passions”. The most celebrated of all women poets, Sappho flourished around 600 B.C. in the Aegean island of Lesbos. Her work survives only in fragments quoted by other writers, but he language of these fragments has an intensity rarely equalled by any poet. I first discovered Sappho when I learned Greek at school, and set one of her fragments to music when I was 19 (the one that begins the third section in this cantata): it went onto a bonfire of early compositions and I have no clear recollection of it. I have long wanted to set more of her poetry, in Greek rather than in translation. In assembling a text, I grouped together one set of fragments about love with another about evening and night, and placed them on either side of the famous love poem (which is incidentally addressed to a woman) quoted by Longinus. We do no know much about what kind of music the ancient Greeks made, but one of their most frequently used instruments was the aulos, which was a reed instrument, an early oboe. I was, therefore, glad to be able to use an oboe in my piece. There are two references to Cretan folk music: the melody of the opening invocation to Aphordite is a Cretan folksong which I have used more or less intact, while the oboe music in the central section of the piece is based on some music for the Cretan bagpipe, the askomandboura. A Congress of Passions was originally written in 1994 for voice, oboe and piano to a commission from Michael Chance, Nicholas Daniel and Julius Drake. This new version for oboe and string orchestra was commissioned by St Mary’s in the Castle, Hastings and made in January-February 2000.

© David Matthews

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