March 20, 2020
The situation remains fairly stable. As of today, the case count in British Columbia is 348, with eight deaths. Stay at home measures have made the town much more quiet that normal and novelties like queuing at two meters distance to one another to gain entrance to a grocery store have been introduced. The weather has been excellent with temperatures around the 10 C mark. The seawall is full of walkers, joggers and cyclists, mostly keeping a very orderly distance to each other. Spring is here and trees are starting push leaves and blossom beautifully. This all somehow adds to the eeriness of the situation, at the same time as this beauty is quietly consoling.
The work I wish to present this time is Meren virsi (Hymn of the Sea) by Toivo Kuula.
Who was Toivo Kuula? He was born in 1883 in Vaasa in Finnish Ostrobothnia. His father was an ex-soldier (born Taikinamäki, literally Batterhill; the name Kuula [bullet] was the name under which he served in the Russian army), policeman and lay preacher in a Lutheran revivalist movement. The father had hopes his son would become a priest, but it seems Kuula knew music and composition was his calling from a fairly early age.
Kuula left school and auditioned in 1900 to study at the highest-level music school of the time, the Helsinki Music Institute (later the Sibelius Academy). His raw talent was recognized right off the bat by his first composition teacher, Martin Wegelius, and he was given free tuition at the school. For financial reasons Kuula had to leave the school three years later. However, he managed to return to school in 1906, after which his composition teaches included Armas Järnefelt and Jean Sibelius. Kuula made quite a splash with his early works and first composition concerts and received a grant from the state for studies in Europe. Kuula spent 1908-09 in Bologna, Leipzig and Paris, studying counterpoint, orchestration, composition and orchestral conducting.
By this time, Kuula had already written a handful of excellent choral works and proved he had a voice of his own. They include Yllätä ikuinen yö, Virta venhettä vie and Illalla for male choir and the magnificent Siell’ on kauan jo kukkineet omenapuut for mixed choir. The vocal lines of these early works were beautifully wrought, the late Romantic harmonies exciting, the counterpoint exquisite and the modality that arose from his Ostrobothnian musical heritage – Kuula collected 400 folk songs and melodies from this area during the summer of 1907 – gave his music a distinct flavor.
Yet, Meren virsi is something extraordinary even in this context. It was composed to a brand new poem that had appeared in the collection Halla [Nightfrost], 1908 by the premiere poet of Kuula’s generation, Eino Leino. It is from the end of the collection, one of four poems to the elements (Hymns of the Land, Sea, Air and Fire), all celebrating human creativity, nature and freedom.
The back-drop of the collection was the russification period of 1899–1905. Being a part of the Russian Empire since 1809 had mostly been a good time for Finland. As an autonomous Grand duchy of the Empire, Finland had developed politically, culturally and economically throughout the 19th Century, but as nationalistic winds began to blow stronger, Russia decided to assert stronger control and make Finland more Russian. This set about a tumultuous period of political, cultural and passive civic resistance, met by harsh measures from the Russian authorities. The second russification period began in 1908 and continued in waves until the Russian revolution, a period of chaos Finland used to gain independence.
There are references in the poem to this time. None the stronger than some lines Kuula left out of his work: Tiedätkö tiesi, kansan aalto? / Aika myrskyinen, minne menet? / Vapaus, vapaus meitä viittoo! / Kansojen meri on ihmisyys. [Do you know your way, wave of the peoples? / Stormy time, where will you go? / Freedom, freedom us beckons! / The sea of the peoples is humanity.] It is clear Kuula’s aims were not political and in his hands, the poem is all about the individual, the artist, and the struggle to rise above the mundane, to strive for the eternal.
Kuula wrote Meren virsi for Heikki Klemetti and Suomen Laulu, the leading Finnish conductor and choir of the early 20th century. His teacher in Paris, Marcel Labey, thought that the piece was too difficult for any choir, and correspondence between the composer and Klemetti makes it clear Klemetti agreed with Labey. The tessitura was one factor, demanding everything between a low B in the basses to a high B in the sopranos. The harmonies are at times complex and the double choir polyphony still stretches choirs. But Alma Silventoinen, Kuula’s second wife to-be, understood the value of the piece and wrote in a diary marking from November 12, 1909: ‘The Meren virsi that you wrote for Suomen Laulu, is also done. It is deep as the sea, foaming with inspiration, strong, longing. I shudder as I listen to you play it – what will it be once we hear it sung?’
The premiere was not a success and reviews stated it was impossible to judge the work based on it. Composer and friend Leevi Madetoja wrote to Kuula and stated that the material seemed to be more suitable for orchestra (Madetoja actually later wrote an orchestral arrangement of the work, see playlist). Klemetti demanded changes to the score and wrote emphatically that unless Kuula did not substantially revise the score, no one else would ever sing it. We are fortunate Kuula and later generations of choirs did not comply.
Kuula’s life was cut short due to a foolish drunken brawl in the aftermath of the Finnish civil war in May, 1918. The 34-year old was shot in the head after knifing an officer in a heated fight. He died of his wounds a few days after the incident. As Einari Marvia put it in 1966: ‘this was the greatest loss ever felt by Finnish music’.
Kuula’s production is substantial, but it is centered around the solo songs and choral works. As they are almost all written to poems in the Finnish language, his name is not known at all well outside Finland. To give an idea of the quality of his vocal works, you will find a Spotify playlist at the end of this post. If you do not have access to this, there is a fine performance of Meren virsi by the Somnium Chamber Choir on youtube. You will find the score here.
Kuula left out another section of the poem: Yksi elää hetken / toinen vuosisadan / kolmannesta kerrotahan kevät-öinen taru. [One lives a moment / the second a century / of the third is told a legend in the spring night.] Kuula might have only lived a moment, but thanks to his Meren virsi, I am telling his legend in this spring night. I feel I need to end this legend-telling with a recording that touches me deeply. The solo song Tuijotin tulehen kauan (I stared into the fire for a long time) was recorded in 1937 by Alma Kuula, Kuula’s second wife and great love. You can hear Alma sing the song here. The song was dedicated to her by the 24-year old composer in 1907.