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Musica sacra

Time for the next report-cum-reflection. This time it is Chorus Cantorum Finlandiae (CCF) on tour in southern Germany. CCF is the choir of Finnish church musicians. All the singers are either active church musicians (ca. 85%), students of church music (10%) or singers with a training in church music who have decided to do something else for a living (5%).

The choir meets 3-4 times a year for ca. three days at a time. The typical period is meeting up on Sunday evening and having a short rehearsal after dinner; a day of rehearsals on Monday with concert #1 in the evening; one rehearsal during Tuesday & concert #2 in the evening (most often these concerts are in churches within 100 km of each other). The core is pretty stable, but each project sees a choir that is a little different. We probably have over 40 singers on our lists, but the typical choir of late has been around 30, with 34 on this trip.

CCF is a cross between ambitious choral work with trained singers, friends spending time together and a peer support group. Many of the singers work in small parishes where they are the only church musician and the possibility to sing with colleagues and pour their heart out to someone who knows what they are talking about, is an important and enriching possibility. And the singing is good. Time is limited so it is possible to renew about 30% of the program each time, avoiding really complex works. And it really is the quality of the voices that is the choir’s greatest strength, so there is no point singing music in which this quality is not audible.

The choir is an interesting reflection of how the world has changed. It was founded in 1948 as a male choir and only became a mixed choir in 2007. After the wars, practically all the church musicians of the Lutheran church were men. Nowadays, the balance is around 50-50, but it will tilt towards a female majority very quickly as the majority of the students have for at least two decades been women. I wonder if the choir will ultimately become a female choir?

We are here in Marktoberdorf, South-West of Munich, in the heartland of Bavaria, at a festival called Musica Sacra. Its theme this year is The Voice of Religions. We are in an unfamiliar surrounding with one African choir, a Belarussian group that sings old Russian liturgical music, Common Ground Voices with singers around the world, including Israel and Palestine, a synagogal choir from Hannover, an Algerian singer who sings for example Sufi brotherhood songs, an Indian ensemble that sings Hindu music and a Korean group that performs Buddhist music. This all looks incredibly interesting, at least on paper. I will be a lot wiser after the Opening concert in a few hour’s time.


Well, that was an interesting concert. Not at all what I expected, but still a wonderful dialogue between religions. That said, it is not exactly easy to get your head around Lutheran hymns, Romantic Hebrew songs, a Buddhist monk chanting and someone singing Arabian songs in the same concert. And hold it, I forgot the German vocal ensemble singing a brand-new piece written for them and an African choir singing, eh, African music!

The concert reminded me of how warm and eager the local audience is. I have been here twice before to the choral competition, omce with Lyran in 2003 and five years ago with Kampin Lsulu. I have very fond memories of both trips, and not least thanks to the appreciative audiences. Again, the (acoustically fairly dreadfull) hall was packed – not everyone even got in! And the reception was just as embracing as I remembered.

We sang only 10 minutes, but we did it well. Good start. Tomorrow sees a morning rehearsal, a session as the core of the festival choir and an evening concert shared with the Algerian group. I’ll fill you in on how it went.


The setting of the festival is, by the way, quite spectacular. The Bavarian Music Academy here operates in a 15th-century castle.

The castle was the residence of the Fürstbischof who, as the title suggests, seems to have been both a ruler and a bishop. Handy combination. I found a plaque outlining the history. Look at the last sentence. You can only admire the German language.


May 19

A long day of rehearsals followed by a very long concert together with a classical Indian ensemble and the Algerian group. Understandibly enough, this concert did not take place in a church (which would have been the norm for us), but a cultural centre in Southern Allgäu. The Indian group was virtuosic, and the Algerian ensemble seemed more versatile than yesterday. It struck me that we were the odd man out – a classical choir sandwiched between two World music groups.

On the other hand, why is classical Indian music or age-old Arabic music World music and classical Western music not? Is the term in itself colonialistic?

Another thought. Why on earth did Western art music take the harmony route? Both the other traditions heard today were, as many others I know somewhat, melodic and rhythmic. Could it be that it was the buildings, the reverberant churches that created harmonies on their own and enticed to intended harmonies? There must be a theory on why harmony developed.

For me the crucial difference is that harmony adds another, slower-moving rhythmic element to the music. The melody becomes the surface under which there is another layer of movement. This does not require the harmony to be functional, albeit functional makes this secondary pulse easier to grasp. And I feel that agogics, so central to art music I work with, come from this underlying rhythmic level.

In the musics that we heard yesterday, the centrality of the melody cries for adornment and improvisation. In the Indian classical music this led to what sounded very much like jazz improvisation to me. And in the Arabic, it seemed to more like a warbling around the recurring melody, a little like the warbling or hovering around a note of a melody you hear in American R&B / pop virtuoso singers.

I’m not sure how well the theme (Voices of Religions) was served by the concert. The classical Indian music might have roots in Vedic culture, but is now about as sacred as a symphonic concert. I don’t know about the Arabic enough to say how religious the texts were. Also they sounded somewhat generic and could just as well have been profane love songs. And they were performed as concert music yesterday, which changes the whole dynamic.

Of course, this might be a heuristic moment: perhaps all sacred music tends to become above all music. Our singing of hymn arrangements is not an act of devotion but (at best) an emotion-laden musical performance. And that is exactly why the music of any religion can be interesting to audiences who do not share that faith. Like the leader of the Indian group said: ‘music is my religion’. I think, despite their religious beliefs, all musicians will understand this credo. At least I do.


May 20

Again, a lovely morning rehearsal with CCF. I can’t even imagine what you could achieve if it was possible to work with a group like this every day.

This evening’s concert is at a church in Marktoberdorf. We are sharing the concert with the Synagogal choir from Hannover. They sang in a polished way in the opening concert, so I look forward to hearing them again. The music was from the golden period of Ashkenazy jews, i.e. Romantic Germanic music from the 19th century. So nothing really exotic there, but surely just the fact that you have a German choir singing Jewish music in Germany has to be meaningful.


Another (long) concert done and dusted. The audience seemed happy with what they heard and I am pretty satisfied myself. I could do with a beer.


May 21

Lovely divine service in an Evangelical Baroque (?) Church in Kaufbeuren. Full house, wonderful venue, beautiful weather, good organist, snappy service with lots of choral music. But the thing that touched me most was the congregational singing. I’m sure Martin Luther had time for a broad smile looking down from the heavens. There is a strange assurance of faith in this collective singing – one where the assurance comes from the collective more than the individuals. It is a difficult phenomenon to explain, but there is a simultaneous calm and excitement – perhaps a little like in the best moments in choral singing. I have room to be myself, but I become more than myself within the group.

It is (finally) a lovely day and I gave the singers a couple of hours off. We have the festival choir rehearsal and then it is bus time again – this time to Füssen at foot of the Alps. If you have been to Neuschwanstein castle, you will probably have passed through. We have a concert in which we will do our own 15 minute program (boring Finnish sacred music) and sing the commissioned piece with the festival choir. I won’t go into details, but the festival choir work has not exactly been efficient so far, but the work is starting to take form. It is scored for a big choir, a six-part vocal ensemble (Singer Pur) and the Indian classical music ensemble. I think it will be pretty good (we have not heard the Indian band in this context yet, so I should be somewhat wiser soon).


Oh boy, a low-stress concert just became anything but. I was asked (before the last runthrough) to conduct the commissioned piece that the festival choir will be performing. Performing this evening…

And the piece is written, as I earlier described, for a big chorus, vocal ensemble and classical Indian ensemble & singer. I feel totally out of my depth. Oh, what a feeling…


Tension rises.

Well, well. A three-hour concert in front of full house ended in a never-ending improvisation. Not quite my cup of tea, but the audience seemed to lap it up.

How did the big piece go? Surprisingly well about 2/3 through, after which something happened. Might have been me, might have been someone else, but after that, it wasn’t quite as written. Survival mode kicked in.

I hate conducting stuff that a) I have not had chance to study, b) where my primary role is to act as a metronome. Especially b). I feel awkward, unmusical and stiff. Nothing, but nothing flows easily. Well, job done (and repeat of the piece tomorrow;). At least I get to work with the choir tomorrow. That will make it easier in the evening as I will have a better connection to the singers.

Following this evening’s concert, I saw myself better. I am hopelessly classical and highbrow. I really believe that I can make the world better by creating moments of perfect beauty. Even if no-one else appreciates what I am striving for and the vast majority of people would rather hear something more entertaining.

I think classical musicians are like yoga-masters (yogis?) that after 20 years of daily practice start to understand what breathing actually is. OK, that is pushing it, but there is a certain unreasonable side to being serious about classical music. And not everyone will understand or appreciate this unreasonable pursuit. But, to be honest, I see no alternative. This is what I must do. This is what I have dedicated my life to.


May 22

A morning off was a brilliant idea. I could have slept longer (an alarm went off in a near-by room at 7), but I feel a lot more relaxed. Besides, I just checked, things went a little pear-shaped in bar 215 (of 270) in the festival piece, which means we it 4/5 that was under control, not 2/3. Not too shabby. And even though, in theory, it could be worse today, I (optimistically and even with reason) believe it will be better.

I think what happened was that the Indian band began a section in a different tempo to mine and the tabla player, a great young Bengali guy, understandably gravitated to that world. I flagellate myself for not reacting better, but the whole Indian music world is so unfamiliar to me that I am not sure I had any real chance to fix the problem. Better luck next time.


Everything seems a little chaotic today. Timetables are altered, programs are adjusted, nerves are a little frayed. I am going to try to be as calm and positive as possible.

We are in the same church as yesterday’s service. At least it will be the right place for CCF.


The rehearsal was a little chaotic timing-wise and getting everyone on the same page. My role is partially to be the scapegoat if something is not good, especially the tempo. I don’t quite buy it, but I can live with it.


A really good session with the choir that proved to be much better than everyone seems to have rhought. We might even pull off a pretty good performance. If I can keep everyone in the same boat.

Now for some dinner at a restaurant in Kaufbeuren.


Half an hour to the last concert and I am tired. I need to work up some adrenaline.


The concert went well. It was only reasonably long, CCF sang brilliantly and even the commissioned piece worked fine for the most. The festival choir sang much, much better than yesterday.

This good ending to the festival was followed by a party at the Academy. It was good fun and I stayed far too long seeing that we are leaving after 7 am. And I have a concert tomorrow in Helsinki with Akademen. But that is another story.

One comment on “Musica sacra

  1. Eva-Maria Schalk says:

    Dear Kari,

    at Musica Sacra I was a member of the festivalchoir and I really appreciated how you handled all the music between your hands! CCF sounded amazingly fine so it was a great pleasure for me to hear your concerts.
    Also I want to say thank you: Thank you very much for taking the unloved role of – how you wrote – the scapegoat. Just for me your are not a scapegoat but the saviour because without you we (the festivalchoir) were lost, I’m sure.
    With kind regards, Eva

    Liked by 1 person

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