My resolution to practice my harp again has mostly been working. Keeping it very very limited in scope seems to have helped me actually do it. So hurray! Now to see if I can keep it up through the rest of the holidays.
My approach was to take one new period (or in this case, period appropriate) song to learn, and one of the ap Huw song structures to learn. And the song I picked was "Vaka vanha Vainamoinen," from Lani Thompson's My Kantele Is My Teacher. (I sneakily thought that a 5-note kantele tune on harp might then also get ported over to lyre.) It's a Kalevala tune.
The Kalevala is the national folk epic of Finland. It was collected and collated in the early 1800s. No single singer ever sat down and performed the Kalevala, start to finish. Rather, Elias Lönnrot (the collector) gathered the songs of many poem singers and shaped them into a single coherent whole - sort of like what Thomas Malory did for the Arthur legends.
Thompson helpfully included some of the lyrics for the tune - in Finnish. I Googled them, and came up with... more Finnish lyrics. But a touch of Google Translate helped me correlate the runo to John Martin Crawford's 1888 translation over at sacred-texts.com. It appears to be Runo 3, about a young hotheaded rune singer who challenges the hero-god figure Vainamoinen to a musical duel. The translation isn't alliterative, like the original, nor rhyming, but it does scan in the original meter. So I could sing it to the music that I have.
Now it also happens that I have The Kalevala Heritage, which contains old recordings of Kalevala singers (some were recorded on wax cylinders!). And track 9, "The Singing Contest," is the same tune as the kantele tune I have. The lyrics are not identical with the "official" Kalevala, but I'm not surprised by that. Lönnrot included one "authoritative" version of the runo, but naturally it exists in different forms and lengths in the wild.
So I'm fairly well convinced that I've correctly matched the tune to the poem. Next problem: Thompson gives three lines of a melody, each line 32 notes/syllables long. Each line matches a Kalevala verse. So I could sing three verses to the music I have. Do those three verses have to all be part of a larger uber-verse? That would really limit the ways in which I could cut down and re-organize this for performance.
Facebook to the rescue! The Atlantian Bards and Performer's Guild page got me in touch with Hakon of Ponte Alto, who has also been studying Kalevala performance. He said his impression was that you'd just keep cycling the verses through the available melodies, without worrying about matching groups of three verses.
After that, reading some of the liner notes to "The Kalevala Heritage" and also the notes on "From the Land of the Kalevala," I learned some more about the performance of the runos. They were performed by pairs of singers, a master and an apprentice (more or less - a more and a less skilled performer). The master would sing a verse, and the apprentice would repeat it - giving the master time to recall the next verse and possibly plan variations on the melody (as is done in other folk oral epic traditions, and I really need to write up my references for those). I listened carefully to my recording of "The Singing Contest," and it actually seemed like the three lines of music collapsed into one or two lines of music by the end. I'll have to listen a few more times, but it may be the first verse Thompson gives was only sung once, at the very start of the runo (at least, by this particular singer for that particular performance).
Finally, lyrics. The Crawford translation ran 16 pages when I put it into a Google doc. I began cutting. There was a definite tension - repetition is a huge poetic feature of the Kalevala, and yet repetitions are also the easiest things to cut! I tried to leave a few in for flavor, but removed most. I removed most of Joukahainen's lame attempts at wisdom (because that seriously went on for pages); I removed his mother warning him not to fight Vainamoinen; with sad heart, I removed the verse where Vainamoinen pretty much calls him a little punk and a bad driver, and to get off his lawn/road. But after I got it down to 45 verses that I thought told the whole story, I went back with a razor and managed to get it down to 30. That's about where my "Matty Groves" comes in.
Aaaand that's when I realized that this had gone well past "harp practice" and was becoming "major performance development project" and thought I should put up a few notes on what was going on.