Finland and the other cultures of the Scandinavian region have a rich choral tradition which I suspect not many realize. These countries can trace their history of song back through the ages in the form of, for example, the Finnish runic songs and the oral transmission of folk poetry. In addition, the composition of music for voice, especially of choral ensembles, remains extremely healthy and diverse today.
Sibelius worked on his works for choir (including mixed, male, and children’s choirs) throughout much of his life, even within the “Silence of Järvenpää” period. This implies that most commentators feel that these are works “inferior” to his primary – symphonic – output. Though Sibelius’ choir works are not exactly revolutionary, they do possess their own blend of charm. The texts used are usually in Swedish or Finnish, settings of contemporary poems and mythological sources such as the Kanteletar and the Kalevala.
The sound of a choir must have been of the nature of the wind to Sibelius. Often, one hears the soft fluttering wind or slowly flowing breezes, weaving and breathing in the air. Rakastava, op.14 is arguably Sibelius’ most popular and famous choir work, existing in arrangements for male voice choir, string orchestra and mixed choir. It is a sweetly melancholic trio of pieces, depicting a lover yearning for his absent love. The middle section, subtitled “The Path of the Beloved” is lyrical and tender, as the lover points out with tenderness the places his “darling has walked/.. my beloved’s steps have trod.” The final section, which brings in a solo baritone and mezzo, depicts the lovers parting, bidding “Goodnight – Farewell”. The music becomes more sorrowful, and ends with a farewell of much grief.
Of the choral works here honoured with an opus number, the Six Songs, op.18 are worth hearing. After the patriotic Isänmaalle (“To the Fatherland”) comes the beautiful Saarella palaa (“Fire on the Island”), an example of Sibelius’ gentle and elegant writing for choir. This, plus Min rastas raataa (“Busy as a Thrush”) and Sortunut ääni (“The Broken Voice”) derive their text from the Kantelelar. The Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, provides the inspiration for the tenderly grave Sydämeni laulu (“Song of my Heart”), on death, and Venematka. The last depicts the Kalevala hero Väinämöinen’s joyful “Boat Journey”.
Not surprisingly, almost all the music’s texts contain references to nature, in Romantic mode. Ensam i dunkla skogarnas famn (“Alone in the Dark Forest’s Clasp”) is actually more happy in mood than the title suggests, as the choir bids the forest to sing in the “whispering groves” and “by the nocturnal light”. Elsewhere, as in Män från slätten och havet (“Men from Land and Sea”, 1911, one of the Two Songs, op.65 ), the land-, air- and sea-scapes depicted are often expressed as spiritual distances by which the singers yearn to cross. The questing spirit of the songs thus imply the search for freedom, naturally linking them to the Finns’ fight for independence at the turn of the 19th century.
This seeking is also resolved in the idea of rest, especially at night, and the awaiting of the dawning of a new day – and era. This is expressed in the Bell Melody of Kallio Church (the second of the Two Songs). The gradually dawning moods of Aamusumussa (“In the Morning Mist”, 1896/8) unfold the patriotic spirit of the text: “let Finland fight /With toil and sweat of brow: … The power to expel the murky dark /Rests firmly in our will.”
Sometimes the music is of a mild, understatedly playful nature, as in Soitapas, soria likka (?1894, “Play, Beautiful Girl” – recorded here for the first time), or in Koulutie (1924). The latter means “The Way to School” and the text, in first person, sings of the childhood happiness and nostalgia of the countryside path to school. And yet, the memories (or “dreams”) eventually give way to wondering of “[t]hat somewhere, far off perhaps as yet, /A wondrous future awaits.”
Less subtle in its message is the Juhlamarssi (1896, Festive March), which originally served as the last movement of Sibelius’ recently recovered Cantata for the University Ceremonies of 1894. This, and the one-minute Skolsång (1925, “School Song”) are of the “Arise! Go forth!” variety of patriotic anthems. Likewise, the March of the Labourers (1896, Työkansan marssi) which I feel is the most successful of the three.
Naturally, all these nature/dawning/patriotism/freedom elements come together in probably Sibelius’ single most famous choral melody, the ever-popular Finlandia Hymn. The tone poem Finlandia was written in 1899, but the Hymn was extracted in 1937, and the version for mixed choir made in 1948. To this day, the Hymn (“Finland’s second national anthem”) retains its power and beauty – at least to the die-hard Romantics:
O Finland, see, your dawn approaches,
And the night is dispersed, dark and long,
Hear how the voice of the lark mixes with sighing space,
Soon the skies will be filled with jubilation.
See how the night flees and you breathe freely again.
Your morning dawns, o country dear.
Rise high, our country, newly raised from darkness.
Meet the waiting day, free and open,
With the same power you showed
When you broke asunder the yoke of slavery.
Repression never bowed you to the ground.
Your day has dawned, o country dear.
The Jubilate Choir sing with familiarity and sensitivity, and the BIS sound is particularly beautiful on the choral sonorities, instilling a level bloom without obscuring too much detail. (The acoustic is a school gymnasium!) Their unified voice is very impressive, no one sticking out, producing tender breezes or grand chorales as needed.
Works for Mixed Choir a cappella
Rakastava, op.14 · Soitapas, soria likka* · Ensam i dunkla skogarnas famn · Aamusumussa · Till Thérèse Hahl · Den 25 Oktober 1902: Till Thérèse Hahl · Ej med klagan · Two songs, op.65 · Drömmarna · Koulutie · Skolsång · Den höga himlen, op.107 · Joululaulu · Juhlamarssi · Työkansan marssi · Uusmaalaisten laulu · Finlandia Hymn · Six Songs from op.18
JUBILATE CHOIR · conducted by ASTRID RISKA
BIS CD-825 (Complete Sibelius Vol.41)