“Echo de Femme”
This composition derives inspiration from the original form of the Sapphic fragments: lyric poetry. The music of old is lost to us now, but I seek to recreate the past with a notably modern interpretation.
This idea is not a new one. Classicists have been tempted to put the music behind the poetry for years. In fact, while researching for this project, I came across a fascinating article in the New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/hearing-sappho) detailing one researcher’s work in constructing a replica of an original Sapphic performance. In doing so, he assigned musical value based on the fact that Ancient Greek, much like modern Mandarin Chinese, is a pitched language. Each syllable has a specific tone associated with it, revealing something marvelous about what we have left today: Sappho’s music is still here—just read the original Greek aloud. This was one of the various influences on my piece, and the Greek text within the piece is fitted to a musical figure approximating its original tones.
While it is true that these lyric poems were performed with a lyre, the same cannot be said for their private readings, which classicists say occurred often. One can imagine that a citizen in that period hummed or whistled the tune of one of these fragments while completing daily errands. The main inspiration for the piece comes from this idea- that, like a folk song, these fragments were well known and well loved. The fragmentation lends itself well to such an interpretation: when you whistle a song, you only whistle the catchy part. Sappho’s fragments are catchy, and have been for millennia.
Deriving from the above, the piece is acapella. My piece reflects not how it was meant to be performed, but how it was likely most performed. Beginning in soprano solo and continuing into larger chorus, it reflects a more modern, humanistic interpretation of early Sapphic performance—karaoke for the Ancient Greeks, to phrase it concisely.
The piece is titled “Echo de femme.” I used the singular French “femme,” which translates to a singular woman, in what seems like a contradiction to the choral setting of the poetry. The reason for this lies in Sappho herself. She is a resounding echo into the present of the meaning of femininity, and this piece was created in that likeness. The singular “femme” is meant to capture the collective idea of femininity and provide a sense of unity.
The text of this piece comes from two of Sappho’s fragments: #30 and #34. #30 reads, “I think men will remember us even hereafter.” #34 reads, “I don’t know what to do; two states of mind in me.” These short fragments alone reflect much of Sappho’s intent as both a self-aware female writer and lamenting lover.
The piece is almost entirely in transliterated Ancient Greek. The text in this large section of the piece is entirely from fragment #30. Only at the conclusion does #34 appear, and it does so in English, following the idea that Sappho’s voice has echoed across time.
Lastly, while the decision to write this piece for women’s choir may not seem to merit elaboration, I shall provide some regardless. Obviously, using the voice of women to speak on behalf of Sappho, a very prominent woman, is fitting. From a musical standpoint, though, it is even more empowering. The idea that an alto voice can fill out a choir’s sound just as a bass voice can is continually empowering to female singers everywhere, and women’s choirs, an increasingly popular ensemble for composers, bear this weight fantastically.
My hope is to reinvigorate the fragments with their tunes, and to give them the vitality that only their original lyric form can bring.
About the Scholar: Arya Rao
Arya Rao (CC ’22) hails from Big Rapids, Michigan, and is pursuing a major in Biochemistry as well as a concentration in Computer Science. She is a lifelong musician, and has studied classical saxophone, voice, composition, and conducting at Columbia and elsewhere. This Reflection is a combination of her academic and musical experience, and she hopes to continue making such connections in the future.