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Kaija Saariaho, Mater

by Susan McClary

“With the opening sonority of each of her works, Kaija establishes a vibration that resonates deep inside the listener’s body along with a spectrum of overtones that grow out of that original sonority but that also foreshadow the complex contradictions that compel us to identify with and follow the web she weaves”, writes Susan McClary in her essay about Kaija Saariaho’s work.

This collection celebrates the extraordinary accomplishments of Kaija Saariaho, whom most of us regard as the greatest living composer – not the greatest woman composer, though she certainly is this, but the greatest, period. Over the course of the past fifty years, Kaija has created masterpiece after masterpiece, winning most of the international awards available to musicians and securing a permanent place in the programming of symphony orchestras, chamber groups and opera houses. And she has done so without surrendering a bit of her artistic integrity to a populist strain of postmodernism. Even as her stringent musical language challenges listeners still anchored in older idioms, she has proved able to engage and electrify them.

In contrast to many of her Modernist colleagues who write to explore abstract schemata, Kaija composes to communicate. With the opening sonority of each of her works, Kaija establishes a vibration that resonates deep inside the listener’s body along with a spectrum of overtones that grow out of that original sonority but that also foreshadow the complex contradictions that compel us to identify with and follow the web she weaves. I am quite sure that I do not breathe between the beginnings and conclusions of her compositions, and I continue to live inside those sonorities long after I have left the performance space. 

Although audiences may respond first to the astonishing sensual beauty of her music, they soon sense the psychological and ethical urgency of her work. In this essay, I want to focus on Kaija’s vocal repertory and, in particular, her unprecedented focus on motherhood. Mothers rarely appear as major characters in the history of opera or, for that matter, in mainstream cinema. Given that all humans come into being only by means of this process, pregnancy, labour and childbirth are literally universal experiences. Yet these experiences are mostly regarded as unworthy of artistic attention, especially compared with the romanticised sex act leading up to impregnation: the centre of virtually all our conventional plots. As the United States grapples to respond to the recent ban on abortion – even in cases of rape or incest, even to save the life of the mother – we have discovered the ignorance and callousness of many of our lawmakers. Some of them are already bringing murder charges to women who miscarry, estimated to occur in as many as one in four pregnancies. Pregnancy has become a life-or-death proposition. 

Like many other female artists, Kaija long resisted identifying as a “woman composer”. But her perspective changed radically when she became pregnant and gave birth to her first child, Aleksi Barrière, in 1989. Rather than regretting this transformation, she saw it as an opportunity. In her words: “As a mother, I have access to many things that men could never experience. Before having children, I really was up in the air most of the time. The earthly aspect became more present with children. Has my music changed with motherhood? Of course.”

In choosing to identify herself in her music as a woman and a mother, Kaija risked a great deal. She reports that “I really felt some people’s suspicions when I had my first child, suspicions like: this is the end of her serious music, she’ll become too sentimental”. And some of her subsequent works received contemptuous reviews from critics who specifically ridiculed her decision to foreground such issues. When I give talks about these pieces, I still have to field objections from female composers and musicologists who argue that women should stick to the gender-free abstractions developed by their male colleagues; they actually express fear in the face of Kaija’s breaking of long-established taboos. It is not only abortion, in other words, that provokes controversy but also the alternative – namely childbearing.

Innocence lkka Saastamoinen

Saariaho's most recent opera, Innocence, features three principal women: Tereza, Patricia and Stela. Photo: lkka Saastamoinen

Sentimentality, femininity and masculinity

Let’s return to the word “sentimental”, which Kaija used to describe how women composers are expected to sound. European music theory has long made use of gendered binary oppositions: a masculine theme stakes out the turf for standard symphonies while a sweet lyric theme allows for some relief before being assimilated to the key of the first theme in the recapitulation, exactly the way a wife is expected to take on the name of her husband; masculine cadences are the ones that absorb all the energy leading up to that point while feminine ones deflect modestly; men act as the agents in operas, while female characters mostly get acted upon (or else pay the consequences). And given those associations, what artist of any integrity would want to identify with those weaker positions? 

Keep in mind that women novelists, poets and visual artists usually understand their experiences as women as central to their artistic agendas. Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison wrote from her experiences as a Black woman; Frida Kahlo drew on her life as a disabled Mexican woman for her representations. When she was young, Kaija immersed herself in literature by women. She writes: 

In the beginning of my compositional studies, I tried in vain to find a model in the world of music; female composers were few and far between. No doubt this is why I was interested in the lives of female writers, and took pleasure in reading their diaries, letters and biographies, in addition to their works. Besides Virginia Woolf, the two figures who meant the most to me were Sylvia Plath and Anaïs Nin [because] of their urge to combine – at least that’s what it seemed to me – a “woman’s life”, meaning their roles as mother, and their artistic careers…. I was searching for a way of life, I was reading these diaries as survival manuals. 

If the equivalent of Woolf or Plath did not exist in music then, they do now, thanks in large part to Kaija’s own brave imagination. So when I discuss Kaija as “woman composer”, it is because she has given voice to so many dilemmas particular to women.

Her most recent opera, Innocence, features three principal women: Tereza, whose child was murdered in a school shooting; Patricia, the mother of the shooter; and Stela, the unsuspecting bride whose potential for reproduction hangs in the balance. Ten years after the violent incident, both mothers still suffer the repercussions – guilt and immeasurable loss – of that act as they find themselves face to face at a wedding celebration. Stela will learn over the course of the opera how her choice of husband risks perpetrating a toxic gene pool. Of course, many other survivors in the opera also give voice to trauma, including the multilingual students who testify to their inability to lead normal lives, as well as their teacher and a priest, who castigate themselves for failing to protect their charges. I happened to be on a panel discussion with Kaija in November 2015 when she learned of the terrorist attack on the Bataclan Concert Hall and feared that her son might have been a victim; I have watched her as she suffered for several hours waiting to hear of Aleksi’s fate.

The subject matter of Innocence seems ripped from the front page of yesterday’s headlines with ever more frequent school shootings. But Kaija has been grappling with the joys and dangers of motherhood since she first decided to compose texted music. Her 1996 song-cycle Château de l’âme, for instance, includes along with love songs a ritual chant from Ancient Egypt dealing with the healing of children. Yet it is in her two operas Adriana Mater and Émilie that she confronts these issues most powerfully.  

Adriana Mater c Tuuli Heikki

Saariaho and her librettist Amin Maalouf developed the plot of Adriana Mater when she mentioned that she could feel two hearts beating inside her when she was pregnant. Photo by Tuuli Heikki

Women’s fates on the stage

Kaija and her magnificent librettist Amin Maalouf developed the plot of Adriana Mater when she mentioned that she could feel two hearts beating inside her when she was pregnant. The protagonist, Adriana, has been raped during wartime, bringing to mind the women of Ukraine who now suffer such assaults on a daily basis. In the crucial middle act of the opera, Adriana’s sister tries to persuade her to terminate the pregnancy that resulted from the rape. But Adriana, echoing Kaija’s imagery, replies that she feels that second heart; even while fearing that the child might inherit the violent tendencies of his father (also Stela’s dilemma in Innocence), she chooses to carry it to term. 

But this decision does not qualify as an unambiguous triumph for the anti-abortion crowd. The remainder of the opera traces the ways in which both Adriana and her son, Yonas, must handle the consequences in their lives that bear the mark of Cain. The shame of his conception leads Adriana and her sister to lie to Yonas about his origins. When he learns of it outside the home, he seeks to murder his father as revenge. He stops at the last minute before shooting, allowing Adriana to claim that he is after all her child rather than his father’s. 

Yet despite this rather bittersweet reconciliation at the end, the opera traces the terrible consequences of this pregnancy on the lives of everyone involved. It follows that initial foetal heartbeat to its unending aftermath. Kaija and Maalouf do not offer easy solutions or celebrate childbirth as an unambiguous good. Adriana never regrets her choice, but she has nonetheless lived in anguished uncertainty ever since. 

The stakes are even higher in Kaija’s monodrama of 2011, ÉmilieÉmilie, Marquise du Châtelet, died in childbirth in 1749 at age 42, just as she was completing her translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia – long the standard version of this crucial study in France. An accomplished physicist, astronomer, mathematician, musician and writer, she was an intimate friend of Voltaire and a strong influence on the encyclopédistes. Scientists who have recently assessed her pioneering work find that she anticipated aspects of Einstein’s Relativity and the game theory that makes possible much of our digitised culture. 

As Émilie approaches the due date for both her translation and her child, she has a strong presentiment that she will not survive labour. The monodrama traces her warring emotions during her final week: her memories, scientific speculations, fears, hopes and desires. But this towering intellectual knows – just as surely as any criminal on death row – that her days are numbered, that she is now in countdown. 

“Sentimental” is scarcely the adjective that comes to mind with the horrifying subject matter and often brutal sonorities Kaija produces in Adriana Mater or Émilie. Our laws concerning pregnancy are so harsh in part because we fail to acknowledge the very personhood of women. In the history of opera, women may express emotions, but they still mostly conform to patriarchal concepts of what women should be like; the gender-specific existential struggles they often endure find no place on the stage. 

Of course, Kaija also composes for male characters, most memorably in her portrait of Jaufré Rudel in L’amour de loin and the ghostly encounters in Only the Sound Remains. But regardless of her subject matter, her musical language dives deep inside her subjects, inviting listeners to share the contradictory strands of lived experience. Music has an unmatched capacity to instil empathy, to immerse us as if without mediation in the feelings of someone entirely different. The other arts share that ability, but music’s rhythmic embodiment, its infinite shades of sounds, its dynamic trajectories bypass the eye and the page to register directly on the hearer’s interiority. 

No one does this more effectively than Kaija Saariaho, whose decision to allow her experiences of motherhood to permeate much of her work will inspire audiences and composers for generations to come. Hers is precisely the voice we need to hear in our troubled time. Yet even when she engages with social issues, it is always her music – her ability to draw the listener into her deep resonances and dense contrapuntal webs, the unparalleled range of colours and fragrances she creates, the sheer sonorous beauty of her works – that finally matters. 


Quotations of Kaija Saariaho’s writings: “My Library, from Words to Music” (1987), trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman, Music and Literature No. 5 (2014).

Featured photo: Stefan Bremer