Magnus Lindberg: Chorale (2002)

Composed: 2002
Length: c. 6 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 3 oboes, English horbn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, and strings

In a television documentary from 2001, Esa-Pekka Salonen looked back upon his study time at the Sibelius Academy in the mid 1970s: “I had been a sort of number one at the elementary theory class, and then comes this Swedish speaking boy who copes with all these intricate and thorny matters such as figured bass just like that. And then we became good friends and have continued somehow to grow up together.”

But it is not just for the old times’ sake that Salonen continues to program Lindberg’s works. He knows very well that his former classmate has become what the London Financial Times, a decade ago, called “the most exciting composer of his generation” and whom Sir Simon Rattle has characterized as “one-man living proof that the orchestra is not dead.”

In 2001–02 Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London set up a Lindberg project (“Related Rocks”), the aim of which was to place a number of Lindberg’s orchestral works in the context of his personal choice of influences. One of the concerts, in Leicester, England, featured Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, in the final Adagio of which Berg quotes the Bach chorale “Es ist genug”. For this concert, as an introduction to the Concerto, Lindberg wrote his Chorale that is a parody of the same Bach chorale. (In music, ‘parody’ does not mean ‘intentional mockery’ but refers to the practice, commonly used by Renaissance composers, of reworking an already established composition.)

The chorale tune is by Johann Rudolf Ahle (1625–1673), an organist in Mülhausen, Germany. It was first published in 1662 in a collection of spiritual arias, and Bach made use of it in his cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 60 (1724). The main characteristic of the melody is its use of the sharp fourth degree of the major scale that makes it begin with a Lydian (whole-tone) tetrachord. In Berg the chorale tune is in B flat major, while Lindberg departs, following Bach, from its original A major key.

The point of this little masterpiece of six minutes is that Lindberg makes out of the chorale tune, with his own harmonies, a compact and multi-layered set of variations, in which the tune is twined into an ever increasing splendor of orchestral colors.

Published in LAPHIL PRESENTS, October 2007, p. 65.

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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