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A Fulfilled Promise Continues: The Reemergence of Sappho as a Figure of Hope in Paul Sánchez' "ὁδοιπορία (the journey)"

Updated: Jun 27

Despite the scanty and rather mythical biographical evidence on the ancient Greek poet Sappho, today she reemerges as a realized figure of hope for humanity. The personal tone and sense of urgency in her most self-revealing lyrics – especially those describing love – give the impression of complete involvement, and it is through this poetic intimacy that we discover a personality that resonates with us today. Through a constellation of surviving papyri fragments, what emerges to us is not a voice dominated by poetic conventions of thematic unity and prosody, but rather a poetess that talks, laughs, and even insults. While most of the traditional biographical approaches towards Sappho’s life have successfully provided to us a seemingly lively picture of her cultural, social and political circle on Lesbos Island, they serve as a secondary tool for interpreting the beauty of her poetry.

Important to the modern interpretation of Sappho is to remember that she was not just a writer, but a songwriter, and it is this aspect of her craft, combined with the performative context of her poetry, that makes her a unique figure of interpretation for today’s composers. The beauty of rendering Sappho’s texts into modern musical settings lies in the idea that we are essentially translating one song into another. The sounds of ancient Greek lyric poems are innately musical, and they may foretell the way we interpret the intimate images of Sappho’s poetry. Even when we read translations, we are reminded that the immediate sounds and explicit visual references of the original create a duplex layer of composite meaning, one that will most certainly accompany and inform a textual translation of her poetry into another language. Sánchez’ Sapphic textual settings are based on translations by American poet and playwright Sherod Santos, whose lucid English translations, published in his book Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation, prove that Sappho’s poems enjoy a wide readership in America today.

The scholarly debate surrounding the performative context for Sappho’s poems offers the composer an opportunity to engage in a musical discourse that seeks to reconcile questions concerning the expression of personal passions with the public and social function of art. While Sappho has been highly regarded as one of the most important monodic poets of the ancient Greek era, many of the surviving epithalamia (wedding songs) lend themselves well to an intimate, yet shared, performance. In fact, the epithalamia poems contained in the ninth book of the Alexandrian edition suggest a communal reading that might have been performed by age-mates of the bride. Sánchez’s song cycle reveals an informed response to this performance aesthetic, as it was composed for the celebration of his own wedding and intended to be performed by himself and his beloved bride, his inspiration. The song cycle comprises six of Santos’ translations, each of which is comprised, itself, of surviving fragments of Sappho’s poetry. Sanchez’ setting of these fragments suggests that love – love of a depth and purity fit for a fairy tale, perhaps love such as that which Sappho had for her beloved Atthis – can indeed exist between two people in the modern world. Sappho, then, emerges as a figure of hope for us here, today.

Sánchez states that this cycle “traces a journey on many levels: from night to day and darkness to light; from youth and innocence to maturity; from the absence of love to love fulfilled; from marble and temples to nature, a journey transcending the security and limits of perceived social constructs to come into one’s own; from moments in the life of Sappho to moments in our own lives.” The anticipation of hope created by the textual space in the first song – “The Dance” – sets the rather solemn character of the initial journey, one that longs for images of communal gathering, collective dancing, and individual reflection. The large distance separating the second line of text from the third – after the brief textural and registral climax in measure 20 that gracefully prepares the sudden E Phrygian modal shift for the last line – foreshadows the lonely character of the speaker in the following setting, “Nocturne.” This loneliness can only be redeemed by hope, and the static A minor-centered tonality, grounded by a pedal A and combined with a subdued dynamic soundscape, suggests a lingering feeling of emptiness.

Sappho remarked that “the Evening Star was the most beautiful of all stars,” and it is in the setting of this fragment where Sánchez’s sensitive musical interpretation suggests that Hope is signaling a change in our journey. The first star to shine bright in the sky reminds us that the first of anything has a special place in the journey of human life. The first shining evening star signals that the experienced day will not return, and forces us to look at the next day and treat every new experience as if it were our first. Sánchez’s setting confirms that we cannot be the same as we were yesterday, and each new discovery becomes a moment of change. The piano in “Evening Star” provides a kind of confirming afterthought to the praising rhetoric of the text. The sudden shift to D major in the last line foreshadows the optimism of discovery contained in a new experience. In “Aphrodite’s Return,” a loose ABA’ ternary form structures the three stanzas of poetry. After a musical narrative made turbulent by the voice’s quasi-recitative character in both A sections, the adventurous harmonic twists on words containing a high level of imagery, and frequent contrasting tempos, the song settles firmly in a C major tonality at the end, leaving us with questions as to how this journey will be realized. In “Eros,” the tonally stable nature of the circular motive in the piano depicts a “headland wind,” an analogy for those emotions felt during the early and exciting phases of a new relationship, signaling that our protagonist is now ready to accept Hope’s promise.

In the final song, “For Atthis,” Sappho takes us through flashbacks of moments in her life with Atthis. These glimpses into so many intimate moments, these precious remembrances of her time with Atthis, suggest a love beautiful from its inception, but ever-growing and ever-deepening through the experiences of lives shared so fully. The cathartic moment of our journey – the crux of the cycle – reveals itself in the modulatory passage towards F-sharp major in measure 78. Sappho has succeeded in her promise to Atthis: she has become remembered in another time – our time, and Sánchez now imparts the same promise through his music, sharing his own personal experience and belief in love, as told through the words of Sappho. That only fragments of Sappho’s poetry have survived makes it all the more thought provoking that her promise has been fulfilled in our age: perhaps the fragmentary nature of her surviving work in some way makes it easier for us to “fill in the gaps” and understand her words in a way more personally meaningful and relevant to each of us in our own lives and with our own experiences.  

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