Thursday, July 16, 2009

Summer psalms

One of my smaller summer projects is a commission for a pair of hymns in Swedish, of all languages. No, I don't speak a word of it. The basic grammar is similar to English and German, and the verbs are familiar enough if you know something about the pronunciation, but adjectives are almost always unintelligible – which makes it hard to tell if that reviewer in the Swedish-language daily liked your piece or not.

Nonetheless, I'm wading in as best I can. The source texts, which I chose from a small selection given to me, are psalms from a newish translation of the Bible. As best I can tell, it seems to be one of those modern, plain-language versions that treats the texts less as poetry and more as document. It's so far creating problems with meter and flow, trying to create a simple, single-idea musical world that both keeps the words as clear as possible and, more difficult, illuminates them through a setting that's more than just functional. The excerpts I'm working from also don't contain an "Alleluia!" or "Amen!" to work towards as structural goals, so I'm having to get creative in the treatment of the lines to create a form that works.

It's a completely different way of working with text for me, top-down, as it were. Usually when I set a text in a choral piece, it's because I had a flash of music for it the first time I read it. In fact, I find it very difficult to approach words that aren't backed up by that spontaneous feeling of just how I want to treat them. The add wrinkle of setting explicitly Judeo-Christian words has me at a bit of a loss in the sincerity department. So for inspiration, I've been turning to what is probably my favorite collection of psalm settings ever, by the Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek.

Kreek is a much beloved figure in Estonian choral music, a Bartók-like composer/musicologist who painstakingly collected and documented hundreds upon hundreds of his homeland's folk tunes, with a special emphasis on religious folk melodies, which formed the basis for his own arrangements and original settings. His Psalms of David (Taaveti Laulud) were encountered early in my tenure in Finland, when I joined a tour of Germany with the Sibelius Academy chamber choir. The music was all Finno-Ugric, and in addition to current godfather of Estonian choral composition, Veljo Tormis, four of Kreek's psalms were on the program. I'd never heard of him or his work, but immediately fell in love with his settings, all the while trying to get my tongue around the language.

The tunes, while modal, aren't specifically or self-consciously "folky". The harmonies tend toward diatonicism, but the various pedals and held-note textures create a web of gentle dissonance that creates interest without drawing attention to itself. The unusual emphasis on the low end of the choral tessitura is a marked feature of Kreek's choral music, featuring multiple divisi rather than the standard SATB configuration, no doubt to take advantage of those wondrous, dark Estonian alto and bass voices, for which their national choral sound is justly famous. The sopranos tend to be added only for a bit of brightness here and there, with the main weight of the music placed in the middle and low registers. The female voices are frequently silent or limited to the melody, with the divided men's choir providing a rich harmonic palette.

There's also the way his tunes wend their way through the often-asymmetrical rhythms of Estonian so naturally, fitting the cadence of the words like a glove, treating them polyphonically, but allowing the tutti choir to alight in unison on the most meaningful words, highlighting their significance in the structure. (It must be said that Estonian is a singularly singable language once you get past the vowels, much more so than Swedish, with its general thinness of hard consonants for rhythmic emphasis. Ever heard Estonian bossa nova? Now that's a treat.) Above all, the object lesson for me is the way Kreek's settings seem to exhale the entire text in a single breath, one long melodic gesture that carries the words along to their conclusion, no matter the rhythmic hiccups. It's deep, expressive, moving music. If I manage to reach that level of simplicity and directness, I'll consider it a job well done.

Judging by the collection of performance videos on YouTube, these songs have acquired a viral popularity in the choral world despite the hurdle of an obscure and difficult language, which speaks loudly to their musical merit. Therefore, I humbly offer some psalms for your summer morning before I go make omelettes:


The King's Singers, doing their best with the pronunciation:

And the one piece that makes me cry without fail:

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