A brief outline of the Finnish choral music
by Kari Turunen :: 2008
Let us go back in time to the conference of the International Society for Music Education (ISME) in Interlochen, Michigan, in the USA in summer 1966. The Klemetti Institute Chamber Choir, conducted by Harald Andersén, is just finishing a performance of The Tomb at Akr Çaar by Bengt Johansson. After the final line of baritone soloist Matti Lehtinen, “I do not go...,” the piece dies out with a solo tenor whisper, “Nikoptis, Nikoptis, Niko...” A long electrified silence falls before the audience bursts into tumultuous applause which Andersén, the leading figure in post-war Finnish choral music, later described as one of the crowning moments of his life.
This, in a nutshell, is what it is all about: we Finns may not have an illustrious history, but we do have contemporary creative arts of exceptional originality and extremely high quality, choral music not excepted. The symbiosis of prominent composers and excellent choirs that came into being in the 1960s has generated a huge amount of choral music of lasting significance. What is more, despite occasional fluctuations this tradition is still going strong, and even composers of the youngest generation have tried their hand at choral music.
There is a simple explanation for the boom of the 1960s. Before then, Finnish choirs capable of performing contemporary works did not really exist. Andersén single-handedly created the instruments with the potential for this, and composers were eager to take up the challenge. The choral repertoire has been added to by traditionalists and strict academic Modernists alike, by composers of symphonic music on the one hand and composers dedicated exclusively to the choral idiom on the other.
Finnish music after 1950 is such a broad and diverse subject that no simple description can do it justice. As a rough classification, we may adopt the generally used division into traditionalists, modernists rooted in tradition and pure modernists. We should remember, though, that there are many composers whose output spans all of these categories.
(1910–1961) was known in his lifetime primarily as a conductor and a composer of extensive orchestral works. His choral works, however, have stood the test of time much better, and several of his choral songs remain in the core amateur choral repertoire. Fougstedt’s lyrical approach and traditional idiom, spiced with the occasional more acerbic harmonic turn, make his works both original and accessible. Of his choral output, the vast majority of which is settings of texts in Swedish, we may note the three-movement Sommarsvit (Summer suite; Karin Mandelstam) and the soaring Björkarnas valv (Vault of the birches; Kerstin Söderholm) for mixed choir, and the atmospheric Nattlig Madonna (Nocturnal Madonna; Edith Södergran) and Tre sånger om kärleken (Three songs about love; Arvid Mörne). A number of his works for mixed choir are based on harmonies constructed of fourths; the best of these are the sombre Höstsång (Autumn song; Karin Mandelstam) and the ironic and energetic I vimmel och vammel (Hurly-burly; Nils Ferlin).
(1921–1996) wrote a smallish but extremely distinguished body of music whose cornerstones are his four symphonies and the opera Viimeiset kiusaukset (The Last Temptations, 1975). He only wrote a handful of choral works, but these are of the highest calibre. Of particular interest are the two extensive six-part works written in the 1960s, Missa a cappella (1963) and Laudatio Domini (1966), fine examples of a symphonic composer’s ability to fashion extensive structures out of a limited set of materials. These two works are unusually tightly knit in structure, rich in harmony and full of finely chiselled vocal lines. Kokkonen’s Requiem (1981) is one of the finest achievements in the rather limited Finnish oratorio repertoire.
(1916–1999), another symphonic composer, is the most pure-bred Neo-Classicist in the history of Finnish music. His choral output is limited, which is regrettable considering its high quality; Hymnus sepulchralis (1975) for mixed choir to a text by Prudentius in Classical Latin and Kanteletar-sarja (Kanteletar suite, 1984) for women’s choir have proved their merit by remaining in the repertoire. Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935) started out as a symphonic composer, but the focus of his output later shifted to opera. The most popular of his choral works are the simple yet skilfully written four-movement suite Lauluja mereltä (Songs from the sea, 1974) for children’s voices and the hilarious description of wind strengths, The Beaufort Scale (1984), for mixed choir.
(1941–2002) is one of the most intriguing figures in modern Finnish music. He began his career firmly aligned with European Modernism, but in the early 1970s turned towards a neo-tonal idiom for the rest of his career. Two works of his for mixed choir, Kuun kasvot (Face of the moon, 1964) and the three-movement Hämärä tanssii (The twilight dances, 1989), frame this transition marvellously. Both works are settings of texts by Pentti Saarikoski, the leading Finnish modern poet of Salmenhaara’s generation, and despite their stylistic differences both are inspired and rewarding.
The tradition of church organists writing sacred music continues to this day in Finland, two of the leading names in this field being Kaj-Erik Gustafsson
(b. 1942) and Harri Viitanen
(b. 1954). Out of Gustafsson’s free-tonal yet very tradition-conscious choral output we may single out Missa a cappella, which exists in versions for mixed choir and male voice choir, and the Magnificat (1981). His secular works include the lyrical Det är vackrast när det skymmer (It is beautiful at dusk) and Neljä laulua rakkaudesta (Four Songs about Love). Harri Viitanen’s sonorous Kuu ja aurinko (Moon and Sun, 1990), a setting of a text from the Kalevala, deserves wider attention.
(b. 1944) also trained as a church organist, but he focused on composition at an early stage in his career, and he has been one of Finland’s most popular choral composers for several decades now. His extensive choral output can be broadly divided into two categories, falling under the influence of Finno-Ugric folk tradition on one hand and Renaissance polyphony on the other. His folkloristic works include Morsiamen lähtövirsi (The bride’s leaving song, 1983) for women’s choir, Kolm’ on miehellä pahoa (Three in all are man’s encumbrances, 1981) for male voice choir and Mull’ on heila ihana (I’ve got a sweetheart, 1981) for mixed choir. His principal sacred work is Missa in Deo salutare meum (1986) for mixed choir, but the Renaissance-inspired six-part Regina angelorum (1992) for women’s choir is more frequently performed. Kostiainen has written several ambitious secular works for children’s choir, including the colourful and evocative Revontulet (Northern lights, 1983) and Satakieli (Nightingale, 1989).
(b. 1945) also draws extensively on folk music in his choral works. He is a musicologist, and his immersion in folklore prompts a parallel with Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. The Christmas story Piika Pikkarainen (The little lass, 1985) for children’s choir and the miniature oratorio Iloveet (2001) for ethnic mezzosoprano and women’s choir are extensive and diverse. His minor pieces include such gems as Punaiset varjot (Red shadows, 2005) for mixed choir.
(b. 1949) consciously distanced himself from the Modernist mainstream of the 1970s. His tonally oriented music often contains an educational dimension, and his choral pieces have been well received by Finland’s many children’s choirs. His greatest hit by far is Vesi väsyy lumen alle (Water under snow is weary, 1976), which became world-famous through its performances by the Tapiola Choir. Another favourite is Kesäisiä eläimiä (Summer animals, 1982) for mixed choir, a cycle of pieces to Naivist poems by Liisa Wessman.
(b. 1955) has been the most successful in importing elements of popular music into contemporary choral music. He is a newcomer in the choral world, but within a short period of time he has demonstrated mastery of the choral idiom and infused a new and vibrant sense of rhythm into it. His cycles Primitive music (1998) for women’s choir and Mieliteko (Urge, 1999) for mixed choir have especially attracted interest.
In recent years, women’s choirs in particular have gained a fresh dimension to their repertoire through choral works inspired by folk tradition and ethnic music. Young folk musicians such as Tellu Turkka
(b. 1969), Sanna Kurki-Suonio
(b. 1966), Liisa Matveinen
(b. 1961) and Jenny Wilhelms
(b. 1974) have written powerfully evocative choral works. Although in musical terms their output relies heavily on traditional material, many of their works have charted territory quite new in choral music, exploring everyday experiences in women’s lives. An example might be Tellu Turkka’s Minne kauneus katosi? (Where did the beauty go?, 2001) for women’s choir, a brutally honest examination of how a woman’s appearance changes with the passage of time.
Choral music drawing on pop and jazz is a recent phenomenon in Finnish choral music. Not arrangements of pop songs or jazz standards, that is, but original works scored for choir yet based in the genres of popular music. Here, too, it is young women who dominate the field, particularly Mia Makaroff
(b. 1970), Anna-Mari Kähärä
(b. 1963) and Säde Rissanen
(b. 1965). One of the finest pieces in this genre is Butterfly, a six-part piece written for the Rajaton vocal ensemble by Mia Makaroff. For the most part, however, the above-mentioned composers write for women’s voices. Representative samples might include the energetic and expressive Laulu perunoiden kiehuessa (Song while the potatoes are cooking) and Tulisit (If you came) by Kähärä and the elegant Lammasidylli (Sheep idyll, 1999) by Rissanen.
Modernists rooted in tradition
Although Bengt Johansson
(1914–1989) is not usually considered a Modernist, he was a pioneer in electronic music and a wholly new style of choral music in Finland. Employed as a sound engineer at the Finnish Broadcasting Company, Johansson wrote a considerable body of choral works inspired by Renaissance madrigals and the field techniques of the 1960s, and employing a bitonal approach to harmony partly arrived at through voice-leading. The Tomb at Akr Çaar (1964) for mixed choir and baritone, to a poem by Ezra Pound, is an intensive and almost dream-like classic in its genre. While technically difficult, it is almost hypnotic in its impact. Three Classic Madrigals (1967), also settings of Ezra Pound, is perhaps the most successful example of the composer’s trademark style: the choir is divided into two groups each progressing in triads, the juxtaposition of the two generating non-functional harmonies. Of Johansson’s later works, Examine me (1985), a setting of Psalm 139 for three-part women’s choir, is an introvert and deeply felt gem. His extensive Requiem (1966) is rarely performed, mainly because of the huge forces it requires.
It is difficult to discuss Finnish choral music without referring to Einojuhani Rautavaara
(b. 1928). His highly important choral output covers a broad stylistic range, from his early dodecaphonic works to speech choir and from extensive sacred works to folk song arrangements. If common factors must be sought, his choral works share a certain fundamental sonority and a high standard of excellence. Rautavaara’s music is challenging for its performers but immediately gratifying for those who manage to tackle its technical demands.
Rautavaara’s early dodecaphonic period includes the elegant Ave Maria (1957) for male voice choir and an enduring classic, the sophisticated Ludus verbalis (1957) for speech choir — consisting of a brief exposition of German grammar. The four-movement Nattvarden (Eucharist, 1963) is also a fine example of the composer’s ability to write vivid music within a strict technical framework. By the 1970s, Rautavaara had abandoned strict dodecaphony. His choral works from the early part of the decade are generally built on a strong rhythmic pulse, often in the form of ostinatos. Cases in point are the energetic Credo (1972) for mixed choir, the Lorca Suite (1973) — which was originally written for children’s choir but which later became a huge success in a version for mixed choir — and the mixed-choir pieces Lähtö (The departure, 1975) and Morsian (The bride, 1975). This period also includes Rautavaara’s most extensive work for male voice choir, Elämän kirja (Book of life, 1972), an expansive multi-lingual work which embraces the plurality of human life and which definitely deserves more widespread international attention.
In the late 1970s, a new dominant element appeared in Rautavaara’s works: diatonic fields, usually created through close imitation. Major works from this period include Canticum Mariae Virginis (1978) and the extensive and ambitious Magnificat (1979) and Katedralen (The cathedral; a setting of Edith Södergran, 1983), both of which are undisputed classics in the Finnish mixed-choir repertoire. The more recent ‘sequel to the Lorca Suite’, Cancion de nuestro tiempo (1993) and Die Erste Elegie (a setting of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1993) are from the composer’s present period, which represents a synthesis of elements from all previous periods. In the Elegie in particular, the technical and expressive components achieve such a natural balance that the musical flow remains fresh and immediate throughout.
We may round off this brief survey of Rautavaara’s extensive and varied choral output with a mention of his Orthodox Vigilia (All-night vigil, 1971-1972; concert version 1996) and two superb fantasies on Swedish-language Finnish folk songs, Sommarnatten (Summer night, 1975) and Och glädjen den dansar (With joy we go dancing, 1993). With Rautavaara, quantity and quality are never mutually exclusive.
(b. 1948) and Eero Hämeenniemi
(b. 1951) are two ‘mid-generation’ composers who have not written very much for choir, but what they have is worth looking at. Heiniö’s Kolme kansanlaulua (Three folk songs, 1977) for double mixed choir is a happy marriage of virtuoso brilliance, Baroque counterpoint and Finnish folk songs. Landet som icke är (The land that is not, 1980), a setting of Edith Södergran for women’s choir and piano, is a classic in the Nordic treble-choir repertoire and demonstrates that interesting things can be achieved with choir and piano. Luceat (1992) for mixed choir is a profound and effective miniature requiem. Eero Hämeenniemi has written most of his choral works in collaboration with the Polytech Choir, the male voice choir of the Helsinki University of Technology. The best-known of these is Nattuvanar (1993), a rhythmic virtuoso piece inspired by the traditional music of India. Aika kiertyy (Time turns, 2003) for eight singers is an elegant miniature dominated by carefully considered counterpoint.
(b. 1953) emerged as a choral composer in the 1990s. His lyrical free-tonal idiom, with soft harmonies and flowing vocal lines, has proved accessible, highly singable and very gratifying. Three Sonnets of Shakespeare (1993) and Four Ballads of Shakespeare (1994), both for mixed choir, are sombre and melancholic, while Matka Eedeniin (The journey to Eden, 1995), also for mixed choir, is more voluble in a Rautavaara-esque way. His most colourful pieces are probably the Fantaisies Décoratives I & II (1996/1997), settings of impressions of Paris by Oscar Wilde. Komulainen has also written sacred music for mixed choir, including Jesu Christe pie (2000), a sonorous and finely shaped eight-part motet based on a Medieval Piae cantiones tune. His treble-choir works include Shakespearean Settings (1996), the four-movement Suvikuvia (Summer pictures, 1996), the delicate Syyskesän laulu (Song of late summer, 1999) and the full-bodied The tide rises, the tide falls (2001); the first two are challenging but suitable for children’s choir, while the latter two fall within the domain of women’s choirs.
The 1990s also saw the emergence of Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
(b. 1963). Mäntyjärvi’s idiom is firmly rooted in the traditional, but his profound knowledge of the expressive potential of the choir as an instrument and his sophisticated sense of humour lend his works an original and immediately appealing flavour. His breakthrough work, Four Shakespeare Songs (1984) for mixed choir, already revealed his capacity for writing workable and effective choral music, a feature that is also apparent in the small and simple yet highly intensive Ave Maria (1991).
The way to Mäntyjärvi’s international success was paved by two humorous high-impact pieces drawing on the ethnic boom in choral music, Pseudo-Yoik (1994) and El Hambo (1996). A considerably more profound dimension was added to his profile by two significant emotionally charged works, Canticum calamitatis maritimae (1997) to the memory of those who perished in the sinking of the passenger ferry ‘Estonia’ in the Baltic Sea, and Die Stimme des Kindes (1998), a setting of a poem by Romantic poet Nikolaus Lenau. His most extensive work to date is the choral drama SALVAT 1701 (2001) for speakers, soloists and choir, based on hymns from the Finnish ‘Old Hymnal’ of 1701. His rather limited output for treble choir includes Ankeriaan päiväuni (Eel reverie, 1998), an inventive vocalise for choir and clarinet.
(b. 1911-2006), pioneer of Modernism in Finnish music, was a major composer of vocal music. He was himself a choir conductor at one point in his career, and his fantastic colourist works, sometimes aleatoric, sometimes raucously anarchistic, have widened the boundaries of choral expression. Bergman’s works derive their inspiration from sources as varied as natural phenomena, exotic cultures or Finnish folk songs. His most absurd facet appears in two works that are settings of Surrealist poet Christian Morgenstern, Drei Galgenlieder (1959) for male voice choir and Vier Galgenlieder (1960) for mixed (speech) choir. His ability for sketching out sensitive choral music in tune with European Modernism is apparent in such works as Tuonelas hjordar (The herds of death, 1964). His most impressive fantasy creations are Lapponia (1975) for mixed choir, a landscape drawing on the natural environment of Lapland and its sounds, and the classic Dreams (1977) for treble voices. Fåglarna (The birds, 1962) for male voice choir, soloists, percussion and celesta, a setting of a poem by Solveig von Schoulz, is one of his most impressive works.
(1918–1972) wrote four great works for mixed choir, combining 1960s field technique with influences from Gregorian chant and early music in general. Chant is most conspicuously present in the two motets Miserere and Super flumina Babylonis, both written in the mid-1960s. Fot mot jord (Feet on the ground, 1969) is an ironic depiction of death to a poem by Elmer Diktonius, and his testament is the motet Himmel och jord skola förgås (Heaven and earth shall pass away, 1971), which features an ostinato cast in differing harmonic environments.
(b. 1938) has had a great influence on Finnish music as Professor of Composition at the Sibelius Academy, as a polemic public debater and, of course, as a composer. His methodical strict Modernism is often considered difficult, and in all honesty it must be said that his works pose severe demands on performers, and to a great extent on audiences too. His choral works The Autumns (1972) and ...cor meum... (1976/1979) for mixed choir are without any doubt among the most challenging Finnish choral works ever written. Poetiikkaa (Poesy, 1986–1990) for male voice choir, though technically demanding as well, also contains much musical merriment.
(b. 1958) has also written a handful of extremely challenging yet rewarding choral works. Lacrimosa (1989) is an infrequently performed but powerful work for double mixed choir, while Jauchzet! (1993) for boys’ choir is a tribute to the Lutheran tradition of sacred music. Des Flusses Stimme (1996), a requiem for Jeremy Parsons written for eight-part mixed choir is excruciatingly difficult yet ultimately gratifying. Another composer aligned with Modernism is Herman Rechberger
(b. 1947), whose graphically notated scores contain aleatoric features and in some cases require the learning of a wholly new musical language. A case in point is Postojna (1987) for mixed choir or women’s choir, an evocation of the atmosphere in a limestone cavern.
There is something of the elegance and conciseness of the Second Viennese School in the choral music of Tapani Länsiö
(b. 1953), who is also a choir conductor, and Olli Kortekangas
(b. 1955). Länsiö’s restrained and intensive idiom is perhaps at its best in 17 laulua kesästä (17 songs of summer, 1992) for male voice choir; the average duration of these songs is under one minute. Uni (Dream), a setting of Japanese tanka poems for mixed choir, is more expansive and harmonically richer. Olli Kortekangas is best known in choral circles for his collaboration with the Tapiola Choir, which has yielded works such as MAA (EARTH, 1985) and the visually ambitious A (1988), where the choir not only performed the works but participated actively in their creation too. Major works in his output for mixed choir are Verbum (1987) for double mixed choir and the madrigalistically concise Three romances (1995) to poems by D.H. Lawrence.
In comparison with Länsiö and Kortekangas, the internationally best-known Finnish composers of their generation — Kaija Saariaho
, Esa-Pekka Salonen
and Magnus Lindberg
— have written very little for choir. The output of Saariaho (b. 1952) includes Tag des Jahres (2001) for mixed choir and electronics. Lindberg (b. 1958) has written Songs from North and South (1993) for children’s choir, which has received regrettably little attention so far. Salonen (b. 1958), on the other hand, has staked a significant claim in the core repertoire of 21st-century choral music with his Two Songs to poems by Ann Söderlund (2000), a colourist and highly expressive work.
One of the most original composers in Finnish music is Jouko Linjama
(b. 1934), whose choral music combines a Gesualdo-like harmonic invention with a melodic vein characterized by ninths. His relatively unknown output includes the ’chamber oratorio’ La sapienza (1980) to writings by Leonardo da Vinci. His nephew Jyrki Linjama
(b. 1962) shares his uncle’s rare propensity for bringing uncompromisingly Modernist aesthetics to the practical music of church services. Jyrki Linjama’s sacred concert work Miserere (2003/2006) is a fine example of his idiom, while among his secular works the fascinating Venetsialainen yölaulu (Venetian nocturne, 1988) has already proved its lasting merit.
Many composers of the young generation have already proven their skills in writing for choir. One of the most interesting is Riikka Talvitie
(b. 1970), who writes in a fresh choral idiom in the spirit of Modernism. Her Jako (Division, 1998) is a demanding but welcome addition to the repertoire for women’s choir, and Tulen värinä (Flickering fire, 2002) is an inventive and idiomatic work for male voice choir. Uljas Pulkkis
(b. 1975) has likewise essayed into the field of choral music with A lover’s complaint (2002) for eight solo voices and Der Zauberlehrling (2002) for eight-part male voice choir, demonstrating adaptability and technical achievement. His almost Neo-Romantic Neito (The maiden, 2007) for male voice choir, soprano, mezzosoprano and symphony orchestra, lasting more than an hour, is a significant addition to the repertoire for male voice choir with orchestra.
The high number of competent amateur choirs in Finland, the professionally trained generation of choir conductors and the Finnish tradition of choral music contribute to a fertile soil for the creation of new choral music. Choirs are used to commissioning and performing new pieces, and composers take an active interest in the choir as an instrument. The collaboration between choirs and prominent composers which began in the 1960s shows no signs of abating, but it has been joined by new trends deriving from outside of the sphere of what we might call ‘concert music’. During the last 15 years, plurality has edged its way into choral music too.
© Kari Turunen & Fimic (2003/2008)
Translated by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
A brief history of Finnish choral music
As everywhere else in Europe, the roots of choral singing in Finland go back to the Middle Ages. When the Catholic Church established itself in Finland, it brought chant with it, and the peripheral location of our land proved not to be an obstacle to the migration of influences thereafter. In the progression from monophonic chant to polyphony, Finland was at most a few steps behind Central Europe. The principal documents of early Finnish polyphony are the two Piae cantiones collections (1582, 1625), containing songs for use in schools. The first of these in particular contains much material that is not known from any other source.
Protestantism was slow to penetrate the Kingdom of Sweden-Finland. Ties with the Vatican were officially severed in 1523, but Catholic elements persisted in the liturgy and its music well into the 17th century. As Catholicism declined, the status of sacred music diminished with it, although choral music in Finland did not go into hibernation as is often said.
Sleeping or not, the revival of Finnish choral music in the 19th century was much like the Prince awakening Sleeping Beauty. A German Prince bringing German influences, in fact. The Liedertafel genre arrived in Finland, which by this time had been annexed by Russia, through Finns who had studied in Uppsala in Sweden and who founded a ‘singing society’ in Turku as early as in 1819. After the Great Fire of Turku in 1827, the University was moved to the new capital, Helsinki, and it was here that the Prince of our narrative, Fredrik (Friedrich) Pacius (1809–1891) arrived in 1835 to take up the post of music teacher at the University. What Pacius achieved after this is little short of incredible. For starters, he founded the choir which today is the oldest Finnish choir still in existence (Akademiska Sångföreningen, 1838), wrote the first opera ever written in Finland (Kung Karls jakt, The Hunt of King Charles, 1852) and the song that became Finland’s national anthem (1848), besides establishing a tradition of oratorio performances (including a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1875).
However, it was the song festival tradition and its linkage with the language drive and independence struggle that made choral singing a truly national pursuit. The first teacher seminary founded in Jyväskylä in 1863 adopted choral singing as one of its main pedagogical tools. Choral songs with texts in Finnish were taken to the provinces by newly trained teachers, and when to this was added the potential of the song festivals for promoting national sentiments, national identity and the Finnish language, choral music really took off. It spread from academia to craftsmen and labourers, from the Swedish-speaking elite to the Finnish-speaking common people, and from the towns to the countryside. The latter half of the 19th century laid the foundation for the extensive practice of choral singing that remains to this day a major feature of Finnish musical life.
In the early 20th century, choral music began to establish itself not only as a popular hobby but as an art form in its own right. This trend was pioneered by Heikki Klemetti (1876–1953), whose passionate leadership as conductor of the Helsinki University Chorus (Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat, YL) and the Suomen Laulu choir, which he founded in 1900, led these choirs to artistic achievements that were astonishing in their day. After Finland became independent in 1917, went through a Civil War and experienced the decline of the ‘Golden Age of Finnish Art’, choral life stagnated and remained at a far less significant level from the 1920s through the Second World War. It was not until the chamber choir revolution that choral music began to rise again.
In post-war choral music we may identify three major trends that have contributed fundamentally to what Finnish choral music is today. The first of these was the chamber choir revolution. Starting in the 1950s, it was a movement principally embodied in Harald Andersén (1919–2001), who was, as often happens in small countries, the sole leading figure for two decades: a pioneering choir conductor, holder of the highest teaching post in the field, and a valued teacher at extensive summer courses. The new chamber choirs brought a new strand of repertoire to join the National Romantic mainstream: Renaissance madrigals and the newest contemporary music. This new repertoire required a new type of voice production: more instrumental, lighter and with less vibrato than the then current choral ideal. Once composers caught on to the potential offered by the new choirs, a ‘virtuous circle’ of mutually beneficent development emerged — if not a second Golden Age, then at least a Silver Age of choral music.
The second important trend was one that is virtually unequalled worldwide — the youth choir movement. In 1960, there were for all practical purposes only two children’s choirs in Finland; four decades later there are hundreds of well-established children’s and youth choirs. The origins of this trend are in fact quite simple: all it took was an efficient music education system and a suitable role model. It was fortunate for Finnish choral music that Erkki Pohjola, the founder of the role model — the Tapiola Choir — sought collaboration with leading Finnish composers from the very first. His belief in the capabilities of children and a repertoire of new, interesting music have made the Finnish youth choir movement a world leader.
The final important trend, one which emerged somewhat later, in the 1990s, is the increasing level of professionalism in choral music. This does not involve professional choirs, which remain conspicuous by their near-absence in Finland. Professionalism here refers to the quantum shift that has occurred in the level of choir conductor training, thanks mainly to the choir conducting class of the Sibelius Academy. As the number of choral singers capable of a professional standard is increasing too, this combination may be expected to yield something quite new in the near future. A corollary of this trend is the immense boom in ensemble singing that began in the final decade of the 20th century. The elements for the next wave of development are fermenting beneath a surface that appears not to have changed very much.
© Kari Turunen & Fimic (2003/2008)
Translated by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
The Golden Age
The turn of the 20th century in Finland is commonly known as the ‘Golden Age of Finnish Art’. It was a period in which works of astonishingly high quality were created in almost all genres of the creative arts. In music, too, it was a hugely rich period, even though of our major National Romantic composers only Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) is internationally well-known and appreciated. His younger contemporaries Toivo Kuula (1883–1918), Leevi Madetoja (1887–1947) and Selim Palmgren (1878–1951) have understandably been overshadowed by their great colleague. Their neglect is partly due to the fact that a considerable portion of their output is vocal music and that the vast majority of their solo songs and choral works are in such exotic languages as Finnish and Swedish. Clearly, international marketing of such repertoire is no easy task.
Quality, however, is not an issue, and there is also plenty to choose from. Sibelius wrote some 30 songs for male voice choir, about 20 for mixed choir (including re-arrangements of songs for male voice choir) and two for women’s choir; Kuula 40 for male voice choir, 25 for mixed choir and five for women’s choir; Madetoja over 50 for male voice choir, about 30 for mixed choir and half a dozen for women’s choir; and Palmgren about 120 for male voice choir, about 50 for mixed choir and two for women’s choir. The total is therefore about 240 songs for male voice choir, over 120 for mixed choir and some 15 for women’s choir. Admittedly not all of this is brilliant music, but the average quality is exceptionally high.
Sibelius’s output contains such gems as the four-movement Rakastava (The lover), which exists in the composer’s versions for male voice choir and mixed choir, the diminutive but energetic Venematka (The boat journey) and Sydämeni laulu (Song of my heart), a work of high emotional impact for Finns.
The tragic death of Toivo Kuula in the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War was one of the greatest losses in the history of Finnish choral music. Kuula’s harmonically rich, melodically flowing and contrapuntally dextrous choral works constitute the greatest treasure in the Finnish National Romantic choral repertoire. Works such as Meren virsi (Hymn of the sea), Siell’ on kauan jo kukkineet omenapuut (Yonder the apple trees are blooming) and Auringon noustessa (Sunrise), all for mixed choir, stand up well in comparison with internationally celebrated classics from the same period. Virta venhettä vie (Drifting on the stream) for male voice choir captures something of the essence of the characteristic non-sentimental Finnish melancholy.
Leevi Madetoja’s music is also characterized by a certain melancholy and introvert nature — and a high standard of quality. His choral works are not as immediately accessible as Kuula’s, but there is something highly fascinating and haunting in their austerity. Most of Madetoja’s choral works are for male voice choir, such as De profundis, which also exists in a version for mixed choir. Marian murhe (Stabat Mater) for two-part women’s choir and strings is a sorrowful and effective setting of a Finnish version of the ancient sacred text. Madetoja’s Impressionistically tinted idiom and contrapuntal flow can be heard at their best in such works for male voice choir as the lyrical Soita somer, helkä hiekka (Gush, O gravel, sing, O sand), the sombre Megairan laulu (Megaira’s song) or the extensive and complex Elegia.
Selim Palmgren’s music also draws on Impressionism, but compared with Madetoja his choral music is considerably more homophonic, and his harmonies are richer. Particularly popular among his partsongs for male voice choir are the Swedish-language En latmansmelodi (Lazy man’s tune) and Sjöfararen vid milan (The seafarer at the charcoal kiln), and the Finnish-language Hiiden orjien laulu (Song of the ogre’s slaves) and Serenadi. His major mixed-choir partsongs, including Poppelit (Poplars) and Juhannus (Midsummer), may be found in the collection Sekakuorolauluja I (Mixed Choir Songs I), which was published by Sulasol in 1948 and which, still in print, remains a favourite collection and an excellent handbook of early 20th-century Finnish choral music.
There is no reason to feel daunted by the Finnish language in exploring this repertoire, since Finnish is phonetically extremely logical. Any singer who has tackled Italian or Latin will find no strange or impossible sounds in Finnish, and for help there is always the excellent pronunciation guide Sing it in Finnish by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, published by Sulasol.
© Kari Turunen & Fimic (2003/2008)
Translation © Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Also available as printed brochure ISBN 978-952-5076-68-4 (2008)