Bird Droppings from Estonia: The musical!
Arvamus 03 Apr 2016 Hilary BirdEWR
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An eye operation recently rendered me unable to read. This is not good. I am addicted to books. As I seldom watch TV and, anyway, TV would involve squinting at subtitles with my one good eye, I rigged up my laptop and dug out CDs I have been meaning (for eons) to listen to. Laying in my bed with earphones clamped on I was soon joined by Nurse Jelli whose task was to lie on my chest and prevent me from moving. She was often asleep on duty and totally inept at administering eye drops or making tea but her soothing company was perfect for post-surgery trauma.

Meditations is an album of songs by Elīna Garanča ranging from the well know (Mozart, Mascagni) to (undeservedly) little known Latvian composers (Uğis, Prauliņš and Pēteris Vasks). “I am approaching 40,” says the ever down-to-earth Garanča, “and at that age a certain chapter in your life comes to a close. The music I sing here seems to me to form a logical ending to this chapter: a peaceful and contented inward glance.” Just the thing, then, for post-operative stress.

Ave Maria, the last track on Meditations has an interesting history. It was popularised in the 1990s first by Garanča’s fellow Latvian, the soprano Inese Galante and then by the Russian mezzo Irina Arkhipova but no one seems sure who really wrote it. It was first heard on a 1970 Melodiya LP of works by Vladimir Vavilov (1925 – 73). Vavilov (who was important in the revival of early music in the USSR) routinely ascribed his own works to Renaissance or Baroque composers (regardless of any clash in style) gave the composer’s name as ‘Anonymous’ but there was an assumption that he wrote it. After Vavilov’s death, however, the Ave was re-attributed to Giulio Caccini (1558 –1618) although the lush orchestration certainly isn’t 16th century! Whoever wrote it, this opulent Ave Maria has a history of therapy in my life … A friend brought me a tape when I was in hospital after major surgery in London in 1994 and it was the first music I heard after I came round from the anaesthetic feeling very glad to be alive … Listen at

A mass is a means by which Christians express unity, dependence on God and community. The word ‘mass’ comes from the Latin Ite, missa est (Go, it is ended) the command given at the end of worship. The Tallinn Mass is a combination of traditional liturgy and the poetry cycle ‘Dance of Life’ (Elutants) by Tallinners Doris Kareva and Jürgen Rooste set to music by London-born Roxanna Panufik. It was commissioned for Tallinn’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2011. Panufik’s first mass, the Westminster Mass, was written for the 75th birthday of Cardinal Hume, head of the Catholic Church in the UK. The Estonian mass is, as one would expect from a country where (according to the 2009 Euobserver poll) only 14% of the population states that religion is an important part of their everyday lives, more of a secular affair. This does not mean, however, that it has any less power or spirituality.

The Elutants poems are inspired by the ‘Dance of Death’ mural (by Bernt Notke, 1433-1509) in St Nicholas Church, Tallinn, in which Death (fronting a medieval line dance) leads popes, emperors, kings, merchants, children and the working classes to their graves. Such allegories were common in the middle ages. They were meant, in an age of illiteracy. to remind people of the fragility and empty vanity of earthly life whilst helping to fill church coffers with blackmailed cash from those wishing to avoid hell fire. Which would be most folk.

Elutants, however, has no bearded paternalistic God in a nightshirt. And there’s no Death either. Life, a female personification of Tallinn sung by Patricia Rozario (a favourite soprano of A. Pärt and H.Bird) is the leader of a dance of 21st century city dwellers – a begger, a spy, a mayor, a prostitute and an advertising executive. Catch Patricia Rozario as The Prostitute in Act IV (Sanctus & Benedictus) at

There’s not a saccharine melody within earshot but other musical references abound in this rich work. Roxanna Panufik has a particular interest in world music and Estonian folk songs mix with plainsong, jazz, blues, actual church bells and the spoken Estonian word. “I immersed myself in the intensely beautiful verbal and folkloric sound world of Estonia,” said Panufik “to the point where that I (quite disloyally) felt more Estonian than Polish or English! I even began to dream in this glacial, trickling, stream like language.” The libretto is in English and the message ( a plea for kindness, tolerance and patienc) is profound - much needed in a world that seems (to the like of myself) increasingly populated by moral and spiritual pygmies. In the final section we are advise that there is no single answer to the meaning of life – it questions that are important. Rather Jewish, I thought. A hymn to Tallinn closes the work.
Other soothing music included

• Arvo Pärt and Cyrillus Kreek (various works). Listen to the pick
Fratres (Pärt) Tasmin Little on violen. My faourite version.

Speigel in Spiegel. From Saltzburg

Passio (recently heard sung in Tartu by the Estonian Philharmonic Choir). This serene work always conjures Byzantine icons for me

Requiem (Kreek)

Four Psalms (Kreek)

• Béla Bartók. Concerto for Orchestra (1943). What a work! The elegant third movement Elegia is awesome. Written by a refugee from Eastern Europe

• Dvorjak. ‘Song to the Moon’ (Rusalka, 1901). Sung here by Kristine Opolais in Riga, Latvia in 2008

• Moravian Folk Poetry in Song by Leoš Janáček. Simply a great favourite

• Finnish folk hymns arranged by Ahti Sonninen (1914-84). I couldn’t find a web site for the CD but while searching I came across the Sami singer Máddji

• The cheerful Concerto for clarinet by Jim Parker (b 1934). Part III always conjures (for me) a summertime bike ride bowling down an English country lane (and I mean English, not Scottish, Welsh or Irish). And here it is in several parts by the wonderfully sibilantly-named Clacton Concert Orchestra
Part I

Part II

Part III

• Enlli , an album by the Welsh harpist, Llio Rhydderch . Ynys Enlli (the isle of Bardsey) lies off the coast of North Wales. It has according to The Guardian, “No TVs, no cars, no telephones and next to no people. There is nothing to do and this is a great place to do it.” Just like the ancestral home at Käsmu. According to legend 20,000 saints are buried on Enlli. They must be buried standing up and in several layers. The island is 0.6 miles (1.0 km) wide, 1.0 mile (1.6 km) long and 179 hectares (440 acres; 0.69 sq mi) in area. Ignoring the vexed issue of saintly overcrowding Enlli has been a place of pilgrimage since the end of the fifth century, AD. Llio Rhydderch is descended from a centuries-old unbroken line of Welsh harpists and is recognised as the foremost living exponent of the triple Welsh harp (big brother to the Estonian kannel). She also looks like my Auntie Gwladys. Listen to Llio at

• Lascia Ch'io Pianga (Allow that I weep) from Handel’s ‘Rinaldo’ (1711) heard recently at the Estonian National Opera and damn good too! Handel wrote this aria for a soprano but the clip I chose was from the 1994 film ‘Farinelli’ about the castrato singer Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi. The castrato singing voice was recreated by merging the voices of Polish soprano Ewa Malas-Godlewska and countertenor Derek Lee Ragin. The singers were recorded separately and their voices digitally merged so this track is a bit of a curiosity. I saw Ragin live in Tartu in 2007 on the strength of this film and he did not disappoint!

Allow that I weep over
my cruel fate,
and that I may sigh
for the freedom

Let my sadness shatter
these chains
of my suffering,
if only out of pity.

See the full film at

On the popular music side,
• Heli Lääts (b.1923) from Estonia got a good airing along. Watch the Soviet (1973) version of the Tony Hatch - Jackie Trent song ‘Play it again’ at
. And ‘The burning candle’ is very pretty - watch at
Shmalz, but classy schmalz.

• Raduza, the Czech singer-songwriter who seems to have arrived to her native Prague via Paris, complete with cross culture accordian – Listen to lilting, luscious chanson
• ‘All is fair in love’ sung by DionnweWarwick. Fabulous cool jazz. And the message is spot on. Warwick in cabaret in 1975 singing my favourite version of a favourite song by Stevie Wonder.

• ‘Almaz’ (1987) Written and sung by Randy Crawford. Ahhh, melody

Lyrics at

• My great (s)hero, Barbra Streisand. The only person who I have ever put on a pedestal – actress, film director, philanthropist, political liberal, left wing social activist but most of all, a superlative singer. A woman and woman-centred human being of intellegence and principal who has used her prodigous talents and wide public reach to try and improve the world . Watch favourites

• ‘He isn’t you’ from the 1970 film of ‘On a clear day you can see forever’ Barbra aged 28 and dressed to kill by Cecil Beaton. Filmed at The Regency , Brighton, UK. The voice is perfection.

Lyrics at

• ‘In a very unusual way’ A rather unusual and intruiging love song from the 2007 world tour. Barbra aged 65 and dressed to kill by fellow New Yorker, Donna Karan

Lyrics at

• ‘Niagara’ (1979). A song about failed love and a great example of the virtuoso singing (with slow legato pace and the sustaining of long notes) that is so essential to the Streisand style. The bridge at 2.53 is one of my very favourite pieces of song anywhere, anytime.

• ‘Songbird’ (1978). The singer in melancholy mood.

• ‘Papa, can you hear me?’ From Yentl (1983) directed by Babs. By-line “Nothing is impossible!” I love this film. Streisand looks fabulous in drag and the whole film has the mellow look of a Rembrant painting. It was filmed in the Czech Republic during the Soviet era when old Prague was left alone (to rot) so the sets are rather authentic!

• ‘No wonder her likes her.’ Also from ‘Yentl.’ Popular feminism at its intellegent best

• More of the same ... ‘Where is it written’ The music for ‘Yentl’ was written by Michel Legrand with lyrics: Alan and Marilyn Bergman

God, our merciful father,
I’m wrapped in a robe of light,
Clothed in your glory
That spreads its wings over my soul.
Maybe I be worthy

There’s not a morning I begin without
a thousand questions running through my mind,
that I don’t try to find the reason and the logic
in the world that God designed.
The reason why
a bird was given wings,
if not to fly and praise the sky
with every song it sings.
What’s right or wrong,
Where I belong
within the scheme of things...
And why have eyes that see
and arms that reach
unless you’re meant to know
there’s something more?
If not to hunger for the meaning of it all,
then tell me what a soul is for?
Why have the wings
unless you’re meant to fly?
And tell me please, why have a mind
if not to question why?
And tell me where-
where is it written what it is
I’m meant to be, that I can’t dare
to have the chance to pick the fruit of every tree,
or have my share of every sweet-imagined possibility?
Just tell me where, tell me where?
If I were only meant to tend the nest,
then why does my imagination sail
across the mountains and the seas,
beyond the make-believe of any fairy tale?
Why have the thirst if not to drink the wine?
And what a waste to have a taste
of things that can't he mine?
And tell me where, where is it written what it is
I'm meant to be, that I can't dare-
to find the meanings in the mornings that I see,
Or have my share of every sweet-imagined possibility?
Just tell me where- where is it written?
Tell me where-
Or if it's written anywhere?

• ‘Alvinu Malkeinu’ (Our Father Our King). A hymn for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year

Hear our prayer
We have sinned before Thee
Have compassion upon us and upon our children
Help us bring an end to pestilence, war, and famine
Cause all hate and oppression to vanish from the earth
Inscribe us for blessing in the Book Of Life
Let the new year be a good year for us.

And I had better stop or I will be here all night! I hope you enjoy that musical ramble as much as I enjoyed putting it together ,,,

Readers will have detected that I am thoroughly post modern in my refusal to recognise any difference between high and low culture … I started with my favourite singer of classical music, Elīna Garanča and I finished with my favourite popular singer Barbra Striesand and here is the bridge, a quote from an interview with Garanča talking about her childhood in Riga - “I grew up in the theatre, so to speak, because it was just across the road from the drama school, and when I was growing up I wanted to be in musicals. I was fascinated by singing, dancing, speaking, costumes, lights and melodies. Barbra Streisand was my hero – and still is, I really do love her. Then somehow this theatre world was much more fascinating for me.' “

The snow is almost gone up here on the edge of the Arctic tundra. Jelli has woken from winter hibernation and is in and out of the front door for active service in rodent control in the woodshed … Plans for the rest of my life are going well … but more about this in my next missive…
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Jan 31 2018 - Toronto Eesti Maja
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