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Kaija Saariaho

Publisher: Chester Music

Oltra mar (1999)
commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Text Writer
Amin Maalouf; Abou Said
Chester Music Ltd
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
22 Minutes
Programme Note
Kaija Saariaho Oltra mar (1999)
Oltra Mar, which means “across the sea” in the ancient French language, is written for large orchestra and mixed choir. The work differs from my other large orchestral pieces (such as Du cristal…, my violin concerto Graal Théâtre, or my orchestral song cycle Chateau de l’ Âme) in its sectional structure, being divided onto seven clearly separate parts.

Parts 1, 3, 5, and 7 are about travelling and about the sea, the origin of life. In these parts the choir sings without words as a part of the orchestral texture. These sea sections take us from one time / place / musical texture to another. Parts 2, 4, and 6 are called (in French) Love, Time, and Death. The themes of love and death are connected to my forthcoming opera L’amour de loin, as is the idea of sea, and crossing the sea.

The three texts chosen for this work come from different times and places. The text I chose to represent love is written by an Arab poet, Abou Saîd, from the beginning of the second millennium. The text for death is an excerpt from a traditional death song of the African pygmies. Finally, the text about time is a sentence from a novel called Samarcande, written by the contemporary French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, who also wrote the libretto for L’amour de loin, the opera I am composing at the moment.

The section on death is dedicated to the French composer Gérard Grisey, who suddenly died last November when I was working on this piece.

After having found the texts that suited my musical ideas, I rather freely wrote down the music, guided by my thoughts and experiences around these themes. The three texts are very different in their expression, but have one thing in common: they all speak in their way about the sky and the planets, as well as human feelings and ideas.
© Kaija Saariaho 1999

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Tapiola Chamber Choir
    Pia Freund (Soprano), Gabriel Suovanen (Baritone)
    Jukka-Pekka Saraste
  • Ensemble
    Los Angeles Philharmonic
    Anu Komsi (soprano), Riikka Rantanen (contralto), Petri Alanko (alto flute), Anssi Karttunen (cello), Petteri Salomaa (baritone), John Storgards (violin), Pia Freund (soprano), Gabriel Suovanen (baritone), Karita Mattila (soprano)
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
'…Saariaho's Oltra Mar for chorus and orchestra was receiving its first British performance: with its fixation on love, death and crossing the sea, it relates not just to Wagner's Tristan but ti Saariaho's own opera L'amour de loin and is equally heady. The slowly intoned words and wordless choruses came across with dark foreboding.'
John Allison, The Times,15/06/2004
'…an essay in sea-inspired sensuality…'
Tom Service, Guardian,15/06/2004
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