einojuhani rautavaara

Cappella Romana preview: Music of spiritual transformation

Portland vocal ensemble performs Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 1970s masterpiece "Vigilia"


Being areligious, atheist, or just spiritually disinterested doesn’t mean you can’t get something out of sacred music or that it won’t speak to you, stimulate your intellect, your ear. Case in point: Cascadia Composers’ show last weekend, ‘The Desire for the Sacred,’ which mixed secular and sacred spiritualism. And this weekend, Cappella Romana, the Northwest’s foremost professional vocal ensemble, performs a major sacred work by a great 20th century Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Vigilia for a capella choir, that provokes, for me, questions about the relationship between sacred music and secular listeners. Performances in Portland on January 28 and 29 promise to be stirring events for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Cappella Romana performs Rautavaara’s ‘Vigilia’ Saturday and Sunday in Portland.

Rautavaara, who died last year at age 87, was known for abrupt and radical stylistic shifts. A young adept of the neoclassical era, he jumped ship in the mid-1950s to explore 12-tone and serial compositional techniques, a focus that prevailed through the ’60s, in commanding pieces with abstract titles: Praevariata, Modificata, Divertimento, Cantos (a favorite among structuralists). Toward the end of this period, his comic opera Apollo contra Marsyas foreshadowed Rautavaara’s turn to sensuous inspiration and concerns of the soul and heart as opposed to the mind. In an uncanny symbolism, and in line with the composer’s confessions of self-focus, Marsyas loses his hide (he is a satyr), his very outward being, after challenging Apollo, the supreme agent of reason, to a musical contest. It is hard not to see the abandoning of reason (Apollo/serialism) and the transformation (losing one’s hide) to sensuality/spirituality via metaphorical death — the Dionysus/Apollo dichotomy in its most personal expression.

In the 1970s, Rautavaara’s music became the servant of a spiritual transformation and fed the composer’s maturing sensuality and religiosity on into his later years—becoming a music that some call mystical. He was only one of many composers in the late 1960s and early ‘70s to abandon the deliberate modernism of the 12-tone row and total serialism and embrace tonal/modal music of static dynamics and repetitive forms. For Rautavaara and others, the American minimalists Reich and Riley included, that transformation involved re-examination of spiritual convictions and religious heritage.

Einojuhani Rautavaara in the 1950s.

In Estonia, Arvo Pärt fled the barren territory of modernism and the dogged oppression of Soviet culture henchmen to convalesce in ancient music forms only to return a master of mystical minimalism. His countryman Veljo Tormis had years earlier plunged into the virtually bottomless well of Baltic folk song to produce authigenic vocal works—expansive and primal—that have been performed internationally to great acclaim and that gained considerable momentum in the atmosphere of holy minimalism of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ’90s.

And across the Baltic Sea’s Gulf of Finland, Rautavaara, feeling that serialism produced results too far removed from the laborious compositional process to have sustainable meaning, tamed his angular, unforgivingly textural serial voice of the 1960s to produce transcendent vocal compositions held aloft by susurrous orchestral textures and often employing Christian sacred texts.

Vigilia (or All Night Vigil) from 1972, a setting of sections of the Eastern Orthodox Vespers, Matins, and First Hour based on the Orthodox vigil of St. John the Baptist for full a capella choir with solos—including basso profundo (sung in Portland by Grammy-winning soloist Glenn Miller)—is Rautavaara’s first piece with overt religious text. The 1970s produced other religious works (largely choral or vocal based) and Cantus Arcticus, an orchestral work which can be heard as a spiritual homage to the Arctic, to nature (a shared focus of American composer John Luther Adams), with the voices of the choir replaced by songs of birds performed via tape recordings. The opening of the composer’s heart absorbed his reverence for nature as well as his faith.


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