Musique profane

August 1, 2007

This is the French translation of Secular Music, the title given to the performance by musica intima on the evening of July 24th. This is an ensemble (they’d probably be insulted if you called them a “choir”) of twelve professional singers, “self-directed”, i.e. they have no conductor and no accompanist. They rehearse in Vancouver. Each member of the group takes a turn to address their audience from the microphone and one of them began by explaining that the programme was of music from northern countries and by the way, “profane” doesn’t mean what we might think it means. “If you would prefer songs with profanities in them,” he went on, “write and tell us what you’d like to hear us sing in future!

The first item was a setting of a poem by e.e. cummings, the poet who despised capital letters, in very close harmony composed by Eric Whitacre. Then we heard Elgar’s My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land, which I’ve sung myself at one time or another. Not Elgar at his best—I’m afraid the smoochy section about how oft that month we watched the moon sounds rather corny—but that’s what people liked in 1889. Later we heard four of Poulenc’s Huit Chansons Françaises, which I liked very much. The girl who introduced this item told us that Poulenc, who thought of himself primarily as a composer of vocal music, was both “moine” and “voyou” (part monk, part hooligan). These songs were folksy and fun, the individual singers stepping forward to act out the various parts in the stories they told.

The main composer featured at this concert, though, was an Estonian, called Veljo Tormis. Laevas lauldakse, the first piece they sang, was an ancient-and-modern arrangement of a folksong, “Singing aboard Ship”, a girl’s farewell to a conscript. Tormis is interested in preserving the lost languages of the Baltic peoples and his Vepsian Paths are to be sung in Vepsic (a Finno-Ugric dialect!). Again these are traditional songs, arranged “atmospherically”, we were told, with animal noises, spoken words and shouts thrown in. We heard a selection, Kiisu-miisu (about a cat, presumably, full of miaows and purrs) and Vägisi mehele quite a funny one about a mother insisting that her unwilling daughter gets married. The music got more frantic (in a gradual accelerando) and higher pitched with every verse. If you click here you can find it in the list and listen to it, and the other songs, yourselves.


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