Mémoires de Bilitis (2014)

mezzo-soprano, chromatic kantele
(text: Pierre Louÿs – in French)
17 min.

The poetry collection Chansons de Bilitis is one of the better literary hoaxes of the nineteenth century. Published as translations of ancient Greek verses by a courtesan and onetime lover of Sappho, they were in fact wholly fabricated by the poet Pierre Louÿs, though his depth of knowledge of the period and style in question, and the richness and daring of his imagery, deceived readers and scholars for quite some time (an accomplishment in itself). When Debi Wong approached me about setting a cycle of these poems for her, she expressed interest in evoking the pseudo-antiquity of the words through the instrumentation. The zither-like kantele, resembling the bardic lyre, seemed perfect for the task, as well as for the overtly Sapphic eros of Louÿs’s words.

The collection itself consists of several dozen poems tracing the entire life of the fictitious Bilitis, in addition to three epitaphs on her death. In collating the texts for the songs, I did take some editorial liberties, cutting names of people and appeals to various deities to keep the focus on Bilitis and her private world, in one case conflating two different poems with similar themes. I chose to focus throughout on a small set of recurring images: trees and leaves, night, darkness and stars, rain, innocence, and an abiding sense of loss. The piece begins with the final epitaph of the collection, the poet herself standing over her grave and lamenting her passing from the world. From there, the music returns to her earliest memories of sexual awakening and youthful delight in nature, touching on her midlife passions, and ending with her last, lonely thoughts. The music itself is a kind of hoax, a simultaneous homage to, and parody of the fin-de-siècle French style of song setting, beginning in a nostalgic, Impressionist dream world of recollection, and gradually taking on more contemporary ideas as it moves into the poetic here-and-now, to bear witness to Bilitis’s final moments.

Mémoires de Bilitis was made possible by a working grant from the Finnish Music Foundation (MES), and is dedicated to Debi Wong and Hedi Viisma.