23. Väinämöisen lauluja (Songs of Väinämöinen)

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Texts (in Finnish & English)

Musicians: SATB chorus, sometimes divisi; accompanied by piano on songs #1 & #3.

Length: 4:00 + 3:40 + 4:50 = 12:30

Program notes: Kalevala is the great verse epic of Finland, passed down by generations of runo-singers in Karelia, from the early Iron Age(?) until the early 19th century, when the words of the poem were written down, edited, and published by Dr. Elias Lönnrot. Its principal hero is the singer Väinämöinen, whose skill in magical song is so great that he can enchant people, summon gods, and transform objects. While no one person could match the power of his voice, perhaps a good chorus can come close. I set 3 songs whose words are quoted in full:
(1) Väinämöinen invents agriculture (Runo 2) by planting the first barley, and invokes the Earth-mother and sky-father to nurture the crop;
(2) Väinämöinen greets and commands the Moon and Sun, when they were newly released from their captivity inside the Earth (Runo 49); and
(3) Väinämöinen departs (at the end of the epic; Runo 50), but foretells that he will be called back in some future crisis.
The piano serves as a giant kantele, able to balance the power of the chorus.
While the trochaic quatrameter of Kalevala could possibly be sung using eighth-notes in 4/4, this would be tiring for the singers as they would never have time to breathe. It would also be monotonous, as there would be no time for emphasis of important words and notes. For me, the poetry came alive and turned to music when I learned that runot have traditionally been sung in 5-meters. I have used 5/4, 11/8 (which is just 5/4 with a longer initial beat), and 15/8 as the dominant meters in these three songs, respectively. I hope you will agree that the result is spacious and fresh like clean northern air.

[Arctic treeline]

Arctic treeline, Kaunispää, Saariselkä, Finland

Peter Bird, 2013

[statue of Väinämöinen]

Väinämöinen and his kantele, Robert Stigell [1888], Vanha Ylioppilastalo, Helsinki

Peter Bird, 2013

[Väinämöinen departs]

"Väinämöisen lähto" ("Väinämöinen's departure")

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931)

WikiMedia Commons

Fresh Choral Music Online, by Peter Bird of Los Angeles