Kaija Saariaho: Ciel d’hiver (Winter Sky)

Written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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Kaija Saariaho belongs to a group of Finnish composers, also including Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg, who founded the Korvat auki (Ears Open) society for contemporary music in the late 1970s. Beginning in 1982, she studied at IRCAM, the hotbed of electronic music research in Paris. Her work continues to be rooted in the avant-garde, with an ethereal beauty and sense of mystery—it feels not quite human, yet still makes a connection with us.

Ciel d’hiver (Winter Sky) began as the second movement of a larger orchestral piece, Orion, from 2002. She re-orchestrated it in 2013 on commission from Musique Nouvelle en Liberté, and this version was premiered in 2014 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris by the Orchestre Lamoureux.

The opening is cold and glassy, laying down a bed of strings, harp, and percussion, on which a piccolo, a violin, and a clarinet rest. The timbre slowly shifts as other instruments take over, culminating in blocks of wind and brass. The middle section contrasts high and low masses of sound, moving between the stratosphere and the abyss. Eventually a piano pattern emerges, accompanying fragments of a solo cello’s melody. The piece captures the sweep and depth of the winter sky, its stinging cold and clarity, the slow drift and play of the constellations as they rise and set, and the immensity of it all.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.