Arctic Light: Orthodox Choral Music from Finland — Program Notes

Arctic Light

Orthodox Choral Music from Finland

The history of Orthodox Christianity in Finland goes back to the 12th century when trade was initiated between Carelia and traders from Novgorod. The early establishment of monasteries in Karelia, especially Valamo (Valaam) and Konevitsa on the islands of Lake Ladoga, and later, at Petsamo (Pechenga, on the Arctic Sea) were fundamental in the spread of Orthodoxy, and in spite of the vicissitudes of the 16th and 17th centuries, during which period Karelia was constantly pulled between Sweden and Russia, the monasteries were rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries. The future convent of Lintula was also begun, at Kivennapa, on the Karelian Isthmus, in the late 19th century.

Following the cessation of hostilities between Sweden and Russia in 1809, the province of Viipuri (known as Vyborg in Russian), formerly a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, was annexed to Finland. This caused a migration of Russian traders, craftsmen and soldiers, and meant that the Orthodox population of Finland increased tenfold and began to spread throughout the country. A separate ecclesiastical administration was established, becoming in 1892 the Diocese of Finland and Viipuri. With the advent of independence following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Finland gave to the Orthodox Church national status, in parity with the Lutheran Church. When Patriarch Tikhon of Russia granted autonomy in 1921, the Finnish Synod decided, in the light of the desperate situation in Russia and attendant problems in maintaining contact, to request to be taken under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and this happened in 1923.

Since that time, the Orthodox Church has expanded and, while never losing sight of its Russian origins, has acquired a distinctively Finnish identity. In part, this results from the use of the Finnish language in worship, something that has had an obvious and beneficial effect on the history of its music.

Inevitably, the music of the Finnish Orthodox Church also has its roots in the Russian tradition, as is evident in the widespread use today of St Petersburg court chant, in four-part harmony, in most parishes. A number of composers, however, tried from early on to create a more individual style for the Finnish Church, sometimes with remarkable results. Pekka Attinen (also known as Pyotr Vasilyevich Akimov, 1885-1956) was one such. He studied at the Viipuri (Vyborg) Academy of Music and at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, where he was also a teacher of music theory. Between 1917 and 1929 he taught at the conservatoires of Kharkov, Kuban and Leningrad, and after returning to Viipuri, moved to Helsinki in 1937. There he taught privately and at the Orthodox Theological Seminary, and composed a considerable amount of film music, in addition to sacred repertoire.

Attinen’s third setting of the Cherubic Hymn shows one way in which composition in the Orthodox Church might have gone. It goes further down the road of tonal dissolution than probably any work of its time written for Orthodox liturgical use, recalling both Strauss and Wagner in both the way the harmony is stretched far beyond traditional tonality and in its broad gestures, almost symphonic in their implications. It is also exceptionally difficult, another reason why it is rarely performed, and certainly not in standard parish use.

The approach of Boris Jakubov (1894-1923) was less radical, but the few compositions of his that have survived nevertheless show a considerable imagination at work. He studied at the Helsinki Music Academy, and then worked as a music tutor in 1918 and 1919 at the Orthodox Seminary of Sortavala (now in Russian Karelia, but part of Finland from 1812-1940) before moving to Suistamo, where he worked as a freelance musician. His beautiful setting of the Ehtooveisu (the evening hymn “O joyful light”, sung at vespers) proves him to have been a composer who could summon up an unexpected richness from modest means.

Leonid Bashmakov, the “elder statesman” of Finnish Orthodox music today, was born in 1927 in Terijoki, in present-day Russian Karelia, moving with his family to Helsinki after the War. He studied piano, conducting, and composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and subsequently worked both as teacher in Tampere (where he was rector of the Conservatoire for a long period) and a conductor of theatre orchestras. He is widely known outside the sphere of choral music, and his output includes seven symphonies, multiple concertos, a great deal of chamber music, and a Requiem for soloists, choir and orchestra on texts from the Latin requiem mass and by the Finnish poet Lassi Nummi, completed in 1988.

Bashmakov has written a large amount of church music, most of it dating from the 1980s onwards, though the earliest examples date from thirty years before that, and they include a complete setting of the Divine Liturgy. The two short works included in this concert, the Ikos and Exaposteilarion for Pascha, display his highly distinctive melodic approach (he tends to write original melodies, closely following the accentuation of the text, but they are usually imbued with a chant-like ambience) and his love of vibrant, richly-scored harmony.

The contribution of Timo Ruottinen (born in 1947) to Orthodox church music in Finland is unique, in that as well as being an increasingly prolific composer, he is responsible for a number of recordings of Finnish choirs on his label Alba. Tonight’s concert includes an effective and emphatic setting of the Trisagion, and an earlier work, the Alkupsalmi, the abbreviated opening psalm of vespers, whose chant melody will be familiar to anyone who knows Rakhmaninov’s setting, though Ruottinen’s harmonic treatment, with its “jazzy” added chords, is very different indeed.

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s All-Night Vigil in memory of St John the Baptist, more commonly known simply as Vigilia, is, paradoxically, the best-known work of Finnish Orthodox church music. “Paradoxically” because Rautavaraara is not an Orthodox Christian, and the work was and remains the cause of much heated argument. It was commissioned by Helsinki Festival and the Orthodox Church of Finland, and first sung in the Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki, the Vespers portion in 1971 and the Matins in 1972. Though the composer had the help of Peter Mirolybov, the choirmaster at the Cathedral (whose only music we also hear tonight), what really lies behind the work is his own reaction to Orthodoxy, in the form of childhood visits to Valamo, to a superficial experiencing of Byzantine chant (something very exotic and practically unknown in Finland and that time) and, above all, a personal reading of the texts for the Vigil.

Two excerpts are heard tonight, the Avuksihuutopsalmi and the Ehtoohymni, the Evening Hymn. The former springs entirely from a rhythmic, homophonic chanting of the text, coloured by the use of glissandos. The latter is characterized by a chromatic rocking figure which expands to take the sopranos to their highest register and the basses to the subterranean depths.

The youngest composer heard tonight is Mikko Sidoroff (born in 1985). He became something of a cause célèbre in Finland on account of his Panihida, a setting of the Orthodox memorial service for the departed, remarkable for the breadth of its harmonic vocabulary, whose inspirations range from the Russian 19th-century choral literature to Rautavaara’s (in)famous Vigilia. His subsequent music has generally followed somewhat more traditional paths, however, as may be seen in this fluid and elegant setting of the Cherubic Hymn.

My own work, Te Apostolit…, as the only piece by a non-Finnish composer in this concert, perhaps requires some explanation. Originally commissioned by a Finnish ensemble, it was in fact given its world première by Cappella Romana under my direction in Portland, Oregon in January 2008 as part of the first presentation of the present programme. Not only is the work’s text in Finnish, but I see it as an homage to the many composers whose work I have come to know while living and working in Finland. The text is the Exaposteilarion for the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, which is repeated liturgically three times. Though the work’s musical material derives from the received Byzantine chant for this text, it is set in a deliberately non-liturgical fashion, with sections representing a lullaby and a funeral march.

We end with a set of pieces by the highly respected and influential Peter Mirolybov (1918-2004). He studied at the Music Academy in Viipuri (Vyborg) between 1935 and 1939, and was a pupil of Pekka Attinen, with whom he continued to work when they both moved to Helsinki. In the capital, Mirolybov became director of the choir of the Church of the Holy Trinity (1949-1962) and that of the Cathedral of the Dormition (Uspensky) between 1966 and 1989.

He composed much music apart from sacred repertoire, but it is certainly for his contribution to the music of the Finnish Orthodox Church that he is chiefly remembered. His set of four compositions for the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God includes some of his most beautiful music, combining the Russian inheritance with a melodic freedom and a harmonic richness that seem to point the way to the work of much younger composers, and encompassing a wide technical and emotional range, from the gentle ebb-and-flow of the Kontakion to the powerful beauty of the Megalynarion and the impressive rhythmic vigour of the final Sticheron.

Mirolybov’s work, like so much of the music we hear tonight, demonstrates a keen awareness of the way in which modernity and tradition may be reconciled in the service of liturgy. It is an approach that has a special role to play in the refraction of the lux ex oriente – in this case a light that is refracted further by the Arctic – and which causes so profound an impression upon those who make the effort to explore the many facets of the diverse traditions of Orthodox liturgical art.

— Ivan Moody

8pm, Fri., Jan. 17, St. Mary’s Cathedral
8pm, Sat., Jan. 18, St. Joseph’s Parish


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