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.’
from notes by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi © 2010