Congress of Passions, A


by David Matthews

medium voice, oboe and strings (43221)
Mezzo-soprano, Solo Instruments with Orchestra, Solo Voices with Orchestra
strings (43221)
First Performance
15.11.03, St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London, UK: Ruth Peel/Ruth Bolister/Orchestra Nova/George Vass

Score and parts for hire

Programme Notes
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 the 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: hence ‘lesbian’) quoted by Longinus. We do not 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 commissioned by Michael Chance, Nicholas Daniel and Julius Drake with funds provided by South East Arts, and first performed by them at Cranbrook School, Kent, on 9 March 1994. David Matthews

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News & Reviews

'A Congress of Passions' review

'The piece is impressive, strong in its brevity and aphoristic tension. Lush strings – the Britten Sinfonia sound is very opulent – and ricocheting oboe phrases encapsulate the “bitter sweetness” of desire. The “fire that races benath the skin” cues a twitchy, obsessive blue. The cantata ends with a famous meditation on the setting moon and Pleiades. The strings unfold a sequence of shivery Bergian chords, and voice and oboe briefly entwine before the singer is left in solitude. Throughout, Read more

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