Lauri Jõeleht – A Prayer in Darkness (World Première)

by 5:4

For the next work in this year’s 5:4 Lent Series, i’m turning to a work for oboe and three organs by Estonian composer Lauri Jõeleht. A Prayer in Darkness dates from 2017, and its title is drawn from an eponymous poem by G. K. Chesterton, the final verse of which especially resonated with Jõeleht:

Men say the sun was darkened: yet I had
Thought it beat brightly, even on—Calvary:
And He that hung upon the Torturing Tree
Heard all the crickets singing, and was glad.

There are two main aspects of A Prayer in Darkness that i find especially effective, all the more so for being very simple and straightforward. The first is the way Jõeleht establishes an utmost polarisation. The work opens with a lengthy sequence in which the organs are positioned at opposite extremes of register: slow pedal notes, so deep as to be almost impossible to make out the details of their movement, followed by high tones whistling in the stratosphere. The two extremes don’t so much establish a duet as play out in parallel, at an enormous distance, until Jõeleht brings both of them forward and downward to create two layers, the lower one slow and chordal, the upper one elaborate and decorative.

There’s a sense in this bifurcation of the essence of prayer: both the distinction between the petitioner (low) and the object of their petition (high), as well as the perceived unfathomable distance between the two. Yet equally there’s the sense of two modes of behaviour, perhaps past and present: the former, carefree and playful; the latter, dark and troubled.

Having set up this polarised soundworld, Jõeleht populates it with the oboe, at which point the nature of the music changes. The oboe acts as mouthpiece for the prayer, emerging from the middle of these polarised extremes. Its material comprises a seemingly never-ending melodic line ever pushing onwards, its tone veering between somewhat plaintive lyricism and forceful imploring. The organs’ role is both supportive and elaborative, sometimes laying down a dronal foundation that provides solidity (and, in a simplistic sense, an air of gravitas) to the endless melody, other times elaborating on the oboe’s material, continuing the decorative element heard in the work’s opening. It’s worth noting that, in general, the oboe melody is not so much strong as persistent and dogged, implicitly desperate: it sings because it must, due to profound necessity.

The reinforcement of the importance and centrality – and, by implication, validity – of the oboe line is fundamental to the total sense of instrumental unity permeating A Prayer in Darkness. i can’t help hearing in this supportive unity – the strong many backing up the weaker individual – an echo of the way the world is currently united in its support for Ukraine as it continues to be outrageously battered according to the insane, malevolent whims of Vladimir Putin. There must be a great many prayers in darkness being made in Ukraine (and, increasingly, in Russia too) right now, and while an act of prayer itself is only meaningful in the extent to which it enables an acknowledgement and external articulation of internal anxieties and pain, large-scale unequivocal unity of the kind heard in Lauri Jõeleht’s music is perhaps the best guarantee to ensure the prayer is answered.

The world première of A Prayer in Darkness was given by oboist Dmitri Bulgakov with organists Ulla Krigul, Saale Fischer and Kristel Aer on 13 April 2017 at Niguliste church in Tallinn.

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