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Finnish Choral Classics V: Erik Bergman, Fåglarna

Erik Bergman (‘e:rik ‘bærjman) was born in 1911 and was thus only a year younger than Nils-Erik Fougstedt. But as he lived a long life and died in 2006, he seems to belong to a completely different generation, even a different era than Fougstedt. When Fougstedt left this world in 1961, Bergman was really only getting going.

Erik Bergman around the time of the birth of Fåglarna

If one needs any proof that Finland is a small country, the stories of our first five composers in this series are a wonderful reminder of that. Sibelius taught Kuula and Madetoja, who were close friends; Fougstedt and Bergman attended the same school as the aforementioned trio, and, in turn, were friends and colleagues – Bergman actually succeeded Fougstedt as the conductor of the male choir Akademiska Sångföreningen. And to really drive the point home, after hearing Bergman’s music on the radio, Sibelius asked Bergman to come and visit him in Ainola. This seems to have been important as Bergman’s music had not been accepted well, and had even been called anti-music by some critics. The benediction of Sibelius, who had stated that here is one who seems to have no problem with being in his shadow, paved, in part, the way for Bergman,

I was fortunate enough to interview Bergman for an article around what I assume would have been his 80th birthday. I still remember my subtitle, a direct quotation: People don’t want to listen to contemporary music because it is for the most total crap. As I had promised, I sent the article to Bergman by fax and soon received a phone call from him commending the article, but asking me to modify the subtitle a little. He said it was totally correct and he stood by his word, but it might be wise to put a little more softly. So crap was changed to poor, but the whole affair says something essential about Bergman: he was fearless, outspoken and witty.

Bergman was one of the very first Finnish composers to introduce Central European post-war modernism to Finland. He wrote the first Finnish dodecaphonic pieces in the early 1950s and challenged all traditional forms and styles in his works for both instrumental ensembles and choirs. Gradually, his language developed from this starting point into a personal and recognizable style embracing many ‘ethnic’ musics, especially those of the East, and a coloristic palette. Humour is often lurking around the corner and his keen eye for good poetry is always evident.

For the choice of work for our fifth classic I have to return to the interview I mentioned above. I asked Bergman which piece of his does he remember most fondly. After some objections about not wanting or being able to pick one piece, he finally said that he feels that his Fåglarna (Birds; here performed by the New London Chamber Choir, Stephen Varcoe, baritone, Endymion Ensemble, conductor James Wood) from 1962, to a poem by his third wife Solveig von Schoultz, was definitely one of his best. I have little to chance but to take Bergman at his word and present Fåglarna for baritone, male choir, celesta and percussion as my fifth Finnish Choral Classic.

Bergman and Solveig von Schoultz enjoying a quiet coffee at home.

The poem’s opening lines are: O låt mig vara en förelöparfågel / nattblå, men med ett bröst av pärlemor, / och låt mig störta främst, / och dränkt i dimman få ropa ut: /  jag tror på ljus! [O, let me be a forerunner bird / black as night but with a breast of mother-of-pearl, / and  let me hurtle myself first, / and steeped in darkness call: / I believe in light!] I believe Bergman found himself in these lines and felt they characterized his calling to seek out untrodden musical paths in a conservative musical surrounding. Bergman uses a cascade of means: the baritone sings mostly ornate atonal melodies defined by large leaps; the choir, at times, accompanies the soloist with in free atonal harmony, and, at times, bursts into speech-choir sections. The vibraphone and celesta add shimmering sounds to the latter half of the piece, while the other percussion instruments add to the general restlessness of the piece. There is seldom a clear sense of pulse and time signatures change almost bar by bar, adding to this anxiety.

Perhaps the most imaginative elements of the work are the male choir sections. They are partially notated in a traditional speech-choir manner, but there are several effects that leave room for interpretation, as well as aleatoric passages. You need to remember that this was 1962. Placed in a program mostly consisting of traditional male choir music, Fåglarna would have not just stood out, it would have leapt at the audience. The piece is still extremely demanding and radical. That is no mean feat for a work almost 60 years old.

I once complained to my conducting professor Matti Hyökki that I just did not understand the forms Bergman used. ‘That is because you are looking for something that is not there’, he replied. ‘It is a form I call bergmanesque. He starts and goes on until he has said all he has to say and then he ends it with a glissando and crescendo upwards that leads to a fortissimo sforzato.’ While this was said at least partly in jest, Hyökki had a point. Bergman’s avoidance of traditionalism includes avoiding traditional forms. His works are best understood as adventures that take you on a journey to places you have never been. They can really test the performers’ skills and patience, but audiences tend to greatly enjoy the adventures Bergman created.

The playlist below includes a few of my favourite Bergman pieces.

  1. Mitt träd är pinjen. An early work (1944) where Bergman is still in late-Romantic mode, but already shows glimpses of what will become his own voice as a composer.
  2. Unter Zeiten from Vier Galgenlieder (1960). Bergman’s Four Gallowssongs to texts by Christian Morgenstern are the best speech-choir pieces I know. The finale of the suite is quintessential Bergman humor.
  3. Fåglarna (1962)
  4. East Coker from Nox (1970) is a great example of Bergman’s coloristic style. Texts in several languages, restless instruments, a parlando soloist and choral effects all merge to create music that is quite simply different to pretty much everything else.
  5. Heippatirallaa from Tyttöset (1973). If you can’t imagine an atonal folk music arrangement, Bergman is at your service, with a glint in his eye.
  6. Midwinter from Lapponia (1975). The whole suite consists of four scenes from Lapland. I believe they are less depictions of nature than mental states. Bergman’s capacity of creating long, quiet passages high in energy is quite exceptional.






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