A Congress of Passions

David Matthews (1943)

A Congress of Passions 2001

oboe - strings (44321)
Text Author 

My title comes form Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime, the only source for one of the few almost complete poems by Sappho – the central poem of this cantata. Longinus comments that it displays “not one passion, but a congress of passions”. The most celebrated of all women poets, Sappho flourished around 600 B.C. in the Aegean island of Lesbos. Her work survives only in fragments quoted by other writers, but he language of these fragments has an intensity rarely equalled by any poet. I first discovered Sappho when I learned Greek at school, and set one of her fragments to music when I was 19 (the one that begins the third section in this cantata): it went onto a bonfire of early compositions and I have no clear recollection of it. I have long wanted to set more of her poetry, in Greek rather than in translation. In assembling a text, I grouped together one set of fragments about love with another about evening and night, and placed them on either side of the famous love poem (which is incidentally addressed to a woman) quoted by Longinus. We do no know much about what kind of music the ancient Greeks made, but one of their most frequently used instruments was the aulos, which was a reed instrument, an early oboe. I was, therefore, glad to be able to use an oboe in my piece. There are two references to Cretan folk music: the melody of the opening invocation to Aphordite is a Cretan folksong which I have used more or less intact, while the oboe music in the central section of the piece is based on some music for the Cretan bagpipe, the askomandboura. A Congress of Passions was originally written in 1994 for voice, oboe and piano to a commission from Michael Chance, Nicholas Daniel and Julius Drake.

This new version for oboe and string orchestra was commissioned by St Mary’s in the Castle, Hastings and made in January-February 2000.

David Matthews


There are other versions of this piece available.

23.5.01, Bury St Edmunds Festival: Michael Chance/Nicholas Daniel/Britten Sinfonia/Nicholas Cleobury
11.6.01 Spitalfields Festival, London: Michael Chance/Nicholas Daniel/Britten Sinfonia/Nicholas Cleobury
16.6.01 Norwich: Michael Chance/Nicholas Daniel/Britten Sinfonia/Nicholas Cleobury
29.9.01 Melbourn, Cambridgeshire: Michael Chance/Nicholas Daniel/Britten Sinfonia/Nicholas Cleobury
15.11.03 Ruth Bollister / Ruth Peel / Orchestra Nova / George Vass
21.3.09 Prague, Czech Republic: Olga Cerna / Philharmonic Orchestra of South Bohemia / Stanislav Vavrinek
Violin II
Double bass