Program Notes: Canticum Calamitatis Maritimæ

Jaakko Mäntijärvi
MS Estonia

The Sinking of the MS Estonia occurred on September 28, 1994, when the ferry sank in the Baltic Sea, killing 852 people. It is among the 20th century’s worst maritime disasters and the second-deadliest sinking of a European civilian vessel after that of the Titanic.

On September 27, 1994, the Estonia set sail on a night voyage across the Baltic Sea from the port of Tallinn in Estonia to Stockholm, Sweden, carrying 989 passengers and crew, as well as vehicles, due to dock at 9:30 the following morning.  The weather was typically stormy for the time of year; at roughly 1:00 a.m. a sound of screeching metal was heard, but an inspection of the bow, where a door (called a visor) allowed access to the ship’s interior, showed nothing untoward. The ship began listing 15 minutes later, and shortly afterward the Estonia rolled to starboard. Those who had reached the decks had a chance of survival, but those who had not were doomed. The  Estonia disappeared from the responding ships’ radar screens at about 1:50 a.m., coming to rest 265 feet below the surface of the sea.

An official inquiry found that failure of the locks on the bow visor caused water to flood the car deck and quickly capsize the ship. The report also noted a lack of crew action, a delay in sounding the alarm, a lack of guidance from the bridge, and a failure to light distress flares. There was also some conjecture that a tractor-trailer had come loose from its moorings and damaged the door, A 2023 investigation noted additional construction flaws in the bow visor.  (Source:

Notes by Scott Youngs

The centerpiece of the Oceans program is Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, dedicated to those who perished in the sinking of the M. S. Estonia on September 28, 1994. 

Mäntyjärvi uses three elements to create the work: First, a solo folk song intended to represent the individual or perhaps the keening of the seafarer’s widow.  The “folk song” is actually based on the tune Nearer My God to Thee, but is unrecognizable, as intended.  It simply represents each one of us as an individual.  The second element is the voice of the “precentor,” or newscaster, intoning the bare facts of the event as if it was a report on the news.  This is done in Latin, as was the original news broadcast in Finland.  The third element is the setting of the psalm text “They that go down to the sea in ships.”  With some interjected parts of the Requiem Mass text, Mäntyjärvi gives us a forceful and thought-provoking reminder that this tragedy took place recently, even with all of our technology and preparations.  The sea is unpredictable, as life is unpredictable.

Notes by the Composer, Jaakko Mäntijärvi

The news text is from Nuntii Latini, the weekly news summary in Latin broadcast by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) for 30 years, 1989 to 2019. These extracts are from the reports broadcast soon after the disaster on 30 September and 7 October 1994 (which, incidentally, is why the numbers are incorrect – the final figures were 852 lost and 137 saved), translated Into Latin by Reijo Pitkaranta and published in:

This work is dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives in the shipwreck of the Estonia on 28 September 1994. Although fragments of the Latin Requiem text are quoted, the work is not really intended for liturgical use, but rather as a meditation involving three distinct elements: firstly, the individual aspect – the ‘folk song’ soprano solo that begins and ends the work (and that can, but does not have to be, interpreted as the keening or lament of a seafarer’s widow); secondly, the objective aspect – the ‘precentor’ intoning the bare facts of the event in newsreader style; and thirdly, the collective aspect – the extensive setting of the psalm text Qui descendunt mare in navibus (‘They that go down to the sea in ships’).

The Text

The Folk Song
May the eternal light shine upon them, o Lord,

and may perpetual light shine upon them.
Have mercy, o Lord

The Newscast
“Over eight hundred people perished
In a shipwreck in the northern Baltic Sea. The car ferry Estonia, en route from Tallinn to Stockholm, was overturned in a severe storm and sank.  There were about 1,000 passengers on board.  910 people lost their lives in the wreck of the Estonia; 139 were saved.”

The Psalm
They that go down to the sea in ships,
that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord
and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind,
which lifteth up the waters thereof.
They mount up to the heaven,

their soul is melted because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man,
and are at their wit’s end.
Then they cry unto the Lord In their trouble,
and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm,
so that the waves thereof are still.

Then they are glad because they be quiet:
so he bring them unto their desired haven.
(Psalm 107:23-30)

What to Listen For (from the composer)

The opening and closing sound background, consisting of a text fragment repeated in prayer style, introduces an element of stylised realism. The musical material is almost exclusively based on the pentatonic ‘folk song’ and a symmetrical or octatonic scale (½ – 1 – ½ – 1). Despite its apparent complexity, the music is designed so as to be within the reach of a fairly competent amateur choir. This work was written for the second European Composition Competition for Cathedral Choirs organised by the Conseil Regional de Picardie in 1997. It was partly written in parallel with my More Shakespeare Songs, and these two works share some features.

Although it is not common (for me at least) to cite sources of inspiration, in planning this work I went through an uncommonly extensive ‘reading list’ that was of considerable help. I will therefore list the most important of these background works and leave it to others to determine to what extent, if any, they have influenced this work: Jncantatio marls aestuosi (Veljo Torrnis); Solstice of Ught (Peter Maxwell Davies); A Sea Symphony (Ralph Vaughan Williams), Benedictio (Urmas Sisask); Die erste Begie (Einojuhani Rautavaara); and settings of the Orthodox All-night Vigil (Serge Rachmaninov, Einojuhani Rautavaara).

Since I have already been asked this several times before this work even went into print, I will here state for the record that the ‘folk song’ theme is not a genuine folk song. It is intended to sound like a generic (and hence unidentifiable) Western pentatonic folk song that could be from any country, albeit more probably from the North than from the South. The tune is in fact a highly corrupted version of Nearer, My God, to Thee, the hymn tune traditionally (though falsely) held to be the last tune played by the band of the Titanic.

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