All composer anniversaries, especially those of well-established names, offer a possibility of looking at their lesser known compositions. This year’s sesquicentenaries of Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius offer a golden opportunity to look at one part of their oeuvres that receives relatively little attention, especially when compared to their ever-popular symphonies and concertos: their choral music.

Much of Sibelius’ choral pieces, like so many of his other compositions, get their texts and inspiration from the Finnish National epic, the Kalevala, and its poetic counterpart, the Kanteletar. There was a surge of nationalism in the decades before the relinquishing of Russian rule in 1917, and this coincided with a resurgence of the Nordic choral tradition. Because of this, Sibelius wrote several pieces for amateur a cappella choirs, perhaps most notably the male choir of the University of Helsinki and the male choir Muntra musikanter. Indeed, most of Sibelius’ choral music was written with amateur singers in mind.

<i>Lemminkainen's mother</i> © Gallen Kallela
Lemminkainen's mother
© Gallen Kallela

Of the choral pieces taking their texts from the Kalevala and Kanteletar, a personal favourite is the a cappella work Rakastava, a setting of three poems from the Kanteletar in which the protagonist is looking for his lover in vain. The piece is originally for male choir and tenor soloist, then reworked for mixed choir with mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists. There is even a version for string orchestra.

Rakastava:

 

Nationalism is a significant recurring theme in Sibelius’ compositions, very plainly evident in his choral music. The 1899 setting of the Swedish poet Viktor Rydberg’s Athenarnes sång (“The song of the Athenians”), extolling the nobility of dying for your country, quickly caught on in Finland as a firm stance against the Russian rule. It is scored for the somewhat puzzling combination of orchestra, male chorus and children’s chorus in unison, and has a simple, infectious melody with an almost militaristic orchestral accompaniment.

Song of the Athenians

The texts Sibelius set were both in Swedish and Finnish, but the majority are in Finnish. Another of the allegorically patriotic pieces of the same period as Athenarnes sång is the 1902 Tulen Synty (“The Origin of Fire”), a setting of a section of the Kalevala where Ukko, chief of the gods creates fire because the sun and moon have been stolen, leaving the land of Kalevala plunged in darkness. The piece starts off with a lengthy, increasingly dramatic recitative for solo baritone before the male choir takes over in an agitated, even more dramatic final section. It was quickly seen as yet another allegory for Finland getting rid of its Russian rulers.

Tulen Synty:

Of the Swedish texts Sibelius set, Viktor Rydberg features in key pieces. The tempestuous melodrama Snöfrid from 1900 for orchestra, chorus and female orator was one of his most popular pieces in the early 1900s, but has since been increasingly neglected. The piece is about Gunnar who, if he only gives up his soul, can have all the treasure and glory in the world. But the wood nymph Snöfrid tries to convince him otherwise, for the reward for a noble, true life is infinitely greater.

Snöfrid

A later example of Sibelius’ nationalistic side is the 1918 cantata Oma Maa (“Our Own Country”), a piece with a more confident, hopeful tone, an evocation of the midnight sun, in stark contrast to the defiantly patriotic pieces of the decades prior. At the time of composing, Finland was in the midst of a civil war after gaining sovereignty from Russia in 1917. The Soviet-backed, Communist Red Guard was clearly losing, and it is not difficult to ascribe to the piece a hope for a better future with a united Finland.

Oma maa:


In addition to the many pieces for choir and orchestra, Sibelius wrote quite a few partsongs for a cappella choir, setting a variety of texts in both Finnish and Swedish. Venemakta (“The Boat Journey”) is a charming, little song, here in the male choir version, describing a boat journey undertaken by Väinämöinen, a central god and the main character in the Kalevala.

Venemakta:

Saarella Palaa (“Fire on the Island”) is a gently rocking setting of a Kanteletar love poem, here in the mixed choir version.

Saarella Palaa:

Fyn island landscape © Wikicommons: Strokin.ru
Fyn island landscape
© Wikicommons: Strokin.ru

Carl Nielsen’s perhaps most popular choral piece, both in and out of Denmark is the 1922 lyric humoresque Fynsk Foraar (“Springtime on Funen”) for chamber orchestra, mixed choir, children’s choir and soloists. The piece is a continuous collection of songs praising the Funish countryside, filled with water lilies and flowering apple trees. The idiom is folksong-like, the choir parts being relatively simple and homophonic. It was written for the third Danish National Choral Festival and was performed in the Odense Cattle Hall, a venue that could house over 10,000 people. Nielsen had envisaged quite small forces for the piece, but it received its première with an orchestra of 80 and a choir of several hundred. Still, it was exceedingly well-received by the press, even though they were looking forward to hearing it played in a more suitable hall.

Springtime on Funen:

Even though Springtime on Funen is Carl Nielsen’s most famous choral piece, its most excerpted song is the charming “Den milde Dag er lys og lang” (“The Mild Day is Light and Long”) for tenor.

“Den milde Dag er lys og lang”:

 

In the case of Nielsen (and to a lesser extent Sibelius) many, if not most, compositions for choir are occasional in nature, written on commission as a quick way to earn some extra money. Their titles are often on the bizarre side, as their commissioners were a varied bunch, to say the least. How about the 1930 Cantata for the Opening of the Østerbro Public Baths (“Kantate til Åbning af Østerbro Svømmehal”) or the Cantata for the 50th Anniversary of the Danish Cremation Union (“Kantate til Dansk Ligbrændingsforenings 50 Aars Jubileum”) from the same year?

Cantata for the 50th Anniversary of the Danish Cremation Union:

While most of these compositions may not be as inspired as other works intended for more than one performance, they still offer some charms. The Cantata for the Anniversary of the Copenhagen University (“Kantate ved Universitetets Aarsfest”) for orchestra, male chorus and soloists was first performed in 1908, and unlike most of Nielsen’s cantatas of this sort, it was both intended for and received repeat performances, albeit not without considerable changes. After the première, the music did not receive much attention, but for once, the text caused quite the uproar.

The Christian newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad, along with members of the university administration, reacted very badly to what they saw as a downplaying of Christianity in the cantata in favour of a “Darwinian evolutionary mysticism which hangs over the new cantata as a heavy fog”. The text also alluded to man’s animal origins, the heathen adoration of the sun and science’s struggles under ecclesiastical rule. The violating paragraphs were subsequently changed, and the piece was performed yearly for some time thereafter, either in full, or excerpted. The glorious final chorale proved especially popular.

Cantata for the Anniversary of the Copenhagen University, fourth movement “As leaves on the linden”:

Many of Nielsen’s most popular a cappella pieces are Danish songs written intended for singing by amateurs, often in schools and the like. Many of these were arrangements of his own songs for voice and piano, like his ever-popular Jens Vejmand (“Who sits behind the shelter”):

Jens Vejmand:

Towards the end of his life, Nielsen turned his attention to Renaissance polyphony, which, among other pieces, resulted in the Tre Motetter, Op.55 (“Three Motets”), three Latin psalm settings for a cappella choir. The first movement, Afflictus sum, a setting of Psalm 37:7, is set for alto, two-part tenor and bass. Without the brightness of the soprano, it takes on an unusually dark and sombre mood with wild outbursts on the word “rugiebam” (I roared). The second movement, Dominus regit me is a setting of Psalm 22:1-2, a calm and gently flowing contrast to the angst of Afflictus sum. The piece culminates with a joyful and celebratory Benedictus dominus (Psalm 30:22).

Benedictus sum from Tre Motetter, Op.55: