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Composed: 2006
Length: c. 75 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo and alto flute), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, crotales, glass chimes, glockenspiel, marimba, metal plate, shell, sleigh bells, snare drum, stone plate, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, vibraphone, and wood block), harp, celesta, strings, electronics with speaking voice, soprano solo, and chorus
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (West Coast premiere)

The perception of time and space expressed in Kaija Saariaho’s musical universe is unique. Anchoring this is a novel mastery of aural texture, weight, resonance – what is so often inadequately labeled “color,” as if it were mere decoration. These dimensions hover and shift about the listener like a mobile sculpture. Saariaho meticulously perfected her style through years of experimental work at the modernist IRCAM Institute for musical research in Paris (the Finnish-born composer’s adopted home since the early 1980s). In her hands, sounds and their contexts acquire uncanny tangibility even as they evoke a mirage-like aura.

At the same time, Saariaho’s music theater works of the past decade have touched on some surprisingly traditional elements. The medieval milieu of her debut opera, L’Amour de loin (Distant Love), introduced at the 2000 Salzburg Festival, highlights the theme of a longing that cannot be fulfilled; it contains inevitable echoes of Tristan und Isolde and Pelléas et Mélisande. A timeless parable set amid the ruins of war, Adriana Mater, followed in 2006. Its radical, compassionate perspective on that most operatic of topics – the desire for revenge – dramatizes the power of maternal love to thwart the cycle of violence.

And La Passion de Simone – a co-commission by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, premiered November 26, 2006 at the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna – suggests a loose analogy with the Baroque tradition of the oratorio passion that depicts the suffering and death of Jesus (the best-known example being Bach’s “St. Matthew” Passion). The juxtaposition of Saariaho’s utterly distinctive voice with these familiar though shadowy references to tradition is hauntingly provocative. Rather than a know-it-all irony, it generates a tone of exquisite but arduous, sustained mindfulness.

All three projects are the result of Saariaho’s collaborations with director Peter Sellars and librettist Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese-born writer who, like the composer, has made Paris his home for the past several decades. Although these co-creators bring their highly individual perspectives to the table, they have proved remarkably complementary and self-reinforcing. The three works themselves share an obsession with types of love that seem counterintuitive and extreme, out of bounds in our zero-sum world of private gain and action-reaction. As a recent historical figure who quickly became enshrouded in a dense tangle of mythology and contradictory interpretations, the philosopher-mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943) is perhaps the most challenging of these musico-dramatic representations.

Weil’s life and thought are hardly the likeliest of topics to inspire a musical setting. A precociously gifted child born into a secular French-Jewish family, Weil presents an overload of contradictions. Her commitment to social justice began at an extremely young age and led her to embrace Marxism and pacifism, yet she was ahead of most Western intellectuals in denouncing Stalin’s atrocities, and she volunteered in the Spanish Civil War.

She was tormented by self-consciousness of her body and her susceptibility to illness: One colleague described her as “a kind of bodiless bird, withdrawn inside itself.” While visiting a church in Assisi associated with St. Francis, Weil had a powerful mystical experience that drew her to Catholicism, yet her probing spiritual quest embraced what were considered heretical views and prevented her from being baptized.

Weil saw herself as “a Christian outside the Church.” She was profoundly influenced by her love for the pagan classical world as well as the insight of the Bhagavad Gita and Tibetan Buddhism, but her ecumenism didn’t preclude a bizarrely anti-Semitic streak – even when she and her family were victims of anti-Semitism, barely escaping France during the Nazi occupation. Her writings (almost all of them compiled and published posthumously) convey Weil’s visionary philosophical and theological thought, but in her mystical period she never abandoned the political-social engagement that fueled a recklessly self-effacing, even masochistic asceticism.

Overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness during the height of the war – and stymied in her attempts to rejoin the French resistance – Weil allowed herself to starve to death as an act of solidarity with the victims of Hitler’s regime. (In her biography of Weil, Francine du Plessix Gray argues that Weil’s strict self-denial may have been exacerbated by a form of anorexia so intense it even tinged her spiritual outlook.)

In an era when pop psychology’s first ethical commandment is to love yourself before you can love the world, a figure like Simone Weil is not merely unsettling but downright perverse. Her suicide in particular tends to generate reactions of angry frustration as a useless act of narcissism. As one of her most significant spiritual instructors observed – in Weil-like terms – “She was not detached from her own detachment.”

Yet after the war her reputation spread among such admiring existentialists as Albert Camus. In 1963 Susan Sontag suggested Weil’s resemblance to a saint (“in an aesthetic rather than a religious sense”) because her life, “absurd in its exaggerations and degree of self-mutilation,” can “nourish” us: “In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world – and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies.”

La Passion de Simone takes as its starting point the perspective of bafflement and perplexity regarding its subject. The title of course boldly references the Christian Passion; Saariaho further emphasizes the allusion with her structural division of the oratorio into 15 individual movements that she labels “stations” (the Stations of the Cross are a devotional series of prayers tracing distinct episodes of the Passion story).

But instead of a straightforward narrative of Weil’s journey, with its central events presented as inspiring examples for believers, the Passion filters these through the point of view of an imaginary, unnamed sister (Weil’s only actual sibling, André Weil, was one of the towering mathematical geniuses of the last century and died only a decade ago). She is performed by the solo soprano – Dawn Upshaw, for whom Saariaho specifically composed this central role in the Passion – and, like us, needs to understand.

The singer addresses Simone as both her older and younger sister. She dialogues with her memory, alternately accusing and trying to come to terms with her: Passion blends with requiem. In the process, the soloist voices Simone’s own philosophy but calls to attention its high personal cost. The chorus echoes both the sister’s laments and her evocations of Simone. Meanwhile, an actress’ speaking voice – part of the score’s subtly blended electronic layer – periodically recites koan-like aphorisms from Weil’s characteristically trenchant, paradoxical writings. The effect is to present Weil from without and within.

About halfway through – in the Eighth Station, which is mostly orchestral – the singer momentarily assumes Weil’s identity, singing the same text as the speaker (“God withdraws from the world so as not to be loved the way a miser loves a treasure”). Here Saariaho’s orchestral sheen seems to conjure a distant, unfamiliar universe, as if lit by Weil’s own subjectivity. The traditional Passion points to an ultimate purpose behind the suffering, which is redemption, as symbolized by the resurrection. For Weil, the suffering itself becomes focal.

Maalouf – who is otherwise known for his incisive historical writings and novels – shapes the libretto with an oracular elegance that resonates powerfully within Saariaho’s soundscape. The basic trajectory of Weil’s life structures the stations: her physical awkwardness versus her dawning intellectual prowess, her stints in several factories as a manual laborer to show solidarity with the labor movement, her growing disillusionment, the effects of the war, and her decision to die. Maalouf sets up the paradoxes framing Weil’s worldview. Catchphrases that embody whole complexes of her thought – “attention,” “absence,” “affliction,” and so on – are left to float and resolve in the oceanic currents of the musical texture.

As you progress further into the Passion, you begin to understand how extraordinarily suitable Saariaho’s aesthetic is for this meditation on Weil. A fastidious discipline merges with her remarkable ear for luminous detail. Slow-motion currents of pulse feed into tremendous, violent vortices of sound, while newly imagined harmonies (with occasional echoes of Messiaen) astonish by the beauty and rightness of their dissonance. Saariaho mirrors the contradictory severity and attachment to sensuous beauty that is inherent in Weil’s outlook. Fragmentary cells of notes recur, like rubbed worry beads, only to be swallowed in a ravishing epiphany of timbre. Her registral extremes evoke the antithetical gravity and grace of which Weil wrote so passionately.

Some passages are even unexpectedly but inventively mimetic: notice in the Fifth and Sixth Stations how the chorus and orchestra mimic the hissings and percussive, machine-like sounds of the factories in which Weil briefly worked, attempting to experience firsthand the dehumanizing patterns of modern industrial labor. The crescendo ending the Sixth Station is the most terrifyingly violent moment in the score. Immediately following, in the Seventh Station, is music of deep psychological acuity, with an oboe solo capturing Weil’s irresolvable despair, which is nevertheless her consolation.

“A method to understand images, symbols, etc. Don’t try to interpret them, but rather observe them until the light bursts forth,” says Weil in one of the aphorisms intoned by the speaker. Listening to Saariaho’s music invites a similar process of illumination, which can be both sudden and gradual. La Passion de Simone expresses the hunger that was simultaneous affliction and inspiration for Weil – and that remains sharper than ever in the world she left behind.

Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater.