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November 14, 2011

A natural cantata for a frozen planet: Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus

by quaesitor
NASA - antarctica from space

I’d guess that only the most hardened petrol-heads and urbanites will fail to be moved to awestruck wonder by episodes in the BBC’s latest natural world epic, FROZEN PLANET. Quite apart from the stunning (ant)arctic panoramas, there are the focused dramas of a pack of killer whales harassing and (hours later) overwhelming a minke whale. Or comic moments, like the waddling penguins slipping on the ice, or the traffic jam of two narwhal clusters, equipped with their unicorn-like tusks and having to negotiate a head on meeting in a narrow, one-way only ice channel.

This is one of the things that the BBC does best, second to none. And it’s impressive to see Attenborough still braving the elements at 85. I found this little clip especially moving, as he describes his first visit to Captain Scott’s hut.

But my purpose in posting today is not so much to plug the programme which is (rightly) getting plenty of notice. I wanted intend to pick up on a recent musical discovery made on Radio 3’s Composer of the Week a few weeks back, when Donald MacLeod introduced modern Finnish composers. A recurring theme for these composers (as one might expect for those living in a far north) is the landscape and its effect on those living in its harsh conditions. One in particular stood out to me, though I’d never heard of him before, was Einojuhani Rautavaara. I know precious little about him, but was stopped in my tracks by his Cantus Arcticus (written in 1972).

Many composers before him have been profoundly influenced by birdsong, which is of course nature’s music: from Rameau to Saint-Saens all the way to Messiaen. In their different ways, they have tried to imitate the wonder of individual avian voices, as well as to evoke the exuberance of the dawn chorus. But it is only in recent years that technology has enabled the actual sounds of birds fill the concert hall. And Rautavaara has done that with this piece, subtitled the Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, using recordings he made in northern Finland, near the Arctic circle.

Cantus Arcticus

Op. 61 (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra)

  1. Suo (The Marsh)
  2. Melankolia (Melancholy)
  3. Joutsenet muuttavat (Migrating Swans)

Each of the 3 movements evokes a particular aspect of arctic birdlife. The second is simply beautiful. But the climactic final movement is overwhelming – we hear flocks of whopping swans pass overhead as the orchestra swells into its wonderful conclusion. Whereas the music for a series like Frozen Planet is of a high quality but designed to accompany and enhance the visual, this music is purely an aural experience designed to hold its own. One is swept up into its remarkable sound-world which somehow manages to give a sense of the eeriness, hostility and wonder of the frozen wastes. There are hat-tips to Vaughan-Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica and other 20th C greats. But it is a majestic piece that deserves far wider recognition. Wonderful! (It is available on a cheap Naxos disk, for download, and on Spotify.)

Here’s a taster:

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