Magnus Lindberg

As the Finnish composer’s first major choral work makes its CD debut, he talks about how Pompeii inspired his composition

This is your first choral work – how did you come to write this?

I have in fact written some choral music back in the late 1970s, and I wrote a work for children’s choir in the 1990s; but this is definitely the first time I’ve written for chorus and orchestra. Back in 2002 I had this big festival of my music with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and David Whelton [the Philharmonia’s managing director] kindly proposed I should write ‘something involving a choir’. So I had plenty of time to think about this, and I spent many years just trying to find the right text for this project. Finally, almost by accident, I came to see these Pompeii inscriptions and felt immediately that this was just the material I needed.

What attracted you to these texts?

It’s a long story. I had to first consider what language to set; at a very early stage I decided not to go for my native language – which is Finnish or Swedish – as it felt too close to me. And setting an English text also felt inappropriate. Meanwhile I had been listening to a lot of choral music, especially Stravinsky’s Latin works – the Symphony [of Psalms] and the Mass and so forth – and somehow the distance of the language felt perfect. And then I always had in mind to compose a work with some dramatic aspect to it – something where I could mould a kind of story or dramatic sense into it. So when I came to see these amazing collections of graffiti from Pompeii it was exactly the right kind of material; it was in ancient Latin, so the distance of the language was even further, yet of course the world 2,000 years ago hasn’t been that much different from what it is today, so it felt very up to date despite all this time difference.

Some of them are quite colourful inscriptions, taken from around a brothel, for instance; or describing a reward for the return of a bronze pot.

Yes, evidently Pompeii 2,000 years ago was a prosperous and very busy town; and in one afternoon, with the eruption of the volcano, the whole society ceased to exist and everything was left as it was there. This is actually very unique; we don’t have any similar type of documented material from such an old society left as intact as this.

What brought Pompeii to mind, though?

Well, I went there a long time ago, and I remembered that world, its archaic feeling, and a sense of… not even a metaphor; just the thought of a society that ceased to exist abruptly, as it did, with the eruption of the volcano. And that silence, yet thinking of that vibrant city that was there; somehow that set up a kind of dramaturgy for the piece. It definitely influenced the sound of my piece. And, as I said, the language was distant, yet it’s immediate and vivid, so I was very careful in keeping the texts as original as possible; sometimes people didn’t spell things correctly in these inscriptions, so I kept it all as intact as possible. The fascination about this is that you get a picture of a society with all elements present at the same time. There’s no chronology, and the resulting tensions from the strong contrasts and confrontations is just what I wanted.

Interview by Daniel Jaffé

Image: Saara Vuorjoki
Audio: Magnus Linberg: Graffiti

Magnus Lindberg: Graffiti; Seht die Sonne
Helsinki Chamber Choir; Finnish Radio SO/Sakari Oramo
Ondine ODE 1157-2 57:12 mins

A full review of this CD is available in the May issue of BBC Music Magazine