M/S ESTONIA IN MEMORIAM
In September 1994, one of the biggest maritime disasters of our time took place. Ferry and passenger vessel M/S Estonia sunk on its way between Tallinn and Stockholm, and 852 people lost their lives. Almost exactly 25 years later, the Radio Choir and conductor Tõnu Kaljuste remember and honour the victims of the tragic accident in a numinous concert.
Around 9.00 a.m. on Wednesday the 28th of September, 1994, the last survivors were saved from M/S Estonia, which had sunk in the middle of the night. Out of 989 passengers, only 137 survived. More than half were Swedish, almost 300 were Estonian, and there were Latvians, Finns, and people of nationalities from across the world. Three years later, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi had completed his choral piece Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae, “a meditation” as he describes the piece himself, but as such, very dramatic.
Three texts form the foundation of the piece: the Catholic funeral mass, the Book of Psalm’s hymn 107, and a news broadcast about the accident from Nuntii Latini, a programme that broadcasts world news in classical Latin on Finnish national radio. A soloist from the choir intones the news text against a thundering drone, a wordless melody that is reminiscent of an old sailor’s song, and with the requiem lyrics as the dirge: “May eternal light shine on them, Lord.” Fiery whispers mimic the murmur of the stormy sea, and of the communication radio of M/S Estonia that, 29 minutes past midnight, sent its final message. “Have mercy, Lord,” laments the choir.
The lyrics from the Book of Hymns take over with a restlessly billowing motif that follows most of the piece: “Others went on ships across the sea, and traded on the vast waters.” Sharp dissonances depict metal being torn and snapped, like the ship’s bow visor when it became an open, bleeding wound to the merciless sea. A rhythmical middle section like a Morse code SOS call: “They were thrown against the sky and the depths, courage failed them in danger.” In the end, everyone cries out their despair to God, who calms the sea again. But for the passengers of M/S Estonia, no safe port awaited, only eternal rest: “Requiem Aeternam.”
One of the pieces that Mäntyjärvi was inspired by was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-night Vigil. It’s a setting to music of texts from the eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches’ night-time mass celebrated ahead of big festivals. Composers like Tchaikovsky and Rautavaara have written similar compositions, but Rachmaninoff’s is the best known, and many consider it among his best works. It was also Rachmaninoff’s own favourite, alongside choral symphony The Bells, and at his funeral, the fifth movement was performed: “Lord, now you let your servant go home in peace, as you have promised.” Of the 15 movements, the sixth, Bogoroditse Devo or Ave Maria, has also – not least in Sweden – become a beloved concert piece. The whole piece breathes a warm and fervent spirituality, trust and hope for all those who yearn and miss.
Text: David Saulesco
The Swedish Radio Choir is like a leading mountaineer in the world of music. The choir’s former chief conductor Peter Dijkstra has described the ensemble as “the group that leaves base camp first and stakes out the course for others to follow.” Three hundred years of Swedish a cappella tradition, combined with an ambitious and culturally diverse repertoire with some of the world’s finest conductors, has established the Swedish Radio Choir as one of the foremost ensembles of its kind. The 32 professional singers are as equally at home in completely new music by today’s most exciting composers as they are in classic favourites from the rich international treasure trove. Through the Swedish Radio’s broadcasts and website the choir not only reaches concert audiences but also radio listeners everywhere.
The Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste is familiar to Swedish audiences after his time as the Swedish Radio Choir’s Chief Conductor from 1994–2000. This versatile musician has been a driving force in awakening interest in the Nordic region to music from the Baltic countries. He founded the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and then, ten years later, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, both of which have become very successful and perform at the world’s major concert venues and festivals. He is known for his interpretations of the works of Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis, and has won prestigious awards for his many recordings. Among his latest collaborations are the Norrlandsoperan Symphony Orchestra, the Wrocław Philharmonic and the choir at Orquestra Gulbenkian in Lisbon.