Choosing the last of my ten classics proved even more difficult than I thought it would. It is hard to see the forest for all the trees and I struggle to create the distance needed for any kind of objectivity. And above all, Finnish choral music from the last three decades is an embarrassment of riches – there is so much to choose from.
So I began with some criteria to narrow it down a little. First of all, a decided that the last classic would have to be composed between 1990 and 2010. This takes many excellent recent works out of the picture, but I think to be a classic a work really needs a bit of water to have passed under the bridge since its inception. Secondly, the work must have enjoyed some sort of popularity or recognition either in Finland, or preferably on the international scene. This also narrows the field a little, as I believe there are some wonderful works still to be discovered by the choral community at large. The last criterion was that my short list should reflect the major change in choral music of the last three decades: diversity.
In the end I arrived at two works that I could not overlook. There were other excellent works by, for example Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kaija Saariaho, Riikka Talvitie, Perttu Haapanen, Juhani Komulainen, Jukka Linkola, Tellu Turkka and Mikko Sidoroff that would have made the cut based on sheer quality, but they did not tick all the boxes. The choice between the two finalists felt somewhat absurd as they represent completely different musical worlds. So I decided to share the first prize between two very different, but effective and oft-performed works.
It would have been unreasonable not to include a work by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963) in my list of classics. He has quite simply been the most popular Finnish choral composer of the last decades. Many of his works came into consideration, but I chose Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae from 1997, a great favorite of mine. The work was written in memory of the souls lost in the tragic shipwreck of the ferry Estonia. The ferry, en route from Tallinn to Stockholm, sank in Finnish waters in 1994, taking with it 852 passengers. I remember watching desolate footage of the wreck on morning TV on a stormy September morning. The ferry had years before been in service between Finland and Sweden and many of us had made numerous trips on her. The idea that this floating hotel with its buffets and bars could have sunk, seemed to beggar belief.
Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae is written, as the dedication in Latin states, in memory of this shipwreck. It is evocative and touching, but there is no shallow sentimentality to it. The multi-layered text consists of references to the Requiem mass; a vocalize solo that is a folksong-like adaptation of the hymn melody of Nearer, my God, to thee; the chanted news report in Latin; and Psalm 107 (They that go down to the see in ships), often referred to as the Mariner’s psalm. This combination is extremely effective as it gives vent to a multitude of emotions: the collective sorrow in the requiem text, the longing sadness of the solo line, the stark matter-of-factness of the Latin news report and the voyage from terrors of a storm to the solace of reaching a safe port of the psalm. For all these elements and its clearly defined sections, the work has a strong sense of unity and shape. It is effective and touching, and economic (while the work is not without its demands, it is not as difficult as it appears at first hearing).
The other work is quite different in style. Its creative team, composer and co-arranger Mia Makaroff (born 1970), co-arranger Anna-Mari Kähärä (born 1963) and original performer Rajaton all represent a different angle to choral singing than any of the previous classics I have covered. Makaroff is a music pedagogue-composer-choral conductor whose skilled compositions are mostly in a category I call ethno-pop, i.e. pop-jazz-world music. Kähärä is one of the most uncontrollably musical people I have ever met; she is incredibly difficult to nail down in any category, but her work is mainly on the non-classical side (jazz, folk, world, pop). Rajaton, the group the work was written for, is a world-class ensemble of six singers. It has been at the forefront of the a cappella movement in Finland and has blazed the path for many other interesting groups in the field.
Butterfly (2001) is a gem. The music and text are inseparable and the sad-light character is startling and stays with you long after the song has faded out. The music reflects the ephemerality of the butterfly beautifully. At the same time, it reminds us of one of the deepest characteristics of choral music – our music floats in the air for a few fleeting moments and then it is for ever gone. Every time we sing, we create something that is for this moment, for the people who sing it and hear it. And no instruments are needed to create this miracle, just human beings coming together for a short moment.
Love me on the leaves before we say goodbye. Love me, kiss me with breeze, you’ll be my lullaby. Tomorrow I’ll die.