Musical Analysis of “Non par Notre Seigneur” from Saariaho’s L’amour de Loin

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Bass-baritone Eric Owens and soprano Susanna Phillips portray Jaufré and Clémence in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2016 production. (Image courtesy of PBS — pbs.org)

Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de Loin (“Love from Afar”) tells the tale of the romance between Jaufré Rudel, a French prince and troubadour, and Clémence, the Countess of Tripoli. Their love occurs “from afar” because Jaufré insists that he’s fallen for Clémence merely after hearing of her existence through a traveling pilgrim, who becomes the messenger between the two. When the pilgrim tells Clémence of Jaufré’s affections and how he has written songs about her, she initially feels affronted. It seems that she later feels flattered, however, but does not wish to get too close to Jaufré for fear that a long-distance relationship would be far too painful. In the aria “Non par Notre Seigneur” (Act III, scene 2), Clémence expresses this desire to maintain distance from Jaufré, despite her seemingly warm impression of him. This piece is particularly interesting because while the text expresses a sense of resolve, the music seems to betray Clémence’s suppressed desire to find out what it would feel like to become close Jaufré – despite knowing that it would only end in heartache. Ultimately, the juxtaposition of these two elements (resolve vs. uncertainty) reveals Clémence’s denial of her true emotions in an effort towards self-preservation.

The aria is comprised of three sections, distinguished by marked changes in the orchestral accompaniment and the shift between two different tonal centers. I have labeled these sections A, B, and C. Though the score I consulted provides only a piano reduction of the orchestra, the recorded performance I chose to listen to utilizes harp and other standard strings, triangle, xylophone, woodwinds, and a few brass instruments (although the brass are not prominent).

 

 

The text is as follows:

 

Section A:

Non, par Notre Seigneur je ne souffre pas. (No, by Our Lord I do not suffer.)

Peutetre qu’un jour je sourffrirai mais par la grace de Dieu. (Maybe one day I will smile but by God’s grace.)

Non, je ne sourffre pas encore. (No, I’m not smiling yet.)

Ses chansons sont plus que des caresses,  (His songs are more than hugs,)

et je ne sais si j’aimerais sa voix (and I do not know if I’d like his voice)

autant que j’aime sa musique. (as much as I love his music.)

Non, par Nore Seigneur je ne souffre pas.  (No, by Our Lord I do not suffer.)

Sans doute je souffrirai si j’attendais cet homme (No doubt I will suffer if I wait for this man)

et qu’il ne venait pas, mais je ne  l’attends pas. (and he did not come, but I don’t wait for him)

Section B:

Da savoir que làbas, au pays un homme pense à moi, (To know that there, in the country a man thinks of me).

je me sense soudain proche des terres de mon enfance (I suddenly feel close to the lands of my childhood)

Je suis l’outremer du poete, (I am overseas from the poet,)

et le poete est mon outremer. (and the poet is mine across the sea.)

Section C:

Entre nos deux rives voyagent les mots tendres, (Between our two banks travel tender words)

entre nos deux vies voyage une musique (Between our two lives travel a music)

Non, par Notre Seigneur je ne souffre pas. (No, by Our Lord I do not suffer.)

Non, par Notre Seigneur je ne l’attends pas. (No, by our Lord I do not wait for him.)

Je ne l’attends pas. (I do not wait for him.)

 

Each reiteration of the motif on the text “Non, par Notre Seigneur je ne souffre pas” finds the words “Notre Seigneur” notated as spoken rather than sung, at a pitch somewhere around E4. The significance of these words (and these words alone) being set to speech is difficult to identify. It does not make sense as text-painting, however, it could make sense as declamation. It is possible that Clémence lowers her pitch while invoking her god to intensify her insistence that not meeting Jaufré causes no suffering. The phrase “Non, par Notre Seigneur je ne souffre pas” as a whole is bookended (i.e., preceded and followed by) a crunchy ascent towards a sustained B flat augmented seventh chord with a raised seventh (B flat, D, F#, A), and the added note C#. In the second reiteration, the note G is added as well, to mirror the initial note on the word “Non.” While the intervals of this ascent and culmination are consistent, the rhythm is not. Any resemblance of repetition that Saariaho employs is never congruent – some element is always altered slightly while the rest remain incredibly similar. This principle is employed throughout the entire aria, particularly in the orchestra’s patterns. Even the melodic motif on the aforementioned text is changed by a single note in section B to D5, from its original G5. There is also no shortage of tempo, dynamic, or interpretive markings, all of which change frequently, creating a wondrous amount of contrast.Aside from three presentations of the piece’s only motif (assigned to the italicized text “Non, par Notre Seigneur, je ne souffre pas”), the aria is through-composed and shifts between three different meters (3/4, 2/4, and 3/8). Section B is entirely in 2/4, while sections A and C move between 3/4 and 2/4 frequently with 3/8 interrupting only occasionally as one isolated measure before moving swiftly back to either of the other two meters. The accompaniment patterns change about as frequently as the meter, or perhaps because of it, but each section’s accompaniment maintains a common thread running through it. Between iterations of the main theme, these threads are slowly disrupted by the introduction of new figures that are slowly added as the previous figures decrease, each time resulting in a gradual transition to the new section. Section A is characterized by the prevalence of tied chords and expresses B minor as its tonal center; section B is made up of mostly sixteenth-note figures that repetitively weave around similar intervals, expressing D minor as its tonal center; and section C is made up of mostly eighth notes and triplets, culminating in tied chords which harken back to the sonic landscape of section A, bringing the piece full-circle. B minor is once again the tonal center throughout section C.

Harmonically, there is some consistency. The orchestra is rife with open fifths and octaves, particularly in the first section. Also prevalent are tertian chords with added notes, some of which are inverted. The tonal center’s movement from B minor to D minor and back to B minor again only loosely mirrors the structure of a da capo aria; the marked difference in the orchestral accompaniment prevents sections A and C from sounding alike apart from a shared tonal center. We also see a consistent rhythmic ostinato throughout section C, from mm. 641-652, before the final reiteration of the aria’s theme. This ostinato is an eighth-note pulse on E5, and is heard prominently as it is sits above all other pitches in the orchestra. Such consistency was hard to come by in the previous two sections, which could hint towards a true feeling of resolve in Clémence. Ultimately, whatever semblance of patterns or consistency Saariaho employs is swiftly disrupted by other intruding elements, signaling an unease in Clémence that does not allow us to fully believe that she is being honest with herself.

— SUSAN SMITH

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