Sallinen is one of Finland’s best-known and most prolific composers today, having been awarded the title Professor of the Arts for Life by the Finnish government in 1981. His prolificity, while attributable in part to this unique honor, which allows him to dedicate all his time to composing, seems to stem also from his firm belief in the power of music to uplift humanity. The same strength of conviction in art’s potential for good is also a theme in the career of poet Lassi Nummi, Sallinen’s countryman and collaborator in the writing of the texts for Sallinen’s opus 84, The Barabbas Dialogues.
The Barabbas Dialogues, composed in 2002 and 2003, was commissioned by the Naantali Music Festival of Finland. It is a mixed-genre work—even Sallinen declines to choose between the labels “song cycle, a chamber oratorio, a cantata, a piece of musical theatre, and or something else” (from the composer’s note on the piece). The performing forces consist of six characters and seven players. The characters include Barabbas (baritone), The Woman (mezzo-soprano), Judas (bass-baritone), The Maiden (soprano), The Youth (tenor), and the Narrator’s part, which is also labeled as “One of the Twelve” (a spoken part for narrator). The instrumental ensemble consists of accordion, violin, violoncello, flute, clarinet, percussion, and piano. In this recording, pianist Ralf Gothoni is also the pianist. The fifty-minute work consists of seven movements—each titled “Dialog.” All the movements are indeed dialogues between two characters, except the fourth and seventh movement, which include four and seven characters, respectively.
The Barabbas Dialogues are based on the Biblical character of Jesus Barabbas, who is, according to tradition, the murderer and insurrectionist freed by Pontius Pilate on Passover Eve at the request of the crowd rather than Jesus Christ. As Sallinen himself points out in the notes to the recording, not much is known about who Barabbas was—his story is described in the Bible only briefly. Scholars have suggested many possibilities regarding the nature of the Barabbas story. Barabbas, which is a conflation of the Hebrew “bar Abbas,” meaning “son of the father,” may have been Jesus Christ’s alter-ego; perhaps the story is parable only, and the events described did not actually ever occur; perhaps Jesus Barabbas and Jesus Christ are the same man, and the tale of two separate men is the result of faulty translation. As it is traditionally interpreted by Christian religions, the Barabbas story represents a nadir in human compassion and morality. “The crowd” as portrayed in the Book of Mark is bloodthirsty and raucous; they choose to free a common criminal rather than the son of God himself. This story is considered by some scholars to be the root of the anti-Semitic myth that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, even though it was the Roman government that ordered and executed the Crucifixion.
While Sallinen and Nummi seem to accept at face value the incidents surrounding Barabbas in the Bible, their text transforms the tale into an optimistic meditation on the human capacity for love. Sallinen and Nummi chose to include another historically maligned character, as well: Judas is represented in the Dialogues, though, like their treatment of Barabbas, they do not portray Judas as he traditionally appears. The words that Sallinen and Nummi’s Judas sings come from the Book of Job, making Judas seem fragile and burdened, rather than traitorous and cunning.
Much of Nummi’s contribution to the libretto consists of excerpts from his long poem Breathing in the Night (1995). The libretto also contains portions of the newest Finnish language translation of the Bible, a project in which Lassi was deeply involved, as well as portions of text by Sallinen himself. Sallinen was also responsible for editing Nummi’s poem in order to make it work as a dialogue between Barabbas and The Woman. The Maiden and the Youth sing beautiful and moving excerpts about their love for one another from the Book of Solomon.
Not only do the selection and juxtaposition of the texts speak to the optimism of Sallinen’s vision, so does his music, which is lyrical and flowing. Sallinen’s vocal composition is designed to showcase the lyrical human voice in all its beauty and dignity. Sallinen achieves balance between the characters in the dialogue, and the music keeps the listener riveted—even if one doesn’t understand the Finnish language. Sallinen informs his listener in the liner notes that the small ensemble and delicate scoring is his reaction to “the overpowering noise of our time.” Indeed, the experience of listening to this music offers a refuge to the listener, but it is not “easy listening” because by its nature The Barabbas Dialogues requires contemplation and concentration. Because of the nature of the text the listener will be drawn to contemplating the nature of the relationships of the characters and by extension, the nature of the human capacity for love, among other questions.
While the names of the performers may not all be familiar to U.S. listeners, these young Finnish musicians’ talent and commitment to the sound of the ensemble is audible in every movement of this fine recording. I thought that Mika Väyrynen’s accordion playing was exceptionally sensitive.
One thing I missed was a clue as to how this work might have been staged. As with so many musical theatre and semi-staged works from early in the twentieth century, including Erwartung and Pierrot Lunaire, the visual elements of The Barabbas Dialogues are nearly completely neglected. Although the enclosed booklet contained a composer’s note and the libretto—both presented in Finnish, German, and English—there were no pictures of the performers, nor any mention about how Sallinen might have wished The Barabbas Dialogues to be performed live. I would have liked to see the costumes as Sallinen envisioned them, or at least haves been able to read how the set might look. In the end, though, it is better to have this piece on CD, even if it is not a complete realization, than to not have it available at all.
The Graduate Center – CUNY