On this day in 1928, the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara was born, and to commemorate the occasion, here is a performance of his 1971 work, Vigilia. A complete setting of the Orthodox liturgies of Vespers and Matins, it was broadcast in an edition of Choirworks on Radio 3 in 2001, performed by the BBC Singers directed by Stephen Layton. Layton is a keen advocate of contemporary choral music, particularly in his capacity as director of the vocal group Polyphony.
According to Christian tradition, a vigil commences in the (usually late) evening, with the liturgy of Vespers (the monastic evening prayer service), concluding at daybreak with Matins (morning prayer); Rautavaara’s work is therefore divided into two broad parts, pertaining to these two liturgies. A lengthy Orthodox liturgy sung in Finnish might seem a bit daunting, but Rautavaara’s setting is an accessible one, striking a curious but engaging balance between the stringent demands of Orthodox music and the ingenuity of modern composition. As such, it’s a world away from the faux austere blandaries of John Tavener, perhaps akin more to the mediæval practice of ‘troping’, where composers individual ‘voice’ was heard among liturgical music. In truth, i’ve never heard anything quite like this piece, before or after; it’s unmistakeably a liturgy—which, being an act of worship, always makes a distinct kind of impact on the listener—and yet equally a riveting and highly engaging concert work. The musical language is, of course, rooted in the kind of tonality with which Orthodox music is today so much associated, filled with extremely rich, triadic chords that seem to have the paradoxical consistency of melted granite, somehow liquid yet immoveable. But, i would say, only rooted in this tradition; Rautavaara is happy to incorporate less expected harmonic twists as well as clusters, glissandi, whispering and other vocal effects—sounds that, apparently, the composer heard while on retreat at a monastery on Mount Athos.
The two parts, while unsurprisingly similar in tone, also display discrete qualities. The Vespers has a dark, velvety mood that seems fitting considering its late evening context, while the Matins—here, in fact, celebrating the dawning of a feast day, that of the Beheading of John the Baptist—includes slightly more vivid harmonies, including some rather audacious major/minor clashes, and the exquisite final chord is scintillatingly scrunchy. This interesting article from The Guardian in 2002 gives some indication of the stunning impact the piece makes in live performance; and if the recording piques your interest or whets your appetite, a CD of the work is available here.