We open our mouths, and our voices spill out, expressing everything from scholarship to profanity, confessions to gobbledygook. But in the singing voice, we find a reserve of the most essentially human themes—love, sorrow, pride, faith. In the 24-voice Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, these very big topics become one.
Vaunted as one of the world's greatest singing groups, the choir leads off Duke Performances' Vocal Ensemble Series this week in the ascendant Duke Chapel. Woven together from several of their standard touring regimens, the Duke program, built especially for this performance, displays an astonishing range. Works by Brahms sit alongside hymns from Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke and a pair of pieces by Rudolf Tobias. But the real treats of the docket—and the ones that link Estonian nationalism to the music of the nation's choir—are several works by active Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
Pärt's chant-inspired compositions for chorale and orchestra have made him a giant in the minimalist tradition. He composes expressly for the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, so his familiarity with the ensemble brings a special charge to these works. Founded in 1981 by Estonian native Tõnu Kaljuste from the seedling of a community choir his father directed, the ensemble paired with Pärt early. Paul Hillier, who directed the choir from 2001 until 2007, is even the composer's biographer.
Americans may not be used to this kind of relationship between choirs and composers: Although a recent National Public Radio segment noted that more than 42 million Americans sing in choirs, no American vocal ensembles found their way onto a 2011 Gramaphone magazine ranking of the 20 greatest choirs in the world. That's partly because of a relative lack of recordings. With televised talent shows drawing huge viewership and a long-running, well-established industry of pop and rock stars, American audiences spend their dollars to hear individual singers. Throughout the United Kingdom and much of Europe, choir recordings thrive.
Indeed, in the Baltic region, choral singing was almost inherently a revolutionary act.
Estonia is just one of the Baltic states that declared its independence from Soviet Russia in 1991. That movement has become known as the Singing Revolution for the vital role that vocal music played. In Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, the Singing Revolution found coherence and momentum through public performances at music festivals. In then-Soviet states, where any political assembly brought a swift, forceful response, people could still congregate to sing without soldiers instantly showing up.
Brian A. Schmidt, the assistant conductor and administrative coordinator at Duke Chapel, advised the choir on this program. "It's a unique thing when you're hearing the works of one of your countrymen, in a style that you know very deeply," he says. "There's an intimate knowledge of style and of how the works are to be performed."
So song became a de facto expression of national identity, and a town's amphitheater became the perfect place for public gathering. In 1987, mass demonstrations for Estonian independence arose almost spontaneously from airing forbidden national songs and religious hymns at the Tallinn Song Festival Arena. Where 10,000 people sang together in June 1987, some 300,000 people—a quarter of the national population—gathered in Tallinn to sing in fall of the following year. Politicians added their voices to the choir, giving speeches about Estonian independence.
By November, sovereignty was officially declared. Independence didn't come until 1991, after a lot of Russian tanks rolled through Estonian streets. But by December of that year, the USSR had dissolved.
"Some living composers had works that were banned not from indifference but because the political authorities didn't want them to be performed," Stephen Jaffe, the Semans Professor of Music at Duke, recalls. "In Pärt's case, they were first for reasons that the music was actually experimental and dissonant for the 1960s. Those are quite early works that he didn't continue. But after that, they were presumably [banned because] they were overtly religious."
Pärt's vocal music sets up meditative patterns and tones and pulls them through passages of dissonance toward climactic resolution. His usage of traditional Church Slavonic and Latin church texts expresses the politics of religious defiance, too. "Magnificat," which the choir will perform at Duke, illustrates both precepts.
"With the 'Magnificat,' Pärt establishes dissonances that create tension and then release, and then tension and release," Schmidt notes. "It's really mesmerizing and meditative. It has a washing repetitiveness, and then it grows and explodes."
Pärt's style establishes musical ground between the melodic constructions of Philip Glass and Steve Reich's phase shifting. In phasing, Reich first has several instruments or voices playing in unison and then drops the tempo of some number of them out of sequence. Just as Reich's phase compositions formally shift between order and disorder, Pärt's work shifts between dissonance and resolution. Those peaks are as overwhelming as those of Glass, but Pärt avoids Glass' mathematical construction.
"Pärt has many big, long choral works that involve a kind of mesmeric repetition—very beautiful," Jaffe says, noting its singularity. "You very often have a sense of suspended time. Very slow, pure music as if you were contemplating a church icon."
Delivered with the familiarity and passion of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the result of that contemplation should be profound. Or, as Pärt said of his own work in a BBC interview, "One plus one: it is one. It is not two."
Many choirs have close relationships with composers, often with a national connection that mirrors the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir's link to Arvo Pärt. "To single out any small number would be leaving somebody out for certain," Brian Schmidt says. "What you find is a sense of unbelievable pride in national heritage that many choirs look to uphold."
Sveriges Radio, Sweden's state public radio broadcasting company, funds the SWEDISH RADIO CHOIR. Led by conductor Peter Dijkstra, the 32-voice choir performs and records the wide repertoire that most ensembles do—various composers' requiems, Handel's Messiah—while championing Swedish composers such as Sven-David Sandström. The choir and four vocal soloists joined the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra to premiere Sandström's Requiem in Stockholm in March.
Founded in 1950 by the state soloist's society, the NORWEGIAN SOLOISTS' CHOIR is supported by the national arts council. It tours internationally, mixing in the choral works of Edvard Grieg, Fartein Valen and other Norwegian composers with repertoire, as well as arrangements of traditional Norwegian folk songs.
With comparatively little state support, American choirs spend a larger percentage of their time running educational outreach programs and singing for movie soundtracks than their European counterparts. Asked to name a few top U.S. choirs, NPR's Tom Huizenga mentions the LOS ANGELES MASTER CHORALE (mixing native masters like Glass, Reich and Rodgers and Hammerstein with European repertoire), the ATLANTA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA CHORUS (focusing on Baroque and classical) and MUSICA SACRA (performing works of many Americans such as Dave Brubeck, Meredith Monk, David Diamond and Aaron Copland). Of the three, Musica Sacra is the most committed to commissioning and premiering work by contemporary Americans.
Correction: This article originally characterized Estonia as a Balkan state, rather than a Baltic one.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The radical hymns of other republics."