Baltic Inspirations: Choral Music from Northern Europe

Saturday March 09, 2013
Baltic Inspirations: Choral Music from Northern Europe

Is it the long winter nights with the Aurora Borealis? The endless summer twilights? Whatever the influence, the Baltic region inspires composers to write works of ineffable beauty and profound tranquility.

On Saturday, March 9, Musica Sacra will be performing 20th and 21st century choral music of the well-known composers Arvo Pärt, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, and Igor Stravinsky. Rounding out the program will be the works of lesser known composers whose works are no-less enchanting for it: Veljo Tormis, Ola Gjeilo, and Vaclovas Augustinas.

This performance is the basis of a CD and digital download, available for purchase on this website.

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

The inspiration for tonight’s concert Baltic Voices came from the knowledge that Northern Europe is fertile ground for choral music in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. So many of the composers associated with minimalism—foremost among them Arvo Pärt and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki—are attracted to the choral sound as a vehicle for their music. In addition, the strong tradition of sung folk music in the Northern areas of Scandinavia, Lithuania, and Estonia, provides an inspirational departure point for many of these composers. In fact, with the exception of Sommarnatten by Rautavaara, all of tonight’s secular pieces acknowledge and expound upon this folk tradition.

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The music of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Sommarnatten forms a triptych of dreamlike music bookending a more active middle section, inspired by its text, which alludes to a social dance on a bridge on a summer night. This section calls for a faster tempo, and the voices imitate each other polyphonically, such that each voice has the same melodic material at different times. The aural effect calls to mind pairs of dancers, each doing the same dance to the music but complete in themselves, like a kaleidoscope of waltzing pairs in a ballroom. Rautavaara achieves the trancelike beginning and end sections by means of slow chord vacillations between G major and d minor in the lower voices and a repeating motif in the sopranos that accelerates the first half of a melody sung in octaves by the middle voices. This melody in the inner parts outlines a d minor seventh chord, while the sopranos alternate between d minor and b minor in their faster iteration of it. Because the G major and b minor triads have in common the minor third of b to d, and the triads of D major and b minor share the major third of d to f#, the interplay among these chords—especially when the D chord is changed to d minor, thereby lowering the f# to f– creates an otherworldly sense of simultaneous congruence and incongruence.

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki wrote Broad Waters, his settings of five traditional Polish folk songs, in 1979. In his hands these songs, made up of short phrases often repeated, become musical meditations. The texts of the first four songs deal with resignation to hardship and loss, and their ruefulness is echoed in the minor modalities of their respective melodies. Górecki expresses them all in a slow tempo, which enhances the meditative aspect to the music. His accompanying lines often move in the opposite direction to their melodies: if the melody goes up, its accompaniment goes down, and vice versa. This creates the aural equivalent of seeing a landscape reflected in reverse in the stillness of water. His last setting breaks with this practice; instead Górecki uses homophony, in which all voices move together rhythmically while intoning the same text. The verse is repeated three times. The first two iterations call for a forte dynamic, making the song into a manifesto of love for homeland. The last repetition has a slower tempo and softer dynamic, however, as though the love for the motherland is seen through the lens of memory and nostalgia.

Igor Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, was a Russian composer raised in St. Petersburg, located at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, thus allowing us to include him among the composers represented this evening. Early in his career he had an intense interest in the folk idioms of his region, as did many musicians of that time, among them Ralph Vaughan Williams and Béla Bartók. In 1914 he travelled to the Ukraine to collect folk verse for some of his commissioned work and had the Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasiev provide him with the texts for his Four Russian Peasant Songs. As told by Stravinsky’s amanuensis Robert Craft:

In Expositions, Stravinsky explains that choruses of this sort were sung by peasants as fortune-tellers read their fingerprints on the smoke-blackened bottoms of saucers and suggests that the title Saucer-readings or Saucer-riddles might be closer in meaning to the Russian original. Judging from the place names mentioned, e.g., Chigisakh and Bielaozero, he assumes the texts (which are taken from Afanasiev) to be North Russian in origin, adding: Probably they are from the neighbourhood of Pskov, but whether saucer sorcery was peculiar to that part of Russia, I am unable to say.

Unlike much of Stravinsky’s music of that time, these works were uncommissioned; one might infer therefore that he wrote them for his own pleasure. Their construction is similar to other chamber compositions of his from this era, such as L’histoire du soldat: they consist of short verses followed by even shorter refrains. The rhythm is intricately complex, although when heard it flows freely and sounds much more regular than the multitudinous change of meters in the music would suggest!

Ola Gjeilo, although born in Norway, now resides in Los Angeles. He’s the youngest of the composers represented on tonight’s program and composed his hauntingly beautiful Ubi caritas in 2001 at the tender age of 23. The text with its original plainchant, an antiphon taken from one of the services for Maundy Thursday, was set masterfully by Maurice Duruflé. Gjeilo creates his own chant like melody and reinforces that identity by treating it like a chant, with all voices intoning it in unison. When he harmonizes the melody, he keeps the chant in the soprano and has all of the voices accompany it homophonically, declaiming the text together as one, as would be done in a hymn. As with the Rautavaara, a slower section flanks a more joyous middle section. The somber beginning and end, in f # Dorian mode, similar to f# minor, allude to the gravity of the occasion of Christ’s Last Supper, which precedes his crucifixion on Good Friday, while the A major tonality of the middle section celebrates Christ’s living on in the presence of the Christian community.

Lithuanian composer Vaclovas Augustinas used a Lithuanian folk tune as the basis of his 2010 composition Tykus, Tykus. He creates a tripartite structure by reprising the opening musical material with which he sets the first verse, a constantly reiterated motif of rapidly repeating notes setting the text what a quiet lad, what a calm rider. These repetitions evoke the trotting sounds of a horse, and, indeed, later in the piece the singers mimic the sound of horse hooves by clicking their tongues. These repeated notes cease briefly in the middle section as the text first describes the deflowering of a maiden by the lad and then how he leapt up and rode away to do battle. The major tonality and legato texture setting the first part of this middle section underscore the lover’s attractiveness and powers of seduction, while the syncopated rhythms and closely imitated phrases setting the next part of it allude to the pounding of his heart as he senses the danger that prompts him to ride off to battle.

Augustinas learned the Lithuanian folk tune Anoj pusėj dunojėlio from his father as a child and created this hauntingly beautiful setting in 2006. I first became familiar with it this past summer and was thrilled to be able to include it in this program. I find the meaning of this text, as conveyed by the translation, rather oblique; however, when I heard it performed, the conductor described the last stanza to mean that the horse of the fallen soldier returned to the soldier’s beloved with his letter to her in its bridle. With that added understanding, the keening lines extemporized by the singers from the basis of the original melody sent chills up my spine in performance and brought tears to my eyes. Augustinas’ alternation of the melody’s simple harmonizations with its overlaid iterations at the beginning and aforementioned improvisations creates an original and powerful treatment. The formation in which we perform it is at the composer’s request.

Audience members who have attended our concerts over the years know that we enjoy doing the music of Arvo Pärt. From the time we gave the New England première of his Passio in 1993, we have performed quite a few of his works. This is our first performance of his settings of The Beatitudes, the poem of social justice known as the Sermon on the Mount and taken from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, verses 1-12. The other great poem of social justice originating in the Gospels, the Magnificat, has been set often throughout history, since it forms part of the evening service of Vespers; I am not aware of any other setting of these verses, however. Pärt composed this work in 1990 and it follows the form of every other work of his we have done. The voices move together as one according to strict rules: two of them move only stepwise, while the other two move only among the notes in a single triad. Each syllable gets one note and the length of the note is determined by the location of the syllable in the text. Final words of phrases get the longest notes, and phrases are separated by rests. The interplay of these formulae creates that mesmerizing result that Pärt’s devotées treasure and that he describes as tintinnabuli, Latin for bells. As he writes: I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements—with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials—with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.

To describe the last piece in tonight’s program, Ingerimaa Õhtud/Ingrian Evening, by Veljo Tormis, I will quote the words of Benjamin Flynn, a former member of Musica Sacra and the person who introduced me to Tormis’s wonderful music.

Veljo Tormis born 1930, Estonia, celebrates the tradition of Baltic-Finnish music in Ingerimaa Õhtud/Ingrian Evenings, one of a series of works he composed between 1970 and 1989 called The Forgotten Peoples. With Ingrian Evenings, Tormis revives the particular folklore and song style of the Ingrian people, who traditionally lived in the land surrounding St. Petersburg, but were scattered throughout the region and had many of their traditions suppressed by the Soviet Union. Today many are coming back together as a people, but in 1979, when this piece was composed, their survival was less than certain. Tormis says of Ingrian Evenings: It is a farewell song to the whole of Ingermanland … the former population of which has been scattered or assimilated as a result of the two World Wars and the result of a criminal policy of genocide carried out by the Soviet Union. As the singers scatter, they represent this dispersal, and at the same time keep the music and culture alive.
As a work, Ingrian Evenings is divided into nine sections. The first is a joining together of people in song; the middle sections tell stories; and in the last the singers bid farewell. The first section is notable for its use of vocalized inhalation, a technique borrowed from the Ingrian singing tradition. In the second section, the soloist speaks of the infidelity of her lover and her worry that rumors will spread and put her in a bad light; the other women echo her song—do they too feel her pain? Or perhaps they are already beginning to gossip? In the third section the jocular men are out for a drink, while the women playfully chasten their overindulgence. In the fourth song the women sing of a young woman contemplating love, not knowing of the troubles that will follow. The echoing of the sopranos in the altos, overlapping with their quiet tone-clustered chord is particularly magical. For the fifth section, Tormis wrote the direction “al russo” (like Russians) for the tenors who sing a raucous sailor song with a startling last verse, roughly translated, “My beloved on the shore with bitter tears was choking.” From that we have the wonderful contrast of the lullaby-like sixth section, about a girl planning a time when her love may be received in her house, that she might then follow him anywhere. The seventh section tells the story of woman whose man is ultimately commandeered for the navy, while the men imitate the song of soldiers and give an impression of the sea as they swell and ebb in dynamic. The eighth section reflects the gossiping of the town that eventually bursts into a forte as the secret is let out. Finally, the night is drawing to a close and the people must be on their way. We return to the original invocation, but now the song is ending. After singing through the chorus that first brought them together, the men shift through their harmonies with which they accompanied the women earlier. As each new harmony appears, small groups of women emerge from the choir, picking up one of the melodies sung earlier, to greet and accompany one another home.

Who knows the source of inspiration for Baltic composers? Certainly the endless night of winter and endless day of summer must have a profound effect on the human psyche. Whatever the influence, the Baltic region inspires composers to write works of ineffable beauty and profound tranquility while demonstrating that its people draw upon their strength of community through song.

Copyright ©2013 Mary Beekman except where otherwise noted. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.