Ensemble of English Handbells
An exciting experiment by the English Handbell Ensemble Arsis performing arrangements of Estonian folk tunes on their highly untraditional instruments. The festive bronze sound of the bells gives a new dimension to the composition by Tõnu Kõrvits. The liner notes by Dr Ingrid Rüütel deserve a special attention. Produced by ERP for CCn’C.
1 Mu süda, ärka üles / Awake, My Heart (from Pühalepa)
2 Neiu hääl / A Maiden’s Voice (from Räpina)
3 Ussi naine / The Wife of a Snake (from Meremäe)
4 Tule tursakene / Come Little Coddy (from Muhu island)
5 Kasva karjaseks / Grow into Shepherd (from Hargla)
6 Lapse kiigutamise laul / A Baby Rocking Song (from Loksa)
7 Tuule tuba / The Chamber of Wind (from Koeru)
8 Huiked ja helletused / Whoops and Calls (from Avinurme, Jõelähtme, Ambla, Tarvastu)
9 Maga, maga, Matsikene / Sleep, Sleep, Little Mats (from Karuse)
10 Laulud lutsu suust / Songs Sung by the Burbot (from Kodavere)
11 Äiutused / Lullabies (from Rõngu, Misso, Luhamaa)
12 Veere päike / Roll Sun (from Kodavere)
13 Ladvad lindudele / Treetops to the Birds (from Võnnu)
14 Tudu tuvikene / Sleep My Dove (from Hageri)
15 Karja kojukutse / Calling the Cattle Home (from Rõuge)
16 Nüüd on see päev ju lõppenud / To Its End the Day Has Come (from Rapla)
Rating at − the biggest database of audio recording: 5 / 5
The bountiful heritage of Estonian folk-lore dates back to the dawn of ancient times and has disappeared from the active use since long ago. Luckily most of it has been preserved in the form of sound recordings or manuscripts in archives and some of it has gone back to circulation as books or records.
Museum collections are normally referred to as “dead material”. Actually only the part that disappears together with its bearer can be considered a dead culture. The archived collections of folk-lore can rather be seen as a chest of treasure where one can always find something to decorate the culture of newer times. Thus, the old folk songs often get a new life sometimes imitating their ancient sound, sometimes in a completely new form, as a synthesis of archaic and modern means of expression, the composer with his or her individual talent being here a co-author like folksingers in the old times.
The author of the music on the current CD, Tõnu Kõrvits has turned to the most archaic layer of Estonian folk song that with its minimalist but original language of sound has attracted composers’ attention before. Characteristic to Estonian folk song are the rich system of poetic forms and lyrical introvert impressive feeling. The majority here are the songs of women and young maidens. The thoughts and feelings are hidden behind beautiful poetic forms. The idea in one verse is repeated and varied in parallel verses the number of which is not determined. Every singer has the right to add, change or omit something. The basic sound form is alliteration, no end rhyme exists. The poetic message is the most important part of the Estonian folk song, the melody being just a means of expression. The melodies can vary during the singing according to the words or in pure musical purpose by melodics, mode as well as rhythm.
The earliest compositions based on Estonian folk tunes appeared in the second half of the 19th century being influenced by German Liedertafel choral songs. Due to the fact that Estonian folk song is mostly monodic, most of the tunes fit better into different music styles and means than into polyphony based on functional harmony. The synthesis of the means of expression of archaic folk music, contemporary modern musical language and composer’s own free creative idea was characteristic of the works of Mart Saar and Cyrillus Kreek at the beginning of the 20th cent and also of the style of Eduard Tubin, Veljo Tormis and Ester Mägi in the 2nd half of the 20th cent.
During the Singing Revolution in the 1990ties especially popular became the songs by Alo Matiisen where the traits of old folk song (the repetition of a short melodically narrow ranged phrase in the duration of the whole song) was connected to the style and sound of rock music. That kind of songs were chanted like freedom mantras at the big political rallies, thousands of people repeating phrases after the foresinger. Thus the old cultural phenomena may return in a new form, in new situations and in new context to the existing culture, creating in their turn unexpected connections and expressing completely new ideas and feelings.
Nowadays several young Estonian composers have again got fresh inspiration from old folk songs intermingling them into the means of rock and modern classical music as well as the facilities of contemporary acoustic and video technology. At the current CD Tõnu Kõrvits has arranged old folk tunes for English handbells using different means of harmony – polyphonic development (Whoops And Yodels), cluster accords (Grow Into Shepherd), modern harmony of pop music (Come, Little Coddy).
The composer has chosen the base material first and foremost from pure musical point of view. At times he has been fascinated by the simpliest tunes (it was exciting to see what can be made out of a melody with only a couple of notes in it), at times by the special and original sound of a melody, at times by varying mode and tonality. He was as well attracted to the tender lyricism of the songs’ poetry. Though program was not an aim, the cycle is still penetrated by a certain thematic line.
Grow Into Shephard introduces the shepherd theme. In Northern Estonia the village herd was normally kept together by an older shepherd – a hired worker – who was aided by girls or boys from each household. They had sufficient time for song and play on the pasturelands. In Southern Estonia where the herd was separate for each household, it was guarded by underage boys or girls. As a means of communication between the shepherds whoops and yodels – a specific melodic vocalise – were practised there. Every single shepherd used to have his, her own melody characteristic only of him or her. These also contained intonations of different shepherd pipes and the background could include the tinkling of cowbells and birds’ song. The whooping was done on asemantic syllables or sounds which could have been interchanged by short textual phrases. Still, even the wordless whoops carried a message, melting into a poetic picture together with the surrounding nature. This mood has vividly been described by folklorists of the 19th cent.
Almost holy was each clear morning with the Sun disk glowing over the dense young swamp forest, the vault of heaven so brightly blue, twilight still between the bushes. From afar, from the direction of Pupastvere, the inviting whoops of some girls could be heard. They were soon answered by boys’ voices from Metsanuka woods… The words in all of them were nearly the same, the difference being only in the name of household and the shepherd. All like this: “Oe, oe, dear Maali, come this way, I am heading that way, oe, oe, oe, oe, oe!” The tunes had many nuances. One was whooping plaintively and longingly, another prosaically inviting, a third one arrogantly, carelessly as if saying: “come if you want, don’t if not, I do not care!”. One could enthusiastically listen to the melodic whooping of girls. The voices of some boys were like that of a clarinet or oboe. (The memoirs of writer Mait Metsanurk).
Shepherds’ days were long. The boys blew home-made whistles and pipes, the girls used to sing. In the cycle we can also hear several lyrical songs of maidens.
A maiden walks singing through the forest her voice sounding like a kantele for the trees (A Maiden’s Voice). Shepherds were frequently orphans. In the song The Chamber Of The Wind is a question: where is the home of the lonely, shelter for the orphan and an answer in a beautiful poetic picture: where the wind has built a chamber, the water rolled the logs, the rain packed the walls, the fog closed the doors. Roll Sun is the shepherd’s evening song. By the fall of the evening the shepherd begs the Sun to roll to the brothers and sisters where he/she is allowed to sleep on the pillows, rest in the silky bed, float in a silver berth.
The Wife of A Snake is a fairy-tale. The king promises to give his daughter to the one guessing all his riddles. The snake is the only one to succeed and the king is obliged to keep his promise. The princess marries the snake and the couple live happily having three daughters. Once she comes to visit her childhood home. Her brothers do not like their sister being married to the snake and decide to kill the latter. The youngest daughter unwittingly discloses the secret: for returning home her mother has to sing: Ho-lo, bring the sails, let the boat in the waves. The brothers call the snake by singing the song and kill him. The next day the princess wanted to return home but at her singing the boat arrived, full of blood. Understanding what had happened she turned herself into a birch-tree, the elder daughter into greenery, the middle one into white bark, thus keeping them close to the herself but the youngest one is changed into a thin trembling peel and the mother exorcizes: tremble like my heart!
The cycle is framed by two sacred folk songs that date back to the Christian tradition. The first one sings praises to the Saviour who takes the Man’s worries upon himself, helps him in his work and leads the way to the Heaven. The other one is an evening song: the hard daily work has ended, night is falling and everybody drifting into peaceful sleep…
Ingrid Rüütel, PhD
Bells and chimes are probably the oldest instruments that many Asian and European nations knew already in ancient ages. The music of handbells is not the invention of last centuries, either. The roots of these musical instruments date back to 13th–14th cent when it was not rare that differently tuned church bells called people to the service playing beautiful melodies. Sometimes there was used carillon – bell-ringing mechanism in which a manual keyboard (and often pedals) is connected by wires to the beaters of up to 70 static bells. The bells are usually hung in church tower. Carillons are found throughout Europe and the USA, mechanized carillons were the forerunners of musical clocks and boxes, also forerunners of handbells and handchimes.
Arsis Handbell Ensemble was grown up from Arsis Chamber Choir – when the conductor of chamber choir, Aivar Mäe heard handbell music in the USA for the first time, it became his fixed idea to bring this wonderful music also to Estonia, thus founding his own ensemble. It was the year 1991. It took two years explanatory work and preparations in both sides of the world and the idea became reality. In 1993 the representatives of the American Guild of Handbell Ringers visited Estonia, and brought the first three octaves of bells as a present to Aivar Mäe and his choir. By now Arsis Handbell Ensemble has one of the most perfect sets in the world that includes bells of seven octaves. All the handbells in the set have been made in the USA, Malmark Incorporation bell factory with whom Arsis has been co-operating already since 1993. The ensemble, having eight members, has toured in different places of the world. One of the most exotic places was the Republic of South Africa where Arsis participated in Eisteddfod festival and was awarded the Grand Prix. Already for four times Arsis has visited the USA where the handbell music is most widely spread.
The ensemble is playing mostly arrangements of classical music but also a lot of original music. They have given out four CDs that include original works by Peeter Vähi (Handbell Symphony, Supreme Silence, Planet Cantata) and René Eespere (In dies), also participated in the recording of The Flutish Kingdom. The recordings of Arsis are used in the soundtrack of the famous movie Alexander.
Aivar Mäe (b 1960) – the artistic director of Arsis Handbell Ensemble. He acquired his musical education at Tallinn Music High School and Estonian Academy of Music where he studied choral conducting with Prof Ants Sööt. In his youth Aivar Mäe was the vocal soloist of the pop-rock group Vitamiin. Later he has been working with several choirs in Estonia as well as abroad – in Sweden and the USA. He has been the leader of international choir festivals, also running seminars for choral music. In 1992, Aivar Mäe studied in the USA for a year and a half improving his knowledge at the music department of Portland University with Prof Bruce Brown. Since 1999, he has been working as the general manager of Eesti Kontsert, the National Concert Institute of Estonia, and 2004–2006 the general manager of Vanemuine Theatre. Since 2009 he holds the position of general manager of Estonian National Opera. Aivar Mäe is a Honorary Member of the Estonian Society for Music Education.
Performed by Arsis Handbell Ensemble, artistic director Aivar Mäe
Recorded in Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, in March 2003
Engineered and mastered by Priit Kuulberg
Liner notes by Dr Ingrid Rüütel
Translated by Tiina Jokinen
Designed by Piret Mikk
Photos from Tallinn Music and Theatre Museum and by P Vähi
Produced by Peeter Vähi
Published by CultureWare Music Publ and ERP
Total time 56:35
GEMA / n©b
Other recordings with Arsis Handbell Ensemble: The Best of Arsis Bells, Om Mani Padme Hung, Traumzeit, Supreme Silence, Handbell Symphony, The Flutish Kingdom, In Dies, World Festival Of Sacred Music Europe, Planetentöne Vol 2, Legend, Night Music, Music Box, Terra Mariana, Prelude, Quarter of a Century with Friends