Bird droppings from Estonia: Kreek's Requiem (1)
Archived Articles 09 Mar 2007 Hilary BirdEWR
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I'm pleased to report that it looks like we're going to have a great musical 2007 here in Tartu!

I dithered about going to hear the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir led by their artistic director and principal conductor, Paul Hillier, as the temperature was -18 and not the sort of climes one ventures out into without reservation! But, an Anglo-Estonian connection, a wonderful venue and a great love of the music prevailed and I donned several layers and walked to Jaani kirik (St John's church) to hear two pieces for organ and choir — the Requiem of Cyrillus Kreek (1889 1962) and the premiere of a lovely '7 Words' by UK organist and composer Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, who also played the organ at the concert.

I was so glad I went. The Kreek is cool, delicate and rather melancholy — elusively haunting and otherworldly; it's obviously not inspired by Mozart, Verdi or Fauré — more the choral traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church and traditional Estonian folk singing.

Cyrillus Kreek was born in Lääne county, west Estonia. His father was a formidable character who dragged himself up by his own illegitimate and peasant bootstraps to become a provincial schoolmaster. Symptomatic of the times, Cyrillus had several names - the Germanic Karl at his birth, the Russian Kirill after the imposition of Russification and the family conversion to Orthodoxy (the 'Tzar's faith') around 1892 and Cyrillus for his artistic work in the Estonian Republic.

Music was an everyday part of the Kreek household and father Kreek taught all of his nine children to read music. Kirill began to read organ music when he was seven. The boy learnt his craft by singing in school choirs and music societies, and, thanks to the conductor of the 'Kungla' temperance society, he practised on the society piano and harmonium and on the organs of the church and the castle chapel. He also took piano lessons and when he was invited to join the fire brigade orchestra the need was for brass so Kirill learned to play the cornet.

Cyrillus wrote his first composition in 1906, the year his father recorded 'My son Kirill got an instrument - zugutrombone - 30 roubles'. His mother is said to have disapproved - family income was 300 roubles a year with 20 deducted for taxes - this left 280 roubles a year to feed nine children! Newspapers reported that some Estonian students were studying in St Petersburg and the composer's brother, a cornet player in a military band, encouraged him to apply for the wind instrument school at St Petersburg Conservatoire. And so, in 1908 his poor-as-a-church mouse father borrowed 100 roubles to send his son to St Petersburg and paid interest on the loan for years to come. Cyrillus worked his way through college with rare and very modest funds from his father - 'For Kirill - 5 roubles'.

WW I started in his final year. Kreek was mobilised into the military band of the 470th regiment of the Tzarist army in Tallinn in November 1916 but demobilised in April 1917 because of poor health. The Russian revolution meant that he never completed his studies. In 1919 he worked in northeast Estonia (Rakvere) and then in Tartu before returning to his native Lääne county where he lived in Haapsalu working as a schoolmaster and choirmaster. Cyrillus was very active in the local choir movement and directed song festivals, served on competition boards, conducted the mixed choir Heli (Sound) and collected Estonian folk music. He had started collecting in 1909 (he was especially interested in folk hymns, or spirituals) and was the first to record folk music on a phonograph.

Philosophical wait

His choirs rarely performed any of Kreek's own work but there was interest in Tartu and Tallinn. Requiem was first performed in Tallinn in 1929 and then at the tenth All-Estonia Song Festival (Tallinn) in 1933. The last time that the composer heard it was on his 50th birthday, in February 1940. It was seldom performed during the Soviet times - too much spirituality and not enough drum banging. Kreek remained in Soviet Estonia but, although he worked at the Tallinn Conservatoire from 1944-50 he was pushed out at the height of the Stalinist terror in 1950. 'What's your twitter, my little bird' wasn't quite what Uncle Joe's cronies wanted. Kreek was philosophical - 'my time has not yet come' he said, adding 'wait 30-40 years', while unofficially training a new generation of Estonian composers.

Kreek's is the first ever Estonian requiem. At work in his school the composer mentioned his own music only once — after the first performance of Requiem he said that he could die happy as his life's work was done. The piece is stunningly beautiful, especially when heard in such as place as Jaani kirik, a beautiful 14c Gothic building whose austerity is off set by it's warm red brick.The acoustics are perfect. I couldn't help but think how heart-felt the composers gentle, dignified plea for tranquillity must have been in 1929 when Estonia was just recovering not just from WW I, where its soldiers fought for the Tzar, but from two occupations (by the German Kaiser and the Russian Communists) and a war of independence.

On a personal note it is quite possible that Kreek started to write the Requiem in 1926 as a tribute to his best friend, Peeter Süda (1883 -1921) - his fellow student at the Conservatoire, organist and first lecturer at Tallinn Music High School. A fire in Tartu in 1921 probably destroyed his friend's notes and letters and there was nothing left beside memory. In 1925, a collection had taken place for funds for a memorial so it's probable that Süda was on the composer's mind.

Beautiful text

The Estonian rendition of the text is beautiful; the Redeemer is not the Verdi esque Great Avenger but the Lamb of God, come to lead his children quietly home. The programme notes about the text in Estonian tell that the text is that of the Mozart Requiem translated by the Estophile Schultz-Bertram in 1870. If so, this text is odd - considerable liberties have been taken with the original. The Communio (Lux æterna/Everlasting light), for instance is rolled up into the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) with Jesus being addressed as Tallekene, loosely translated as 'dear little lamb' or, old English, 'Lambkin' and in the familiar 'you' is used rather than the formal, these subtle little details make a difference. Here's the text:

Tallekene, kes kannab maailma patud,
anna meile hingata, hingata igavesti.
Rõõm ja valgus paista sa meile lõpmata.
Au olgu Sinu pühal sõnal,
Sinul olgu au!

Hingata kord rahus anna, Jumal, igavest
Ja taeva valgusse tõsta meid heldest.

(Lambkin, you who carry the sins of the world,
give us rest, everlasting rest.
May everlasting light and peace shine upon us.
Honour be in your holy word.
Honour to you!
Let us rest once and forever in peace, oh God
And graciously lift us into the light of heaven)

There are other interesting points — reference to such a familiar figure (to me) as the Archangel Michael is excluded. The tone is altogether remarkably softer than the Mozart. Fascinating and well worth looking into further. Cyrillus himself did not like priests and churches, saying 'Paralepa [a nature reserve near Haapsalu] is my temple' and, enigmatically, 'I practice Estonian religion.'

Soon after the concert Paul Hillier and the Choir's recording of Arvo Pärt's Da Pacem won Best Choral Performance at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. The programme notes say that Paul Hillier is bringing the choir and the Kreek Requiem to the UK in May. Don't miss it!
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