Songs of Life and Death (Elämän ja Kuoleman Lauluja) (1995)
In his operas The Horseman and Kullervo, and in his music for the television epic The Iron Age, Aulis Sallinen has penetrated deep into the mists of Finnish prehistoric myth. Similar mists veil the events in The Red Line, although they are set in our own century and can indeed be timed to the day. The most shattering moments in all these works are those in which Death suddenly and shockingly reaps its harvest.
Aulis Sallinen movingly examines the pain of life under the shadow of death in his song cycle Four Dream Songs based on The Horseman. He poured his empathy for suffering humankind in his cantata Dies Irae of 1977, a commission from the Hungarian Army Chorus and Orchestra. Although the title is taken from the Requiem Mass, the work itself is based on a poem by Arvo Turtiainen, a terrifying prediction of the end of the world.
The new song cycle, Songs of Life and Death - a commission from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra - is Aulis Sallinen's Requiem. The score is prefaced by the composer's words: "Dedicate to all my Dead Ones, those whose memory and strength still lingers on this side of the border".
In his diary Sallinen has recorded his emotions and reactions as the work started and gradually progressed. Originally he had hoped to base his songs on the poems that Lassi Nummi had written for Leonid Bashmakov's Requiem of 1989. But Nummi - "a true gentleman" - was worried about the same text being used by two composers, and agreed to write a new set of poems for Sallinen, more in tune with the composer's own convictions. "Some of the Requiem poems remain, but they are mostly allusions."
Composition got underway in June 1993 on Sallinen's island in the Finnish archipelago. The title and general layout were established in July. "In a way I'm looking forward to this work with anticipation and even enthusiasm; I am not worried about the great mass of work ahead, as sometimes with the operas. It's nice to be away from operas for a while… Yet in this work I can deal with an orchestra and a chorus, and what a chorus! Likewise it feels good to write for Jorma Hynninen."
In the autumn the work continued in Provence. As the autumn slid into winter, song after song took shape, the melodic lines flowed and assumed their own colours, the words and music began to breathe together. In March the last notes were written "…to find a form to correspond with the magnificent message of the text 'to live a full life… as the stars approach ever nearer.' This deals with the ultimate question, the indispensiality of death as a part of life, its mercilessness and beauty…"
The world premiere of Songs of Life and Death was in Helsinki on 18 January 1995. Soon afterwards the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Opera Festival Chorus and the baritone Jorma Hynninen recorded it. At the same time the orchestral suite The Iron Age was also recorded.
© Kenneth Marklund (English adaptation by Erkki Arni)