A tour through Northern Light territory

Chorale’s current repertoire falls into three rough categories, with all kinds of overlap.  The first, and earliest, category, described in my previous blog entry, is the National Romantic style-- indigenous materials presented through the vocabulary and procedures of German Romanticism.  One has only to turn on WFMT radio and listen for an hour, to realize how pervasive German music is in our “classical” music culture:  from Bach through the Viennese classicists to Mendelssohn, and then, especially, to the overpowering influence of Wagner, this national style became THE international style of the 19th and early twentieth centuries.  Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg received his training in Leipzig; valuable aspects of that German matrix stayed with him throughout his career, and influenced, as well, the Scandinavian nationalists who followed him:  Stenhammar, Sibelius, Nielsen come immediately to mind.  One of the works on our program, though decidedly modern and not otherwise representative of this genre, is a conscious homage to the influence of Bach and German common practice:  Komm süßer Tod utilizes a musical phrase by Bach, harmonized by Knut Nystedt, then choreographed by Jan Sandström.

At its worst, Romantic Nationalism is cute, nostalgic, and manipulative, begging to be performed in national costume; at its best, it combines disparate materials into a powerful, sincere expression which transcends national boundaries, taking its place as a legitimate body of work.  The motets on our program most clearly representative of this genre—Grieg’s Fire Salmer, Lindberg’s Den signade dag, Olsson’s Jesu dulcis memoria—share a dark, somber coloration, relieved by moments and phrases which seem to leap from the dark with startling brightness and warmth; they are couched in a rich harmonic palette, augmented both by 20th century approaches to dissonance and by the ancient, modal background of their source material; they combine dramatic, vocally challenging phrases and tessitura with typically short, two-bar rhythmic cells, suggestive of folk dance;  and they awaken both a sense of loss, and of yearning, in the listener.

Knut Nystedt (b. 1915) represents, and perhaps first explored, our second category, something I call “Nordic Minimalism.”  Typical of minimalists in general, and of the Spiritualist Minimalists (Tavener, Pärt, Gorecki, for instance) in particular, Nystedt backs off from much of the structural and harmonic complexity of 19th century composition, and uses simpler materials, as well as a certain static harmonic and rhythmic quality, to create an icon-like music, through which the listener perceives underlying spiritual meaning.  Nystedt has been a prolific composer, and his output is uneven in quality; his best works, represented in our program by O Crux and Audi, echo the deep, yearning romanticism of Grieg, as well as the mysticism of Nystedt’s religious faith, and, in common with so much nordic art, effectively mirror the northern landscape which inspires them—the mountains, the sea, the glaciers, the seasonal extremes of darkness and light, the terrors and beauties of a hostile but beckoning world.  Jan Sandström, a Swedish composer of the following generation, clearly owes a lot to Nystedt’s influence, but is more  minimalist in style-- the Gloria which we will perform is almost a textbook example of discreet, simply conceived cells, repeated with minor variation, building and then subsiding in a consciously non-dramatic fashion. His kinship with Polish minimalist Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) is unmistakable.

East and south across the Baltic something very different has happened, chorally.  The Baltic countries, as well as Finland, were influenced at least as much by Russian as by German culture; and their national struggles, which find powerful expression through their choral music, have led them in a far different direction, than that taken by their counterparts in western Scandinavia.  This third category is represented in our program by music of Rautavaara, Pärt, and Sisask.

Finland, long a cultural vassal, first, of Sweden, then of Russia, found and established, largely through the compositional journey of Jan Sibelius, its own musical voice and expression later in the twentieth century than did Norway.  Finnish choral music sounds eastern to our ears, less “square” and Lutheran than the music on the western side of the Baltic.  Filtered through both Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, it lacks some of the rich harmonic language of German Romanticism, but explores a far broader and more percussive rhythmic palate.  Finn Einojuhani Rautavaara, represented on our program by three movements from his Vigilia, composes in an especially colorful, exotic style, with elements drawn from ancient Byzantine liturgical practice as well as from folk music of rural Finland.  Bogoróditse Djévo, by Estonian Arvo Pärt, perhaps the best-known of the spiritual minimalists, reflects its composer’s Orthodox faith and mystical practices through repetition of simple musical cells, expanding and contracting according to the needs of the liturgical text.  The piece is surprisingly short, for Pärt, clocking in at only one minute, but beautifully, efficiently composed.  His younger Estonian colleague, Urmas Sisask, composes in a superficially similar style, but clearly has a very different musical personality and goal-- he sets the Latin text of his motet, Benedictio, “We praise your power, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” in an incantatory style, utilizing the repeated cell procedure to build to enormous, exciting climaxes, and manipulating his underlying rhythms—rhythms that would simply be inconceivable in Norwegian or Swedish music-- catching his listeners (and singers!) off balance, generating melodic arches both thrilling and frustrating in their angularity.  This work, composed in 1996, clearly flies free of German and Russian influence, and forms a bridge to the twenty-first century.