Choral Singing! For pleasure of for hire?
by Tapani Länsiö :: 1997
The basics of Finland and Finnishness are quickly dealt with: roughly 60,000 named lakes, and much the same number of choir-members, also named. Finland is the land of lakes and choruses.
Academies, universities, student unions, high schools and elementary schools each have their own choir, as do parish congregations, a hundred and one different associations within the labour movement, and all manner of ideological groupings. Then on top of these are the choirs that have just popped up as well, as choirs. Finns like choral singing.
And the world seems to like Finnish choral singing. The most talented choirs have won major prizes, often far from home, and pretty soon we'll see a couple of them joining the traditional ice hockey pros, rally drivers, conductors, opera singers, sauna and Koskenkorva vodka in the join-up-the-dots image of "Finland as she is seen abroad".
So, Finland does a good deal of amateur choral singing, which may sound depending on the listener as either a noble or a slightly questionable merit. The amateur part, I mean. As choral music has developed, so have the demands grown with it. Now and then one hears critical comments, demanding a more professional attitude to the subject. Along with these demands, a certain astonishment has been voiced at the fact that when you look at it, Finland does not have a single full-time professional choir. A choir, that is, where the singers are paid for their singing such that they could support themselves and their families in the same way as the musicians in a symphony orchestra. The progress of Finnish choral singing is seen as ultimately tailing off because the country has no professionals who could dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to singing and developing their art. There are quite a few who regard this as a serious shortcoming from the point of view of Finnish culture in general.
If we discount the National Opera Chorus or the choir used for the training of the Sibelius Academy's choral conductors, only the singers in the Finnish Broadcasting Company's Radio Chamber Choir have received payment for their voices. And it is here, among the "semi-professional" choral singers, that the most enthusiastic rumblings have been heard about singing in a choir on full pay, as is the case with the BBC Choir or the Swedish Radio Chamber Choir. In these hopes the discussion usually comes down to one of what is being given and what is being received in return. To put things a shade more bluntly: what does the Finnish Broadcasting Company, or some city or town, or indeed any paying body get out of paying for the upkeep of a profesional choir?
Those who argue seriously on the issue see it as some kind of essential cultural act. An instance who invests in a professional choir would be carrying Finnish choral music a vital and thus far missing step forwards, and thus the said instance would get for its money the same glittering returns as the great patrons of the arts through history. The thrust of the argument goes like this: the brave new generations of singers that have been cultivated by years of active amateur work, the young impassioned musicians who have specialised in choral conducting, and the interest towards choral music now being shown by some of our finest composers are just waiting to flower into a professional choir such a thing cannot but bring joy and pleasure to the one who finances it, to the audience, and to Finnish cultural life in general. Who will be the first to snatch the honour?
Although Finland can boast talented singers, conductors and composers, there are also one or two whispered doubts to be heard here and there.
A Radio Chamber Choir singing for money might have been able over the decades to sing us proof that a professional choir sounds better than an amateur one, but it has not worked out like that. The Choir's score of members, selected from a host of talented singers, use rather more than FIM 800,000 of licence-fee income each year. The Radio Chamber Choir's budget is close to ten times that of many very decent amateur choirs.
With this money, the Radio Chamber Choir makes radio tapes and gives concerts, some of them good, some less good; just like dozens of distinguished amateur choirs. The Radio Chamber Choir also gives first performances of contemporary works; just as amateur choirs do, but not always with anything like the polish or devotion that is shown by amateurs who have given their free time to singing and who have adapted to the terms and conditions of modern music.
When our "instance" weighs up the choral-cultural returns on an annual investment that may well run to several million Finnish marks, they cannot help but notice some points that tarnish the idea of the professional choir. Finland's only choir of paid singers is not actually any better than many amateur choirs.
The clearest and most noticeable difference seems to be in audience numbers. To a great extent, amateur choirs must tailor their operations in such a way that concerts are attended by an audience who enjoys what they hear and are ready to come back another time. This requires a good deal of ingenuity, in everything from repertoires to originality of style. When money comes from the TV-licence tap, audiences are a secondary consideration. The Radio Chamber Choir's often rather scanty audiences are the worst possible signal to send to an investor considering the return on a professional choir.
My ponderings have prompted even such a perverse thought that "professional choir" is an oxymoron of sorts a word whose parts form an intractable problem in themselves, like "the world's tallest midget" or "the world's shortest giant". This comes out of the observation that many very talented singers do not put their all into it when singing for money, since work is work, after all, and not pleasure. When they are in the ranks of the best amateur choirs, however, those same singers are glowing-cheeked, passionate musicians, who wish to give everything to the interpretation and to the audience that is essential to the choir's well-being and future.
This somewhat clumsy and blunt conclusion does not really support the paying out of millions on a single professional choir. Those millions could instead be well invested in as many as a score of very high quality amateur choirs who splendidly bear the responsiblity for their audiences, for the development of choral music, and in particular for its stylistic and historical diversity. Naturally, choral music should be sung just as well as is humanly possible, but there is something inexplicably human in that proficiency. The sound of the choir is surprisingly close to the voice of the individual who feels he can sing his soul free of the burden of the daily grind. Work is work, and singing is singing.
© Tapani Länsiö & FMQ
Tapani Länsiö is a composer and the conductor of the Polytech Choir.