Music: New Northern Lights

Contemporary composers are increasingly unafraid to write attractive, even beautiful music. Further evidence of this proposition, which I have advanced in other columns, comes from the lands of northern lights in the works of Latvian composer Peteris Vasks and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.

Vasks writes traditional tonal music of soulful beauty that both laments the suffering of his country and celebrates its enduring spirit. Rautavaara, on the other hand, seems to have wandered through a number of schools of composition, including twelve-tone, and emerged as, of all things, a late twentieth-century Romantic. Each has been favored by a pair of recent releases, from Conifer and Ondine respectively, that shows them to great advantage. Anyone who thinks modern classical music always sounds either like an explosion in a boiler factory or sonic wallpaper should listen to the music on these CDs.

The son of a Baptist minister, Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) was not favored for a musical education or career in the Soviet Union. Yet discrimination had its advantages. As Vasks said, “we had the tradition of living music at home and in the church.” Though he studied at the music conservatory in Riga, he is largely self-taught. The results are very intriguing: music that is so obviously attractive it is almost embarrassing. His Cantabile for strings is the Latvian equivalent of Samuel Barber’s hugely popular and moving Adagio for Strings. Cantabile was written in 1979, not a particularly pleasant time for Latvia. Vasks’s goal was “to tell in eight minutes how beautiful and harmonious the world is.” Why so beautiful? Contrary to our century’s predominant aesthetic of ugliness in art to reflect ugliness in life, Vasks feels the urgent need to combat that ugliness. He seems to share the Dostoevskian belief that “beauty will save the world.” Thus the uglier life becomes, the more insistently beautiful his music is. This is not Pollyanna-ish. The unalloyed beauty he creates springs from a deep spiritual need for it; he chooses it over darkness. Vasks asks, “Is there any point in composing a piece that only mirrors our being one step away from extinction? To my mind, every honest composer searches for a way out of the crises of his times—toward affirmation and faith.” Beauty is the language of affirmation and faith.

This language was also Vasks’s only weapon in facing Soviet totalitarianism. His Cello Concerto depicts “the persistence of a personality against crude, brutal power; what totalitarian power did to us, how we are to purge ourselves from this manipulation.” The introductory Canto I depicts “the ideal beauty of the world.” The next movement unleashes a frenzied staccato rhythm that attacks the soloist. Vasks says, “Fast music has always been to me a negative sign of evil, aggression, destruction.” The massed orchestra tries to crush the cello with a vulgar tune it repeats with ferocity in what sounds like a nightmare at a circus. The cello survives and recovers its lyrical rhapsodic voice in the last movement, the achingly lovely Canto II, which Vasks says represents the alternative to what precedes it, as well as “the spiritual steadfastness of my people.”

Also unabashedly beautiful is Vasks’s String SymphonyVoices, inspired in part by the last-ditch Soviet clampdown in the Baltic states in 1990. At the very beginning of the first movement, subtitled “Voices of Silence,” Vasks creates a most intriguing sound, as if the wind were stirring the orchestra, gently rustling the instruments like they were so many leaves. This is followed by what sounds like a tribute to, if indeed not a quotation from, Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa. The movement is full of crepuscular murmurings in the strings. “Voices of Life” begins with birdcalls gently rising with the dawn of a new day. For Vasks, birds are emblems of freedom. This movement carries with it a marvelous sense of expectancy. That expectancy is met in the concluding movement, the gravely beautiful “Voices of Conscience.” Voices is one of the most beautiful string pieces I have heard. It and Cantabile strike me as music I have somehow always known without ever having heard it before. I return to these pieces often for that wonderful amalgam of mystery and familiarity. These works should join those of Britten, Vaughan Williams, Barber, and Diamond as among the finest of our time. Of the other compositions on the Conifer CDs, I am particularly taken with the lovely Cot anglais Concerto, with its Sibelian touches, and the heartfelt Musica doloroso. All are movingly performed by the Riga Philharmonic under conductors Kriss Rusmanis and Jonas Alesksa.

Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and was chosen for a Koussevitzki Foundation scholarship by the great Jan Sibelius himself. In the mid-’50s, he studied with a number of American composers, including Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, and Vincent Pershichetti. The only American influence I detect comes from the way in which Rautavaara deploys massive sheets of string and brass sound—somewhat in the manner of American composer Roy Harris without, however, sounding like him. Aside from Sibelius, the other apparent Nordic influence is that of the great Norwegian composer, Harald Saeverud. Rautavaara captures the same kind of craggy melancholy in the strings and winds that Saeverud was able to express so effectively.

Not only is Rautavaara a self-confessed Romantic, he seems to understand what being one means: “The Romantic has no coordinates. In time he is either yesterday or tomorrow, not today. In space he is over there or over there, never here.” Perhaps this is why Rautavaara is so hard to pin down stylistically, wandering as he has all over the musical map in his seven symphonies, seven operas, and numerous other works. Yet his most recent work is also neo-Romantic in style, extremely spacious, leisurely in development, beautifully melodious, and almost lush in a cinematic sense.

Unlike Vasks’s, Rautavaara’s music is not explicitly moral. But it does deal with personal encounters with spiritual phenomena, that he calls “angels.” Rautavaara does not mean angels in the conventional sense, but as “Jungian archetypes.” (Being a Thomist, I myself have never met an archetype.) When I read Rautavaara’s reference to Karl Jung in the liner notes I froze, thinking here is another composer ruined by reading this modern Manichean (poor Michael Tippert being the most notable example). As befits one influenced by Jung, Rautavaara has written both an Angel of Dusk and now a counterpoising Angel of Light. However, he makes broader angelic allusions to William Blake and Rainer Maria Rilke, and explains that his angels stem “from the conviction that other realities exist beyond those we are normally aware of, entirely different forms of consciousness.” His apprehension of these inspires his music. “I have a taste for eternity,” says Rautavaara.

That taste is expressed in his new Symphony No. 7, Angel of Light. Rautavaara insists that this highly attractive and sumptuous work should be understood, like his other works, as absolute music and not as program music. Yet he provides the outline of his highly personal encounters with “archetypes” in dreams and otherwise, on which the work is based. Can he have it both ways? He does so in the Angel of Light because of its thematic coherence. But without his explanation of his childhood dreams, I would be puzzled by Angels and Visitations, paired on the second of the Online CDs with the Violin Concerto. As a recreation of his dream experience, however, it is highly evocative and very effective.

Symphony No. 7 is so attractive on the surface that you might think you hear the whole thing the first time. In fact, it is so attractive that I was almost ready to dismiss it as a cinematic extravagance. But I kept listening and discovered a hauntingly beautiful piece with more than surface appeal. This work is far less disjunctive in style than Rautavaara’s earlier, harsher works, in which he employed apparently random eruptions of violence that seemed to arrive from somewhere outside the music (e.g., as in Angel of Light‘s disc companion, Annunciations, from 1977). This work is far more harmonious. It employs almost constant undulating string ostinato, a grand hymn motif, and builds to several impressive climaxes. It also conveys a sense of vastness and serenity. Listen, for instance, to the meltingly lovely third movement marked “come un sogno”—like a dream. Most importantly, the symphony works on its own terms musically; it does not need an “angel” crutch to hold it up. If it were called “hymn to the sea,” I would find it equally convincing. That conviction is shaken by only one aspect of the work: its almost cinematic sense. Rautavaara may aim at eternity but, several times, he comes perilously close to ending up at the movies. But what a gorgeous movie!

That Rautavaara did not have far to travel to reach the euphonious world of Angel of Light is clear from his Violin Concerto of 1977. While it would not be mistaken for anything but a modern piece, it is solidly within the tradition of even nineteenth-century concertos, with an entrancingly lyrical line for the violin. Here are more moments of ethereal beauty from this man of “angels.” Leif Segerstam conducts the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on both of these beautifully recorded CDs. Elmar Oliveira is the superb soloist in the Violin Concerto.

Both Vasks and Rautavaara have attempted to reach beyond themselves to express enduring spiritual truths. Is it any surprise that they have chosen beauty as their medium?

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