Different Musical Approaches to a Similar Message


Kaija Saariaho is a prolific Finnish composer of 21st century music and has made a huge impact with her works. Saariaho’s first opera, L’Amour de loin, premiered at the Salzburg Festival on August 15th, 2000. The plot can easily be understood by the translation of the title, L’Amour de loin, meaning “love from afar.” This opera is based on the 12th century troubadour, Jaufre Rudel, and his love for an unknown woman far away. The opera ends in tragedy when the two lovers finally meet, as Jaufre dies in the arms of his lover, Clemence, who sings the final aria, “Si tu t’appelles amours.” This ending reminded me of a famous opera in the 19th century containing a somewhat similar ending. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, also a love story based in 12th century, ends with the death of Tristan in the arms of his lover, Isolde, who sings Liebestod, the final aria of the opera. With this connection, I started to ask myself: how different are these arias? 

The obvious difference between the two arias is tonality. Wagner’s Liebestod is consonant in the key of B Major, with chromaticism, containing diatonic harmonies, and a theme or leitmotif that is heard throughout the aria in both the solo voice line and the orchestra. In Saariaho’s Si tu t’appelles amours, there is not established key or tonality, and there is no leitmotif or theme that is passed around. The solo line and orchestra act as two separate entities rather than an accompaniment and interaction to and with the solo line. Although the musical settings are very different between the two arias, the plot and message are the same, and this can be heard through the lyrics. Both lyrics are about how much the women loved and adored their men and even though the composers approach to this message was different, they have the same meaning: love. 

L’Amour de loin and Tristan und Isolde call for similar instrumentation but use the instruments very differently to create a certain timbre and texture.  The timbre in “Si tu t’appelles amours” is very subtle and creates an essence of stillness, as if time has stopped for Clemence. This can be heard with the long duration of notes and the soft dynamics from the orchestra. The dynamics throughout the aria are triple piano (ppp) with occasional swells to a mezzo piano (mp.) The rhythms are nothing but long notes, no note being shorter than a dotted half note while the solo soprano line contains the moving line such as: quarter note triplets, eighths, and sixteenths. The texture is very thin and light, allowing the solo vocal line to float right on top of the orchestra. Leibestod has a timbre that is more present and in stronger support of the vocal line. The orchestra contains moving rhythms and passes around the melodic material that the solo voice has to various instruments. The texture is thick with full orchestra and dynamics being anywhere from a piano to a forte, which is very different from Saariaho’s aria.

Back to the question of how different these two operas are, the answer is obvious in terms of music. Musically, these arias are very different in terms of tonality, texture, timbre and rhythm, but when looking at the overall message and meaning, these arias do not differ at all. They are both about tragedy in losing the one they loved, in their own arms. The musical means at which the message was established by the composers is very different, but in the end, the message of “tragic love” is the same and the overall meaning of the arias. 

Caitlyn Collette


Howell, Tim, Jon Hargreaves, Michael Rofe, Eds. Kaija Saariaho: Visions, Narratives, Dialogues. Surrey: Ashgate, 2011.

Martin Anderson. “London, Barbican: Saariaho’s ‘L’amour De Loin’.” Tempo 57, no. 224 (2003): 42-43. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/3878578.

Prickett, Amy Lynn. “ Kaija Saariaho’s Path to the Met: The Merger of Convential and Unconvential Musical Devices in L’Amour de loin PhD diss.” The University of Alabama. 2017.  https://ir.ua.edu/bitstream/handle/123456789/3393/file_1.pdf?sequence=1


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