Suggested Listening: Suomalaista musiikkia (3 Finnish choral works) by Leevi Madetoja

I love writing SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC because it allows me to discover and share some incredible, little-known pieces… like today’s!  Enjoy three choral works — Läksin minä kesäyönä käymään/Through the Woods One Summer Night (0:00); Kevätunta/Dream of Spring (2:40); and Katson virran kalvohon/River In Your Surface Dark (6:00) — by Leevi Madetoja, performed below by the Candomino Choir, Tauno Satomaa conducting.

About the Composer:

Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947) is so obscure outside of Finland, I had to use google.fi to track down a decent biography of the guy.  Madetoja was born into a poor family in Oulu, a city in Northern Finland.  His father immigrated to America to find work before Madetoja was born, and died there without ever meeting his son.  Growing up, Madetoja sang in his school and town choirs, and also studied violin, piano, and harp.  He attended the Helsinki Music Institute (today, the famous Sibelius Academy), then pursued additional studies in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin.  Madetoja worked as a conductor, teacher, music critic, and, of course, composer.  His music combines the emotional landscape of Romanticism with the simplicity of folk music, and his three symphonies draw influence from the works of perhaps the greatest Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius.  In 1913, he married Hilja Onerva Lehtinen, a poet who, under the pseudonym of L. Onerva, penned many of the texts which Madetoja would set to music.  Today, the Oulu University of Applied Sciences hosts the Leevi Madetoja Piano Competition in his honor.

About the Pieces:

The three pieces included in the above video were not composed together, but rather as independent pieces.  They do, however, go nicely with each other as they all feature a cappella choir singing about scenes from nature.  The first song, entitled Läksin minä kesäyönä käymään (Through the Woods One Summer Night), is a setting of a Finnish folk song.  The text (in Finnish here, or in English here) tells the story of the narrator’s late-night stroll through the woods, in search of peace and quiet.  The narrator then encounters a young woman weeping by the shore, who shares her story of lost love.  At the very end of the song, the choir sings a repeated sort of push-pull rhythm, swelling and fading like the water in the narrator’s scene.  The music is dark and chant-like, and captures the eerie serenity of a forest at night, as well as the sadness of the young woman’s story.

The second song is Kevätunta (Dream of Spring), a setting of a poem by Madetoja’s wife L. Onerva.  (The Finnish text is available here, but you have to scroll down a ways.)  The lyrics vividly depict a beautiful spring twilight, complete with purple sky, silver stars, and April dreams — and the music is buoyant like springtime, with a surreal or whimsical quality added by the prominent children’s voices, and a haunting passage in the middle full of unnerving dissonances to emanate the darkness of evening.

Finally, the third song, Katson virran kalvohon (River In Your Surface Dark), is a setting of a poem by the Finnish poet Veikko Antero Koskenniemi, another native of Oulu.  The poem (in Finnish here) is from Koskenniemi’s first published collection of poetry, Runoja (1906), which focused on urban themes.  The text describes the great power of a river, and the music sounds almost hymn-like, with a straightforward melody falling into a natural pattern of phrases and pauses much like the chorales sung by church congregations.

All three works are absolutely stunning, showcasing the sheer power of the human voice.  There is something sort of mythical about this music, as though it has been sung since ancient times.  Madetoja is an extremely gifted composer who deserves more renown.  Finland loves him, and we should, too.

If you enjoyed Leevi Madetoja’s choral works, you might also like…

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