The Origin of Fire – Works for Male Chorus & Orchestra

Sibelius in 1920

Alongside Sibelius’ a capella choral output are the choral-orchestral works, both which still suffer much undeserved neglect. I mean, if you like Kullervo – you ought to try these as well. The most obvious thing to do for Sibelius was to incorporate the choral hymn of Finlandia into the orchestral tone poem – and yet, I only know of two recordings, one with a mixed choir on Ondine (Sibelius Cantatas ODE 754-2) and this committed performance with the Laulun Ystävät Male Choir, under Järvi’s very experienced Sibelian conducting. But more on that later…

Although it may seem a little odd to place something as evocatively titled as “The Origin of Fire” next to the Finnish Jäger March, this disc proved to be a thoroughly fascinating record of a mixture of Sibelius’ compositional characteristics.

Tulen synty, op.32 (1902, rev.1910) depicts “The Origin of Fire” as it is written in the Finnish epic, The Kalevala. The 10-minute work begins in darkness, portraying the absence of the sun, moon and fire, which have been stolen by the Mistress of Pohjola. The baritone soloist laments in gloom over a field of Sibelian wind chords and string ostinati, basses rumbling like distant rolling clouds.

All is not lost – having described the concerns of Ukko, Chief of the Gods, the choir takes over to sing of his (Ukko’s) striking light in the air with his blazing sword to begin the restoration. As is strangely common in the Kalevala, there are scenes and imagery of homely activity despite the epic mythological scale of the poetry and plot. Ukko asks the Maiden of the Air to rock the spark of fire in a golden cradle “[s]o a new moon /And a new sun could be made”. But she is careless and drops it from heaven.

In a sense, The Origin of Fire is like a slowly growing crescendo, moving from darkness to light. With Sibelius’ famed ability for organic growth, this is just the kind of thing he does well. As the choir sings of the Maiden’s carelessness, the music becomes more and more expectant. Seamlessly, the key shifts into the major, and choir, majestically accompanied, sings out broadly:

The sky was ripped apart,
The air was filled with windows,
Burst apart by sparks of fire,
As the red drop swiftly fell,
And a gap shone out from heaven.
As it dropped through the clouds,
Dropped through nine heavens,
Through six spangled vaults,
Through six spangled vaults,
Through nine heavens.

Sibelius’ light pastoral mood enters in Sandels, op.28 (1898), as the choir sings merrily of General Sandels, a prominent soldier in Finnish history. The humorous story, in Swedish, depicts how Sandels cannot be moved to battle (see below for more details), despite all who enter his tent to beg him. As the enemy encroaches, Sandels nonchalantly but in goodwill offers the desperate messengers food (including goose and veal cutlets)! Only when he is accused of cowardice does he spring up in annoyance and rushes into battle to save the day. (Again see below for more details).

The progression of moods, from happy to anxious to battle, is never over-dramatized. Instead, Sibelius seems to have written this for the purpose of story-telling – the poem by Runeberg (the composer’s favourite poet) consists of a long narrative that reflects this. Sibelius’ orchestral accompaniment is simple and effective, never overwhelming the choral component, prefering to support and to add little dashes of instrumental comment or colour to fit the story. Human humour is agreeably married to military victory, making this work particularly refreshing and performable.

As Sandels takes his leave, the unabashedly patriotic Suomen Jääkärien Marssi (March of the Finnish Jäger Battalion, 1917) marches out in military pomp. Snare drums, cymbals, woodwind trills, brass outbursts, the 2/4 march rhythm and a thoroughly singable melody – all the elements of a patriotic march are here!

Our blow is deep, unconquerable hate,
O homeland, we have no mercy.
All our luck is at the point of our swords,
Our breast cannot relent.
Our stirring war-cry rings out to the land
Which will break its bounds.
We shall not tire of fighting
Until the Finnish people is free;
We shall not tire of fighting
Until the Finnish people is free!

March of the Men of Pori by Albert Edelfelt
'March of the Men of Pori' (1897-1900), by Albert Edelfelt

Militant words to fit the spirited fervour with which the Laulun Ystävät Male Choir sings, including a final shout of triumph. (I recall the marching song of the French Foreign Legion has a similarly “vicious” text). There is a little clarinet squawk during the performance, but if you don’t hear it, don’t look for it. It doesn’t mar the music for me, but once I “located” it, I can’t miss it.

“Have you courage to go out into life’s battle /And keep yourself there like a man?” challenges the opening of Har du mod? (Have you courage?). A dark and defiant song of confrontation, it is a simple march song with an almost “ancient”/rustic ring, as of Nordic warriors sailing out to battle.

The Song of the Athenians – Aternarnes sång – is scored for boys’ and men’s choirs, wind septet and percussion. Like Har du mod?, it is in Swedish. Composed in an atmosphere of Russian political repression, the text is again a patriotic call to arms, derived from Rydberg. The Song was first performed at the premiere of the composer’s First Symphony, in April 1899, and won the hearts of the audience.

Before Finlandia, the Gothenburg team gives us the 6-minute Academic March, or “Jubilee March for Small Orchestra”. Its purpose – the convocation ceremonies of the Helsinki University on May 31st, 1919. (Hey, I got Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich at mine!). This is not a military march but more of a pastoral procession, played “con grandezza”. It is simple and unpretentious, and according to Sibelius, was ignored by everyone except the orchestra which applauded at rehearsal.

Finally, we are given Finlandia. Whether you’re sick of it or not, here’s a chance to hear it as I think it should be – with the hymn sung. And the Laulun Ystävät Male Choir do it with great pride and fervent musicality. Their first verse is hushed and dark, depicting again the frequent image of night moving towards daylight. In the next verse, their voices truly intensify as morning dawns on Finnish freedom.

Neeme JärviAfter the central hymn, the orchestra plunges headlong into the ending section. Much to my satisfaction, the choir returns to sing in the final quotation of the hymn, joining the orchestra right to the end. (The mixed-choir version on Ondine doesn’t). Sibelius, master of final cadences, is given full justice by Neeme Järvi (right), master of final crescendos. The latter draws out a massive final chord, crescendoing and intensifying it when you think it’s already reached its limit, bringing this very enjoyable disc to a glorious close.

This disc is a 1986 release – very old. I did not consider buying it for some time (admittedly, at a certain sale…) because it was so short (43 minutes). But I enjoyed it so much I decided to review it immediately (my head “marching” along with the Finnish Jäger March). Even for a disc this old, BIS’s high production quality shows, comprising full notes and vocal texts.

BIS 314 Sibelius - The Origin of FireWorks for (Male) Choir and Orchestra
Tulen synty (The Origin of Fire), op.32
Sandels, Op.28
Suomen Jääkärien Marssi (Finnish Jäger March), op.91 no.1
Har du mod? (Have you courage?), op.31 no.2

Aternarnes sång (Song of the Athenians), op.31 no.3

Academic March · Finlandia, op.26, with male chorus

Sauli Tiilikainen baritone · Laulun Ystävät Male Choir
Gothenburg Boys’ Choir and Symphony Orchestra · conducted by Neeme Järvi

Includes full libretti in Finnish and Swedish, with English translations.

BIS CD-314
[43’02”] full-price

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

One thought on “The Origin of Fire – Works for Male Chorus & Orchestra”

  1. As to the “Sandels” poem by Runeberg, you might note one important point: The reason for Sandels refusing to move initially is that the truce with the Russians is not supposed to end until at one o’clock. However, the Russians attack when their time is 1 pm, while it is still 12 noon, Finnish time. General Sandels won’t break the truce until his watch is 1 pm, and therefore holds back his troups, who think he is a coward.
    Best regards,
    Leif Lukander

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