Guest Artist | Heinavanker

Event time: 
Sunday, November 15, 2015 - 2:30pm to 4:30pm
Marquand Chapel See map
409 Prospect St.
New Haven, CT 06511
Open to: 
General Public
Event description: 

Estonian folk hymns and liturgical melodies

P R O G R A M   N O T E

The vocal ensemble Heinavanker is a unique meeting point for musicians active in different
fields. Since 1996 the group under direction of composer Margo Kõlar has delved into early
sacred music, our ancestors’ traditions and contemporary imagination. Ancient Estonian runic
songs and folk hymns are an important part of Heinavanker’s repertoire.

The name “Heinavanker” originates from Hieronymos Bosch’S (1453-1516) Haywain Triptych.
Its allegoric scenes seem as if inspired from today’s life. On this strange painting, there’s a
huge stack of hay rolling through a land laboring in acquisitiveness towards destruction. In the
midst of this, music arises. Both a snide demon and a praying angel are trying to get the
musicians under their domain of influence.

The first half of our Yale program compromises settings of the Ordinary of the Latin Mass interspersed
with some Estonian Folk Hymns. The second half of the concert offers a unique glimpse into the
ancient runic song tradition: Margo Kõlar’s „The Songs of Olden Times“ - a cycle of songs based on
runic songs, enables a trip into the world of our ancestors. These songs show a mixture of temporal
and aeonian motifs, the animatistic and Christian world views.

A geographical location of Estonia has left its specific trace on the history of this small fraction
of a nation. This „strategically attractive“ piece of land has witnessed the conflicting political
interests of Vikings, Germans, Swedes, Danes, Slavic nations and others. Estonia is also crossed by
borderline between the influence zones of Eastern and Western Christian churches. Already at the
beginning of the second millennium, the local tribes with their animistic world view and ancestor
worship constituted for the Popes of Rome as well as for Orthodox patriarchs a problem in
expanding their influence. During the recent 50 years as part of Soviet Union atheism has been the
main religion in Estonia aiming to blur the memory of our identity as well as the meaning of
Christian Church.

It has been a true miracle during the end of last century to discover records of original religious
singing culture in our archives – religious folk songs. Cyrillus Kreek (1889–1962), one of most
important folk song collectors has described those songs as ’twirling and ribboned’. Those were
sung on the texts of Protestant song book with the tunes richly embellished and sometimes

The origin of folk hymn tradition is still obscure, but there is enough evidence to assume the
spiritual connection to the movement of 18th century Herrnhut (Moravian) Brethren that triggered a
powerful wave of pietism among the rural population. The other influence most probably originated
from the population of Swedish settlers on Estonian islands and coastal areas whose strong cultural
identity most certainly had an impact on the way their neighbouring Estonians perceived the wider
world. In fact one could claim that the melismatic character of folk hymn derives directly from
Scandinavian folk music as the runic songs (regilaul), the old songs of Finno-Ugric origin,
obviously belong to a different cultural context.

Approximately 500 folk hymns with different versions have been collected in Estonia. The
records exist both in Estonian and Swedish languages. The older songs indicate monodic thinking
as in the more recent ones one feels the rising sense of harmony which can be connected to the
introduction of organs and harmoniums in the churches and chapels. Most likely these songs were
sung in homes, which could explain the rich ornamentals, but also at church services and religious
meetings. The latter could make us wonder how these various and occasionally also virtuously
embellished songs could have sounded in those times. Contemporary sources are rather
contradictory – some describe the singing of the congregation as the “bleat of lambs“ and “howl of
wolves.” “Precentor started the singing, the other singers watched were the singing was heading
and followed. There was no strict rhythm; the next note was sung when it seemed appropriate. The
song was usually very slow and quicker singers added their own embellishments while waiting for
the others.”

There are somewhat different records. „Those who have not heard this singing, can not quite
imagine. The chapel is filled with 700 people who are singing from the bottom of their hearts. Older
people sway their heads to the rhythms of the song; young boys sing whole-heartedly, the voices of
young girls ring like hooping shepherds. There are times when all this singing overpowers the
organ itself, although loud singing and strong effort is not an intention in itself. The song is almost
like a liberation, a sacrament. The upward glances showed that most singers were not aware any
more if they were sitting on wooden benches or hovering in the sky.”
Often, various melodies were applied to the same lyrics, and it was usual to sing different
texts to the same tune. This practice seems to be characteristic to the formation of folk
hymns. It is an oral tradition supported by various memories added to the confusion between
the choral tunes and texts written originally in German, Swedish or Estonian translations
where the lyrics and the tune do not quite match. It required remarkable musical imagination
to synthesize beloved pious texts with two or three local languages with Lutheran choral using
the folk song experience.

But what would the musical world of ancient Estonians have been like at the beginning of the
second millennium - an era before the onset of the crusades? We can proudly mention the archaic
runic songs (songs in the poetic metre of regivärss) which are unique to Estonians and other Finno-
Ugric peoples. The oral tradition of runic songs has, according to scholars, been alive for thousands
of years, and currently seems to be undergoing a fresh revival. Thanks to the Estonian national
awakening in the second half of the 19th century, these songs were gathered into what is now one of
the world’s largest corpus of folklore. The rich, colourful and imaginative texts of these songs are a
welcome supplementary to the scarce knowledge we have about our ancient history.
Arrangements of the folk hymns and runic songs exist mostly in an oral tradition and therefore
require certain amount of improvisation. Having an open mind towards change enables us to enjoy
the charms of traditional music.

~Margo Kõlar, artistic director of Heinavanker