Up to now, I have felt on fairly safe ground with my Finnish classics. One reason for this distance. All the composers I have presented thus far have been figures of the past. I did met three of them and can say I knew Bergman and Rautavaara more than superficially, but I can in no way claim to have had real ties to them. I can thus claim objectivity by personal distance. And distance given by time helps with the works: the music community has worked out over time, which works seem the weightiest. I am not saying that this common view is infallible or without bias, but it is at least a consensus of sorts.
Now we move to an era in which I have lived. I don’t have any close ties to the composer of today’s classic, but I have naturally come across him many times. The personal distance is starting to diminish. And even more the time perspective is becoming narrower and I feel less support of the (assumed) views of my peers. All this will come even clearer in my last classic, but I felt it needed to be said at the top of this post.
If you look at our eight previous composers, none of them have been ‘choral composers’. They have all made their name predominantly in the (sadly) more prestigious areas of orchestral and / or operatic music. Some of them have a very limited output of choral works (above all, Kokkonen), but many do have have very impressive catalogues. Mikko Heiniö [‘heiniø’], the composer of our ninth classic(s), stands somewhere in the middle. He has a very well-rounded list of works, ranging from four operas to chamber works and orchestral works to choral music. The quantity of choral works is limited, but the quality is uniformly high.
Heiniö, born in 1948, studied both music and musicology and has balanced compositional work with academic work (professor of musicology at the Turku University 1986–2005). His composition teacher at the Sibelius Academy was Joonas Kokkonen (see classic #7). Heiniö’s music is difficult to define in any technical manner, but attributes often ascribed to his music are sonorous, energetic, accessible, colorful and surprising. Heiniö is not afraid to incorporate diverse elements in to his works, be they references to early music or contemporary musical styles. At the same time, I think it is important to point out that Heiniö’s style is not eclectic, but rather varies from one work to another. In individual works, the harmonic basis and the melodic material is considered and limited, resulting in a strong feeling of unity within each work.
Two works make my shortlist. The first is a piece Swedish conductor Robert Sund called the best work ever written for female choir. I might not dare go quite that far, but Landet som icke är (The land that does not exist, 1980) is certainly in the race. Scored for prepared piano and female choir, this three-movement work to poems by Edith Södergran is an exhilarating adventure. The piano part is extremely demanding and gives the work an extraordinary color. The poems are stupendous and Heiniö does them justice.
Luceat (1992), the second candidate, is possibly the weightiest of Heiniö’s choral works. Set to a fragment of the Requiem, this is a personal and emotional work, even if the musical material is again limited and developed rigorously. The opening whispers, reminiscent of the sound of the ventilator, set the scene. The work is a masterclass of building waves of intensity to climaxes. It is scored for 12-part mixed chorus and very orchestral in writing with gestures moving from one voice to another to create long chains of gestures. I find the ending extremely touching: it strives upwards, but closes with an openness that feels true and honest. There is no simple answer, but there is hope.
The choice is perhaps a little left-field, but I am inclined to choose Landet som icke är as our ninth Finnish choral classic. For a classic, it is certainly hiding in plain sight at this time, but if I think of contemporary music for female choir, I think this work stands out even more than Luceat does amongst works for mixed choir. The way it breaks the standard sound image we associate with the choir-piano combination is already something of a wonder. But above all, for me it is one of the works that creates a world of its own into which I am privileged to be allowed entrance and it is a world that I leave reluctantly, like a wonderful novel or touching film.
I have put together a playlist of some of my favorite Heiniö choral works.
- Three Finnish Folksongs for Double Choir (1977). I understood this set of three folk songs began as a compositional exercise whilst Heiniö was studying in Berlin. The songs are such simple: the outer movements playful ditties and the central movement is based on a classic, melancholy folk song. The choral writing is absolutely stupendous and the rhythmic drive of the outer movements impossible to resist. The Tapiola Chamber Choir, Eric-Olof Söderström.
- Landet som icke är (1980). Akademiska Damkören Lyran; Tuuli Lindeberg, piano; Hedvig Paulig, soprano; Kari Turunen, conductor.
- Luceat (1992). Key Ensemble, Teemu Honkanen.
- Skålbordun (1993), for male choir. This potpourri of Swedish folk songs affectionately makes fun of the Nordic male choir tradition and its love of drinking songs. The YL Male Chorus, Matti Hyökki.
- The Maria Suite (2011). Five movements with texts in five different languages. This work is an excellent example of Heiniö’s ability to infuse his music with influences from different styles and musics. Key Ensemble, Teemu Honkanen.