Today’s classic is Kevätunta (Spring dreams or Dreams of spring; performance here by Key Ensemble, conducted by Teemu Honkanen) from 1925 by Leevi Madetoja. I wanted to present a short work after the first two lengthy classics. I believe we often underestimate choral music for the very quality that makes it so valuable. Choral music is one of the most efficient short forms, the poetry of classical music, as opposed to the more prosaic larger forms of instrumental music. Just like a poem can say multitudes within a few lines and become a life-long companion, choral partsongs can achieve the same, with the added benefit of combining words and music.
Leevi Madetoja was four years younger than Toivo Kuula, but as Kuula had interrupted his studies, they actually studied at the Helsinki Music Institute at the same time and shared the same teachers (Armas Järnefelt and Jean Sibelius; Madetoja was in addition taught by Erik Furuhjelm). They were both from Ostrobothnia, Kuula from the southern part and Madetoja from Oulu in the north. They were both from families with limited means. Madetoja’s sailor father died on his travels without having seen his son and his mother somehow managed to educate Leevi and his elder brother on a sales assistant’s wages. Madetoja’s family was also religious and belonged to the same revivalist movement as Kuula’s. After graduating, between 1912 and 1914, the two friends were both Assistant conductors of the Finnish orchestra and it was Kuula’s example that encouraged Madetoja to collect folk songs and melodies from Northern Ostrobothnia.
Madetoja’s first composition concert was in 1910 and this was followed by the first of several study trips to Paris. He made his name predominantly as an orchestral composer and his three symphonies are generally considered the finest Finnish works in the genre barring Sibelius’ symphonies. Especially the Third symphony is a wonderful, colorful work, linear, melodic, and certainly deserves broader recognition than it has. Madetoja’s two operas, Pohjalaisia and Juha, were extremely important in their time and are still performed regularly in Finland. His music is a intriguing combination of French elegance and Finnish gravity. If Kuula, in his music, is strong and extrovert, Madetoja is almost the opposite, poetic and introverted.
Not unsurprisingly, Madetoja was an excellent choral composer, who hardly wrote a mediocre work in the genre. His oeuvre includes ca. 50 songs for both male and mixed choruses and a handful of works for female voices. They date from 1908 to early post-war years, but the most important works were written by the mid-1920s.
Kevätunta is a setting of a poem by L. Onerva (Hilja Onerva Lehtinen 1888–1972), Madetoja’s spouse from 1918. There was always a third person in this marriage, namely Eino Leino, the poet of Meren virsi (Classic #2). Onerva and Leino had been lovers before the marriage with Madetoja, and their close relationship lasted even this marriage, as well as several of Leino’s. The fourth party in the ménage was unfortunately alcohol, which is the main reason the trio’s productivity dipped in the 1920s.
The poem is a depiction of early spring. To make any sense of the poem and the time it evokes, you have to remember that April in the north of Europe is still a battleground between winter and summer. The leaves break out in early May and the nights in April are still often below freezing. Signs of spring are still very subtle.
Ilman hämylaineet hienot / puiden punerrukset vienot / huolii himmenevän maan / kevätunten purppuraan. [The fine waves of the twilight / the slight reddenings of the trees / carry the fading earth / into the purple of spring dreams.]
Taivaan kantta leuto-säinen/ soutaa tähti yksinäinen/ niin kuin pursi hopeisen/ suvi-öisen joutsenen. [On the clear firmament / rows a lonely star / like the silver boat / of the swan on a summer night.]
Haaveet heijaa maassa, puussa/ suvihaaveet huhtikuussa. / Helähtelee herkkä jää / pajun virpi värähtää. [Dreams sway on the ground, in trees / dreams of summer in April. / Chinks the fragile ice / the sprig of the willow stirs.]
Oksat unelmista taipuu/ onnen odotusta vaipuu. / Taivas kuulas yötä maan / syleilee kuin armastaan. [Branches bend with dreams / sink with expectation of happiness. / The fair sky the night of the earth / embraces like a lover.]
Madetoja’s setting is elegant to the extreme. It is impressionistic and almost weightless and conveys the idea of the poem perfectly. With very few means, Madetoja creates a miniature world as only the best short choral pieces can. If Kuula’s Meren virsi was epic poetry, this is a fleeting impression.
The playlist includes a few of my favourite Madetoja choral works:
1 Valkeat kaupungit [White towns] for male choir (1909)
2 Onnelliset [The happy ones] for mixed choir (1911)
3 Megairan laulu [The Song of Megaera] for male choir (1912)
4 Hakamaassa [In the pastures] for female choir (1914)
5 Soita somer, helkä hiekka [Sing gravel, resound sand] for male choir (1917)
6 Läksin minä kesäyönä käymään, folk song arrangement (1924); versions for mixed and male choruses, here male choir
7 De Profundis (1925), versions for male and mixed choir (here mixed)
8 Kevätunta [Spring dreams] for mixed choir (1925)
9 Elegia [Elegy] for male choir (1928)
10 Sypressiportilla [At the gate of the lilacs] for mixed choir (1928)
11 Ilta [Evening] for male choir (1946)