Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Ancient Song Re-Employed: The Use of Regilaul in the Music of Veljo Tormis

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Ancient Song Re-Employed: The Use of Regilaul in the Music of Veljo Tormis

Article excerpt

It is not I who make use of folk music; it is folk music that makes use of me.1

In this paper I will look at the way in which Veljo Tormis (b. 1930) employs ancient Estonian folk song, regilaul, in his choral compositions. Although not the first composer to use the song, Tormis's relationship with regilaul was to become inseparable from his mature compositional style, and indeed, a fundamental part of his identity as a composer. It is through his regilaul-based works that Tormis's distinct voice as a choral composer is most recognisable.

Firstly, a brief examination of the song itself. Meaning literally 'verse-song', the term regilaul applies to alliterative songs predating the Christianisation of Estonia in the 13th century. They belong to a tradition shared by the former communities of Livs, Vots, Izhorians and Karelians around the Baltic coast, as well as Finland.2 The term regilaul had been applied to the text of Estonian alliterative or 'runic' verse by collectors such as Jakob Hurt as far back as the nineteenth century, but Tormis claims that he and folk song scholar Ülo Tedre, in their themed anthology Uus Regilaulik [The new regilaul] were the first to apply the term to both words and their melodies; the two are inseparable in traditional regilaul practice.3 Characteristics of regilaul are short melodic lines with a small vocal range, often of no more than a fourth, and a rhythmic structure based on the four-footed trochee. The first syllable of each foot is stressed, and the final syllable of the line lengthened.4 Melodies are repeated many times, while the words evolve verse by verse through alliteration and word play, often with an improvisatory element. A typical style of regilaul singing uses two voices who sing alternate lines. These share the last note of one line and the first of the next, thus forming a continuous 'chain' of sound (Example 1).

Lippus stresses that regilaul songs, being ancient monophonic melodies, are fundamentally linear in character: that is, they exist without an implied underlying chord structure.5 They therefore differ distinctly from the ballads, lullabies and other end-rhymed 'folk' songs from Western Europe which were introduced via the Swedish and Baltic German overlords in the 18th and 19th centuries. Regilaul songs, transmitted orally, formed an essential part of everyday working life well into the twentieth century in many of the remoter parts of Estonia, such as the island of Kihnu and semi-autonomous region of Setumaa (in the southeast of the country). Regilaul themes include farming: herding, sowing, reaping, and harvesting; children's games and lullabies; courtship songs and wedding ceremonies in which the customs of 'mocking the groom' and 'lamenting the bride' are seen; bear wakes (animistic practices where the 'spirit' of the bear is celebrated following the hunt); songs for singing aboard ship; laments and spells. Particularly important are songs for large-scale festivals in the calendar year, such as Jaanipäev [St John's Day or Midsummer Eve]. This is the most important annual festival, even today, in Estonia and other Nordic countries, and involves extensive dancing, communal singing and the lighting of huge bonfires.6

The earliest field recordings of regilaul date back to 1912, but the bulk of their collection was made by Herbert and Erna Tampere between 1956 and 1965. The Tamperes collated and edited the material into five volumes, Eesti Rahvalaule Viisidega [Estonian folk songs with notations] and it was these collections, held at the Estonian Literary Museum in Tartu, on which Tormis was to draw extensively in his work.7 Example 2 shows an extract of regilaul transcribed by the Tamperes, from these field recordings. Herbert Tampere (1909-1975) played a further role in bringing regilaul to public awareness through a popular radio series on Estonian folk music which he presented in the 1960s, and in his latter years he organised performances of regilaul at the Music and Theatre Museum in Tallinn (Example 2). …

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