Probably the finest single choral composition to come out of Finland during the last few decades is Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Die erste Elegie. The great affinity I feel for the work is mainly due to the quality and depth of the piece, but there is also a more personal point of view involved.
I worked for a choral association in the early 1990s. One role I had was to edit the quarterly magazine, Sulasol. For the Autumn number of 1992 I commissioned an essay from Einojuhani Rautavaara and he wrote a fine piece on being an artist in a European cultural context. In the essay he spent some time describing his relationship with religion and the background of his sacred works. One element of religion he discussed was angels. Rautavaara wrote: “We are so used to thinking of angels in the classical kitsch swan-winged and pajama-clad form that the angels of my Angel series [a trio of orchestral works from the 1970s] have been misunderstood. The angels I had in mind belong to something like the [Rainer Maria Rilke] Duino Elegies, in which ‘ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich’. Masculine and terrifying.”
I had a strong sensation that these angels were going to make a re-appearance in his future works, especially since the composer had revealed that he had been carrying a copy of the Rilke Elegies with him for decades. When I heard Rautavaara had written a new work for choir to the first poem of the Duino Elegies, I knew to expect something special. The work was premiered at the Europa Cantat festival in Herning, Denmark by the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir in July 1994 and I was sat by the radio for the concert. The ironic thing is that, as wonderful as the work and its performance was, it was overshadowed by another contemporary work: Regn og rusk og Rosenbusk by Danish composer Bo Holten. The Holten piece has a soaring soprano solo line that was performed to perfection and captured everyone’s attention. Strangely enough, I have not heard the Holten piece since in concert, while the Rautavaara work is already a modern classic.
Rautavaara appreciated the performance and quite laconically stated in a private discussion that he thought Ericson was worth the plaudits he had accrued over the years. In the same discussion Rautavaara admitted that he thought the commission was a little unreasonable as far as the length of the piece was concerned. He thought that a 10-minute, one-movement a cappella piece felt extremely long and that he thought it was a real challenge to write such a piece, let alone perform it. This is certainly one of the problems of performing the Elegie, especially considering that there are several tricky transitions. Staying in tune is demanding – and considering the fairly extreme tessitura of the voice parts, going out of tune makes many passages even trickier.
There are also some demands that ask important aesthetic questions of the conductor. First of all, in a very rautavaaraesque way, there are many passages where the accompanying voice parts recite the text. Should these passages be carefully shaped according to the text or just treated as the backdrop to the voice part(s) with the text proper, a sort of a piano accompaniment with voices? This is a problem one faces already in the very first bars where the sopranos and altos recite Wer wenn ich schrie, wer hörte mich denn? before the dramatic tenor entries on Wenn ich schrie. I have settled on something of a compromise where I vary the degree of phrasing in the accompanying (‘reciting’) voices depending on the section, but keeping it fairly ‘straight’ throughout.
The other major decision one needs to make is how to treat the sections and more specifically moving from one section to another. There are about a dozen sections in the piece and only twice does Rautavaara help the conductor out with a sostenuto marking at the overlap. Reading the text does not necessarily make these choices much easier as the poem seems to flow from one metaphor to another. The dangers are on the one side chopping the piece into small sections (stop-start interpretation) and, on the other, a never-ceasing flow of music and text that has no rhythm (phone directory interpretation). I have preferred to err on the latter side – my intuition simply says that a continuous flow is how Rautavaara tackled the uncomfortable length of the piece. That said, this approach demands that both the conductor and the choristers are acutely aware of the meaning of the wonderful text, which will allow the text to breathe freely.
The work is also technically quite demanding. As was Rautavaara’s want, the tessiturae of the whole choir and the individual voice parts are quite extreme. In this work, it is especially the depth of the choir’s basses which is tested. And as all voice parts have soloistic sections, the quality of each voice part will become quite apparent during the work. An additional challenge are the solo parts (minimum 2 sopranos and one alto) that will stretch even excellent choral singers. The vocal lines and mainly triadic harmonies are for the most quite accessible, with the exception of a couple of nasty turns that unfortunately occur close to the overlaps of sections.
The last serious demand is the structure Rautavaara creates through the tempo relationships. In essence, it is quite simple: until about midway through, the music stays at eight-note = MM 92. After that the pulse becomes gradually faster (eigth-note 116; quarter-note progressively 76, 84 and 100). All well and good, but the initial 92 (in 12/8) is difficult to sing – and conduct. But because of the meticulous tempo structure, it is worth following Rautavaara’s lead and finding ways to make the entrance work. Effort put into this will be repaid on the way: the tempo scheme really does work and carry the work.
So, why go to all this bother? Firstly because of the text: this is one of the most magnificent literary creations I know. It seems to say so much about the very essence of life and many of its lines are ingenious. Secondly, the music: Die erste Elegie is in many ways a summa of Rautavaara’s considerable choral output and it is worth all the work put into it: Die erste Elegie is a masterpiece.