Domes, Bells, and Icons

The major work on Chorale’s upcoming concert is the Vespers portion of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s All-Night Vigil (Vigilia). In Orthodox tradition, the All-Night Vigil is a liturgy including both Vespers and Matins that prepares participants for a major feast day. Rautavaara (1928-2016), perhaps the best-known contemporary Finnish composer, composed Vigilia specifically in memory of St. John the Baptist, who announced the coming of Christ and then was beheaded by Herod, at the behest of Salome. The work was inspired by his visit, as a young boy, to the island monastery of Valamo, in Finland’s Lake Ladoga—an experience that remained in the composer’s mind as an overwhelming vision of domes, bells, and icons. Rautavaara’s stirring music has a raw, visceral, yet euphoric quality that is totally unique in twentieth-century a cappella repertoire.

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Rautavaara composed the two sections of Vigilia for separate events, Vespers in 1971 and Matins in 1972, and later combined them into a single concert work. In his foreword to the published score, he writes:

“The All-Night Vigil ultimately stems from a vision-inducing childhood visit to the island monastery of Valamo in the middle of Lake Ladoga just before the Winter War in 1939; after that war Valamo no longer belonged to Finland. It seemed to me that the islands floated on air, and more and more colourful domes and towers appeared between the trees. The bells began to ring, the low tolling booms and the shrill tintinnabulation: the world was full of sound and colour. Then the black-bearded monks in their robes, the high vaulted churches, and the saints, kings and angels in icons…These images dazzled my ten-year-old mind and lodged in my sub-conscious, to re-emerge fifteen years later in the piano cycle Icons (Ikonit) and again three decades later when I was commissioned to set the Orthodox divine service, or All-Night Vigil. The archaic, darkly decorative and somehow merrily melancholy holy texts affected me deeply. By coincidence, the date set for the performance was the Festival of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. The proper texts for that day had unbelievable, naively harsh and mystically profound passages.

“No instruments are used in divine services in the Orthodox church, not even the organ. Because of this, I wanted to use the choir in as varied a way as possible. There are numerous solos, most importantly the opening basso profondo; there are also tenor, soprano and alto [and baritone] soloists appearing singly and in pairs. The choir not only sings but speaks and whispers too. It sings in clusters and glissandi (a traditional feature of the ancient Byzantine liturgy). There is also a ‘pedal bass’ group that frequently sinks to a subterranean low B flat; the liturgical recitation features microintervals, and so on. In fact, this All-Night Vigil is closer in spirit and expression to the ancient and lost world of Byzantine chant than to the newer Russian chant which was not established as the accepted style until the 19th century.

“The patron saint of this All-Night Vigil, St. John the Baptist, is specifically referred to in the dramatic bass solos 0f the Sticheron of Invocation and the Irmosses. The variation technique I have used binds and structures all sections and songs of the work together into a vast mosaic. In the midst stand two figures: St. John the Baptist and the Virgin, Mother of God. They are surrounded by the apostolic congregation and on the periphery—through the mystery of ecumenical unity—by all of Christendom and all of Western culture.”

Chicago Chorale is now in its tenth week of rehearsing this extraordinary, electrifying work. It presents several daunting tasks.  First: we work with a Finnish language coach, Johanna Hauki, to learn the Finnish pronunciation, as well as to discover and rehearse the word and phrase accents which determine the piece’s constantly shifting metrical structure.  We also have to become familiar with Rautavaara’s wholly personal, compelling harmonic language; and the soloists have to learn to sing in the cracks between the half and whole steps to which they are accustomed. Along the way, we have discovered that the All-Night Vigil is not some difficult oddity, intended to stump performers and listeners alike; rather, it is a strikingly original and unusual piece—I have never heard or sung anything else like it. Rautavaara’s descriptive notes come closer than anything I can conjure up, to suggest the emotional, musical impact of this work on the listener. This dramatically engaging work, in constant motion, achieves, through passages of tender beauty as well as great, tragic power, a grandeur and universality seldom encountered in a purely a cappella work.

The contrast between this work and the others on our program could not be more striking. Each composer has a distinctive, compelling voice—from Arvo Pärt’s eerily motionless tintinabula, to Gunnar Eriksson’s whimsical folksong setting, to the lush neo-romanticism of Ola Gjeilo and Peteris Vasks, to the New Age improvisation of Tõnis Kaumann.  One cannot escape the impression that the Baltic region is currently the cradle of some of the most important choral music being composed and performed. You owe it to yourself, to hear this music! Seriously sublime.

Bruce TammenComment