'From the vibrancy of the very first track, the lively imagination of Rautavaara's writing for voices, the pungent palette of the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, and the clarity and spacial excitement of this record, are immediately apparent' (BBC Music Magazine)
'The music may be as soft-centred as melting chocolate, but the performances have real fire and beauty' (The Irish Times)
Canción de jinete Córdoba [1'02]
Malagueña La muerte [1'17]
Fecit potentiam [1'25]
Suscepit Israel [2'12]
Einojuhani Rautavaara’s reputation as one of the greatest living Finnish composers is assured. Once Sibelius’s protégé, over his long career he has achieved success in a great number of musical genres, particularly that of opera. But it is his choral works that have made him a household name, both in his native country and internationally. Recorded here is a fascinating selection of works, including the Suite de Lorca—one of the most popular Finnish choral works of all time—and all demostrating the unique style forged by the composer on his travels through the musical fashions of the twentieth century. His rich and sonorous neo-Romantic textures have a steely modernist edge and the resulting voice is one that is deeply attractive and approachable, yet endlessly captivating. He sets texts of great passion and complexity and does not hold back from expressing deep emotion.
Rautavaara’s music is performed by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, described in The Times as ‘Oxford’s classy intercollegiate choir’ and highly acclaimed for their two previous recordings for Hyperion. The choir is conducted by James Burton.
How does one briefly describe a composer like Einojuhani Rautavaara? There are the well-known anecdotes, of course: how he was chosen by Sibelius himself as the recipient of a grant to study composition in the USA; how, still as a student, he won an American composition competition for brass band with A Requiem in our Time though he had not so much as laid eyes on a baritone horn; how the unavailability of a choir for a projected choral work led him to write a piece for birdsong and orchestra, Cantus arcticus, one of the most frequently performed Finnish orchestral works of all time; and, on the human interest side, how he escaped a disastrous first marriage and ended up with a soul mate nearly thirty years his junior. He himself has written that he considers himself a Romantic in the sense that ‘a Romantic is impossible to pin down. In terms of place, he is over there or over yonder, never here. In terms of time, he is tomorrow or yesterday, never today.’ But he is also a mystic for whom angels are fierce and terrible.
Describing the music is almost as difficult as describing the man. Rautavaara has an extensive output that covers nearly all genres: symphonies, concertos, operas, chamber music, solo songs, works for solo instruments, and choral works. He began his career in the neoclassical style that was the mainstream in Finnish music after the Second World War. In the 1950s, he took up dodecaphony and even dabbled in total serialism before turning to a free-tonal, neo-Romantic style in the 1970s. Despite these apparently abrupt shifts, however, his idiom is always recognizable, and the style of his late period is a synthesis of everything that has gone before. It can be a surprise to realize that his rich and sonorous neo-Romantic textures are actually governed by twelve-tone rows, as we shall see later.
It is impossible to be seriously involved in choral music in Finland and not come across Rautavaara’s music. Many of his pieces are choral household names, and not just in Finland—his Suite de Lorca is internationally one of the most popular Finnish choral works of all time. Yet he never had any particular ambition to write choral music, and the motivation for writing many of these works was financial desperation. In his free-form autobiography, Omakuva (‘Self-portrait’, 1989), he remarks: ‘I never considered myself a choral composer in particular, nor did I try to become one. But choirs were very active patrons of music in those days [the 1970s] and commissioned new works. My great choral works such as Vigilia and True & False Unicorn would never have been written without a choir taking the initiative, and many, ultimately innumerable choral works were written for a specific need, as competition pieces or for a choir tour.’ Another great a cappella choral work we might mention is the expansive and demanding sixteen-minute Katedralen.
Rautavaara has often compared composing to gardening. Both are about the observing and monitoring of organic growth, not so much about constructing or assembling from pre-existing parts and elements. Accordingly, in his output, pieces and genres feed on one another as he revisits and reshapes musical material from new aspects or for new purposes. A musical idea may emerge in a choral work and end up dovetailed into a symphony or an opera, or vice versa. For example, some of Rautavaara’s early piano music fed into his opera Aleksis Kivi, which in turn yielded the choral suite Halavan himmeän alla (‘In the shade of the willow’). It is illustrative of Rautavaara’s stylistic progress that when he revised a quasi-aleatoric orchestral work whimsically titled Regular Sets of Elements in a Semi-Regular Situation (1971), he named the revised version Garden of Spaces (2003).
The diminutive Suite de Lorca (1973) is a prime example of just how difficult it is to predict what will become a hit. Rautavaara wrote the piece as a companion to his Children’s Mass and entered both in a composition competition organized by his home city of Espoo. Rautavaara had no great expectations regarding the Suite. But while the Mass won first prize, it is rarely performed nowadays; the Suite won third prize yet is today one of the most popular Finnish choral works of all time.
This may have something to do with how the piece packs a considerable impact in its short duration. Consisting of four brief but intense pieces, it is essentially a study in the use of symmetrical scales (alternating tones and semitones). Canción de jinete (‘Riding song’) is based on a monomaniac galloping rhythm, while El grito (‘The scream’) is based on, well, a scream. La luna asoma (‘The moon rises’) features ‘moon music’ foreshadowing similar passages on similar texts in Katedralen and Canción de nuestro tiempo, while the parallel chords of Malagueña mimic the strumming of a guitar.
In the early 1990s the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus commissioned Rautavaara to write an extensive choral work, specifying that the text and music were to ‘have a relationship to the world of today’. The result was the Canción de nuestro tiempo (1993), for which Rautavaara chose poems by Federico García Lorca which, though written in the 1920s and 1930s, he felt were still very relevant.
The first of the work’s three movements, Fragmentos de agonía (‘Fragments of agony’), shows the harsh, inhuman world of industrial society and war through surrealist poetic images. The mechanical ostinato progresses inexorably; the parallel with the opening of the Suite de Lorca, written two decades earlier to a text by the same poet, is clear. Finally, the moon rises (echoing another passage in the Suite de Lorca). The musical material here is derived from the same twelve-tone row as Rautavaara’s Seventh Symphony and Die erste Elegie.
Meditación primera y última (‘First and last meditation’) is built on a recurring Rautavaara device: a mid-range sound field with superimposed melodies. The material here is adapted from a scene in the opera Thomas, and Rautavaara later orchestrated it for his Eighth Symphony. The sound-field device appears in more organized form in Canticum Mariae virginis, and also in the more extensive Katedralen.
In Ciudad sin sueño (‘Sleepless city’), Rautavaara so strongly identified the powerful imagery of the poem with the then current situation in world politics that he subtitled the movement Nocturno del Sarajevo. The opening of the movement, with piercing cries over a steady pulsation, is very similar to that of Die erste Elegie. The melodic material in the soprano part progresses largely in parallel fourths and is flavoured with small glissandos. Despite the ‘nocturno’ character, there are passionate outbursts and powerful emotions in the music.
Though the beginning and end of Canticum Mariae virginis (1978) sound like an aleatoric sound field surrounded by soprano and bass melodies, the music here is precisely notated. Organized symmetrically in many ways, the work opens with a strict ten-part canon for altos and tenors on a melody which is in itself symmetrical—a palindrome. The soprano and bass melodies that appear above and below this field are mirror images of one another, and the finest example of symmetry in the work appears at the words ‘Beatam me dicent’, a section which is even graphically symmetric in the score, the high soprano and low bass utterances being symmetrically placed on the page.
In the canon sections, the initial harmony with semitone tensions eventually resolves into a calmer, pentatonic harmony. Towards the end, this is joined by bell-like tones (come campani) in the bass part. The fragmented motifs in parallel fourths, sung by the sopranos, as well as the overall principle of symmetric organization, reappear in the Magnificat and also in Katedralen.
Closely related to Canticum Mariae virginis and to the non-ecclesiastical Nirvana Dharma (1979), the Magnificat (1979) is a five-movement setting of the Canticle of the Virgin Mary in Latin. As in the other two pieces, the main compositional principle is symmetry. In the first movement, ‘Magnificat’, the altos and tenors sing pentatonic harmonies around which the sopranos and basses weave their melodies. The structure is twofold, the transition highlighted by a transformation of the harmonic material. ‘Quia respexit’ begins with a theme sung by soprano and alto soloists under which the women of the choir spin a diatonic field in parallel triads. The male voices sing a canon underneath this structure.
‘Fecit potentiam’ is a short, rhythmic piece based on a parallel minor triad motif with countersubjects. ‘Suscepit Israel’ opens with a speech choir out of which an E minor tonality emerges and concludes with a beautiful three-part canon in the women’s voices. The final ‘Gloria’ opens with a slow, part-aleatoric and almost chant-like structure. The music builds to a climax reminiscent of the bell music in Canticum Mariae virginis and then goes into an almost martial declamation of the text ‘Sicut erat in principio’, with open parallel fifths creating a severe and archaic feel as the work progresses to a dynamic conclusion.
Before Our joyful’st feast (2008), a recent addition to his catalogue, Rautavaara had written two Christmas hymns, both of them arrangements separated from their original context: Joulun virsi (‘Christmas hymn’), a brief partsong, was originally the final song of the solo song cycle Pyhiä päiviä (‘Holy days’, 1953); Marjatan jouluvirsi (‘Marjatta’s Christmas hymn’) was originally the final song of the mystery play Marjatta matala neiti (‘Marjatta, lowly maiden’), a setting of the Nativity as told in a folk tale in the Finnish national epic, written for the Tapiola Choir in 1975.
Rautavaara wrote in his programme notes: ‘When the Helsinki Chamber Choir and Nils Schweckendiek wished to commission me to write a choral work to be performed at the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) Christmas concert, I decided to set texts from two English Renaissance poets: two extracts from Shakespeare’s plays and a section from an extensive Christmas poem by his contemporary George Wither. These have a robust Renaissance joyfulness which I feel suits a European Christmas, even five hundred years later.’
Rautavaara has written several operas featuring a central character based on an actual historical person: Thomas (1985; a semi-mythical thirteenth-century Bishop of Finland); Vincent (1987; van Gogh); Aleksis Kivi (1996); and Rasputin (2003). Aleksis Kivi (1834– 1872) was a Finnish author who enjoyed some success in his lifetime but was driven to depression and an early death by devastating criticism of his Realist prose, which clashed with then current Romantic values. He was posthumously hailed as a genius, and his Seitsemän veljestä (‘Seven brothers’) is the first novel written in Finnish.
In Rautavaara’s opera Aleksis Kivi, poems by Kivi are sung by the title character outside the stage action in a sort of arioso format, with a steadily pulsing chordal background. When Rautavaara was asked to write a new choral work for a festival of his music in Minnesota in 1999, he decided to adapt extracts from the opera for choir, and titled the work Halavan himmeän alla (‘In the shade of the willow’). The original baritone melody is largely doubled in octaves, and the lugubrious orchestration is reproduced in a sonorous choral texture.
The first song, Ikävyys (‘Melancholy’), sets a sombre tone with a string of minor chords, again governed by a twelve-tone row. The second, Laulu oravasta (‘Song of the squirrel’), appears to be in a more positive mood, but the poem is pure escapism and in its original setting (in the novel Seitsemän veljestä) represents a longing for a carefree life in the woods away from society. The third, Sydämeni laulu (‘Song of my heart’), comes towards the end of the opera. It is an achingly poignant poem known to virtually all Finns and best known musically in the setting by Sibelius, the popularity of which initially made Rautavaara hesitate to set this text in his opera.
‘Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.’ (‘Every angel is terrible.’) This line in Die erste Elegie of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926)—the first of the Duino Elegies—summarizes how Rautavaara conceives angels to be: terrible to behold. A reading of Rilke’s complex and ambiguous verse prompts the idea that angels are terrible because they treat the living and the dead in the same way, and that the living cannot withstand this.
Rautavaara had been familiar with Rilke’s elegies ever since he was a student in Vienna in the 1950s, but it was not until he received a commission from Europa Cantat that he finally thought the time had come to set one of them to music. Following on from earlier instrumental ‘angel’ works, Die erste Elegie emerged together with, and related to, his Seventh Symphony, which acquired the sub-title ‘Angel of Light’.
For all that it is a twelve-tone piece, Die erste Elegie is a sonorous and very accessible work. From its opening cries over a soft chord pulsation it progresses through textures both thick and thin, sometimes stopping to dwell on a solo voice or reducing the music to only two or three voice parts. Towards the end the music becomes more static; but finally the third occurrence of a recurring harmonic motif over an F sharp pedal point, setting a section of the text relating the story of the birth of music in Greek myth, takes the work to an inspiring conclusion in a blaze of C major.
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi © 2010