It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly the world of classical music parted ways with European folk music traditions. In the vocal music of the Catholic Church, this happened quite early on, but chamber music and orchestral music in the courts of royalty and nobility continued to draw nourishment from folk traditions for centuries thereafter. Although these ties appear to have slowly eroded over time, composers turning to folk music for inspiration can be found in every era. Conversely, innovations in art music have seeped into folk music through both musicians of the past and the academic professionals of today.
There is also a more recent and parallel pathway exploring the similarities between early music and folk music. This is the pathway travelled by the Finnish Baroque Orchestra (FiBO) on the album The World Is Born, a collaboration with Finnish folk musicians. Representing a niche interest in both genres, this approach combines historical research with a broad-minded exploration of new concepts. Indeed, the lineup of musicians on the album includes some who make the best of both worlds, such as classical violinist Alina Järvelä, who grew up in the fiddler tradition in Kaustinen, and Ilkka Heinonen, who is equally at home with the jouhikko (a bowed lyre) and the violone.
The album opens with the Baltic-Finnic origin myth where the world is born out of the egg of a teal. A Baroque setting of the creation is not included, but the works from the early 17th century that are featured represent the origins of Baroque music. The best-known of these is the work that set the template for an entire new genre, opera: L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi.
Parallels are shown throughout the album: Väinämöinen is equated with Orpheus, a ‘Bergamasca’ by Marco Uccellini is performed with the energy of a brisk folk dance. ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra la Nanna’ by Tarquinio Merula is built on a semitone oscillation evoking the rocking of a cradle and underpinning an expressive melodic line where the Virgin Mary mourns the future cruel fate of her infant son. A runo tune and lyric on the same theme, ‘Marian virsi’ [Mary’s song], follows seamlessly over the same ostinato. The sound of pizzicato strings over a ground in ‘Discantar’ by Enríquez de Valderrábano is very similar to the traditional melkutus technique on the kantele. The major-key energy of the jouhikko in ‘Piilotanssi’ [Hiding dance] segues naturally to the overture of ‘L’Orfeo’.
The concept and dramaturgy of the album keep the listener wonderfully captivated for an hour, and the best moments in fact come towards the end, where the Baroque musicians really let it rip with ‘Pinnin polska’ and ‘Nuoren vaimon speli’[Young wife’s tune]. The infectious joy of traditional fiddler dances transcends stylistic boundaries.
Finnish Baroque Orchestra: The World Is Born
Alba, ABCD 522, 2023
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi