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Kaija Saariaho

Publisher: Chester Music

Laterna Magica (2008)
This work has been commissioned by Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker and Lucerne Festival. The world premiere was given at the Berliner Philharmonie by the Berliner Philharmoniker on August 28 2009. The second performance was given by the Berliner Philharmoniker at Lucerne Festival on September 2 2009
Chester Music Ltd
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
20 Minutes
Programme Note
Kaija Saariaho Laterna Magica (2008)
Laterna Magica (The Magic Lantern) alludes to the autobiography of the same name by film director Ingmar Bergman. The book caught my eye after many years whilst I was tidying my bookcases in autumn 2007.

In time, as I read the book, the variation of musical motifs at different tempos emerged as one of the basic ideas behind the orchestral piece on which I was beginning to work. Symbolising this was the Laterna Magica, the first machine to create the illusion of a moving image: as the handle turns faster and faster, the individual images disappear and instead the eye sees continuous movement.

Musically speaking, different tempos underline different parameters: the rhythmic continuity is accentuated at relatively fast tempos, whereas delicate shades require more time and space for the ear to interpret and appreciate them.

While I was working with tempos, rhythms with different characters became a major part of the piece’s identity: a fiery dance-rhythm inspired by flamenco, a shifting, asymmetrical rhythm provided by speech and an accelerating ostinato that ultimately loses its rhythmic character and becomes a texture.
In contrast to this, there emerged music without a clear rhythm or pulse. This material is dominated by strongly-sensed colourful planes and airy textures, such as the unified colour of six horns, which divides the orchestral phrases. This use of horns points to Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers, in which the scenes are often changing through sequences of plain red colour.

When reading the autobiography I was also touched by the way Bergman described the different lights which his favourite photographer, Sven Nykvist, was able to capture with his camera. Part of the text found its way into the piece in German – for the work was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic. The extract, in English, goes as follows:

Gentle, dangerous, dream-like, lively, dead, clear, hazy, hot, strong, naked, sudden, dark, spring-like, penetrating, pressing, direct, oblique, sensuous, overpowering, restricting, poisonous, pacifying, bright light. Light.

Paris, 22 March 2010
Kaija Saariaho

Preview the score

  • Soloist(s)
    Kari Kriikku (clarinet), Anu Komsi (soprano)
  • Ondine:
  • 12 MAR 2020
    Barbican Centre, London
    Gil Shaham, violin; Susanna Mälkki, conductor
  • 23 APR 2020
    Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, TX
    Dallas Symphony Orchestra
    Karina Canellakis, conductor

    Other Dates:
    24-26 April - Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, TX

From breathlessness to exaggerated breathiness, Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna Magica requires the wind players to blow noisily into their instruments. The work superimposes motifs played at different tempi, an idea inspired by the cinematic techniques of Ingmar Bergman. There’s also something of Bergman’s existential angst, though Saariaho’s exotic scoring ensures that the ear is constantly bewitched in this highly impressive piece.
Barry Millington, London Evening Standard,18/07/2012
Saariaho rings changes on ideas of stasis and speed in a score that deploys constantly shifting tempi and rhythms beneath orchestral sonorities of considerable refinement. Fragments of Bergman's text, whispered by the players, are added to the textures. Pervasive horn chords, meanwhile, refer specifically to the unforgettable seepage of red through Cries and Whispers...
Tim Ashley,,18/07/2012
Away from the composer's stated extra-musical stimuli, the 'innocent ear' might hear Laterna magica as an exploration of the unknown, some players required to speak into and breathe through their instruments to add human vapour. Tempos and rhythms abound in this fastidiously composed music, subtle, shifting and, appropriately, light-projecting. Parallels with Lutoslawski are apparent, so too with Birtwistle, particularly regarding perspective and tumult - not as volcanic as his Earth Dances but Saariaho may well have composed her own 'secret theatre'.
Colin Anderson,,17/07/2012
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