As the world and the place where I now live comes to grips with the deadly virus and Covid-19, most of us in Europe and Northern America are spending time in isolation. Partially to document these strange times, partially to repel homesickness that comes at times in huge waves and partially just to fill time, I decided to embark on a series of Finnish Choral Classics.
I am writing this on the evening of March 18 in Vancouver, Canada. The city has fortunately not been amongst the hardest hit by the virus so far, possibly in part because the large Chinese community practiced social distancing well before any guidelines were issued. As of today, the documented case count is 231, with seven deaths. The deaths are mostly due to the fact that the two hotspots in the community unfortunately happened to be care homes.
Life was still fairly normal here a week ago. Schools were still in full swing, approaching their spring break and I both taught a class and conducted a concert last Friday. How the world has changed in five days! Now schools are closed indefinitely, universities have moved to online courses, people are being asked to work remotely if they can and everyone is ordered to minimize all contact with other people. All rehearsals are off and almost all concerts before summer cancelled.
Naturally this also means my artistic work with the Vancouver Chamber Choir is done for some time. The very best case scenario is getting back to work in May, but right now it feels more likely that nothing will happen before June, possibly August. So, far away from my family, I need something to do. And this series of blog posts is one way of biding my time.
The first Finnish choral classic I would like to introduce is the Rakastava by Jean Sibelius. Now, and I say this cautiously, the funny thing is that Sibelius, although he was a fantastic composer, never seemed to feel completely at ease with choral music. Many of his works were far too difficult for the groups that commissioned them, and the premieres were catastrophes. This is all the more strange as his solo songs are wonderful and idiomatic. Perhaps one reason was that he seems not to have been much of a choral singer, as an anecdote from 1897 reveals that at a least an inebriated Sibelius struggled to stick to his designated voice part in a quartet.
Be that as it may, Sibelius, who was approaching his 30th birthday and making a name for himself as a composer to watch out for, entered a competition for new works for male choir in 1894. He submitted Rakastava (The Lover, literally The One who loves), a suite in four movements for tenor solo and male choir to poems from Kanteletar, a collection of Finnish folk poetry ( a sister-work of sorts to the national epic Kalevala). The jury seems to have considered Sibelius’ entry to have been the best, but because it was regarded impractical, or outright unsingable, they decided to give it II prize. The winning contribution was a run-of-the-mill male choir song composed by Sibelius’ one-time teacher of composition, Emil Genetz.
The jury did have a point because it seems the first performances of Rakastava were problematic, to say the least. Sibelius actually wrote a version for male choir and string orchestra the same year to address these problems, but unfortunately created more problems in the process (long a cappella stretches followed by strings entering in the midst of everything…). Despite these early problems, the work had staying power and Sibelius arranged it for mixed choir in 1898, rewriting the solo for two voices, a baritone and a mezzo-soprano.
Intriguingly, this was not all. In 1912, a year after the premiere of his IV Symphony, and almost 20 years after the inception of the original male choir version, Sibelius conducted the first performance of Rakastava for string orchestra. This wonderful work in three movements uses almost all the central material of the choral version, but is an independent composition. It has the feel of a man on top of his game in mid-life returning to youthful ideas and delving even deeper into nature, human psyche and emotions.
Synopsis of poems
I Where is my beloved? The protagonist (male) looks everywhere for his love and states that if only he could find her, everything would be so different.
II The path of the beloved. He finds where she has walked and thanks to her, nature blossoms and even the rocks are brighter.
III Good evening, my darling! They finally meet, greet each other, dance and admire one another.
IV Hug me, my love! After an embrace and a kiss, it is time to say goodbye. (It has always been a matter of discussion how final these farewells are – death seems to lurking around the corner, especially in the string orchestra version)
You will find all three versions (male choir, mixed choir and string orchestra) in this Spotify playlist. Enjoy!