April 29, 2020


The Music of the North (Joseph Pearce, April 28th, 2020, Imaginative Conservative)

If Finnish composers are doomed to live in the shadow of Sibelius, it would be equally true to say that composers from Estonia can hardly hope to escape living in the shadow of the great Arvo Pärt, whose minimalist masterpieces, such as Spiegel im Spiegel and Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten, are among the most popular works of the past half century. And what is true of the fate of contemporary Estonian composers is equally true of those composers who preceded Part's rise to fame. Take, for example, Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962), whose own considerable reputation has been at least partially eclipsed by the waxing of Part's presence on the world stage. The best of his work is still performed regularly, however, not least of which are his settings of the Psalms of David, especially his Onnis on inimene (Blessed is the Man), composed in 1923, which interweaves the traditions of Orthodox chant with suggestive elements of Estonian folk music and Western choral influences.

For our final stop on this musical tour of the lands of the North, we'll wing our way across the Baltic and over Scandinavia, crossing the frozen waters of the Norwegian Sea and following the latitudinal line of the Arctic Circle until we come to Iceland.

Known for its scenic beauty, it would be fair to say that Iceland's cultural impact rests on the lingering legacy of its Bards, especially Snorri Sturluson, and the heroic sagas they wove about the history of the Norsemen. It would also be fair to say that Iceland is not known for its significant contribution to the canon of classical music. This being so, it seems apt that we should end with three Icelandic composers who present three very different views of the cosmos and the meaning of life. Let's begin with the youngest, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, born in 1977 and winner in 2012 of the Nordic Council Music Prize, who wrote Pann Heilaga Kross (On the Holy Cross), a haunting meditation on the Crucifixion which is almost elvish in its etherial sensuality. In stark contrast, Haflidi Hallgrimsson's Veröld fláa sýnir sig (The Deceitful World Shows Itself), composed in 1988, seems almost to be a hymn to despair, or, at the least, a desolate cri de coeur: "The deceitful world shows itself, / foretelling harsh times. / Most of the blades of grass on this / earth, big and small, sting me." And then, finally, we have Jón Nordal's Smávinir fagrir (Beautiful Tiny Friends), as different in mood and spirit from Hallgrimsson's lament as is hope from despair. Written in 1940, when the composer was only sixteen-years-old, it is full of the overflowing spirit of romance which is the domain of youth. Enraptured by the presence of beauty and blissfully oblivious of the far-off echoes of the world war which was raging as he wrote, he thanks the Lord for the beauty of his "tiny friends", the dandelions and the buttercups: "Poor buttercup, do you see me? / Sleep peacefully and cover yourself, / slow comes the rest in the dewy night, / dream of the light, sleep tight!" Aptly enough, the music that the teenager composed to augment these delicate words is a lilting lullaby, as pure as crystal and as diaphanous as silk.

Posted by at April 29, 2020 12:00 AM