Music from Finland brings our short survey of Nordic music over the past few weeks to a close. For most people, the country’s reputation for classical music is probably dominated by the name of Jean Sibelius
(1865–1957), so this blog will try and turn the spotlight on works by other composers deserving of air-time.
We start with music by a composer born some sixty years before Sibelius, namely Fredrik Pacius (1809–1891). Regarded as the father of Finnish music, Pacius was the composer of the first Finnish opera, The Hunt of King Charles, which had its premiere in Helsinki in 1852. At that time the language of the theatre and the opera house was Swedish, and accordingly the work has a Swedish text, although the opera is often performed in a Finnish translation.
The plot, set in 1671, centres on King Charles XI, ruler of Sweden and Finland, immediately before he reached an age to assume control of his kingdom. The music itself remains close to models such as Weber’s Freischütz and Oberon, and there are also hints of Beethoven, not least in the choice of the name Leonora for the heroine. I’ve chosen a bouncy extract from Act II – the Shanty and Chorus – that translates as A scurvy tar is such a man.
The Hunt of King Charles (8.225317-18)
Now to a composer who was a direct contemporary of Sibelius, Erkki Melartin (1875–1937). His studies included two years in Vienna with Robert Fuchs, whose pupils had included Mahler, Sibelius and Korngold. Composition was his life blood, together with pursuits in the field of education. It was thanks to his efforts – in the middle of the 1930s depression, no less – that a purpose-built building for the Helsinki Conservatory, the first of its kind, was completed in 1932. It remains in the use of the Sibelius Academy to this day.
The 21st century has brought a revival of interest in Melartin’s music and his importance in the field of Finnish music. Long-forgotten masterpieces, previously unrecorded, have again seen the light of day. One of the most significant of these is the tone poem Traumgesicht Op. 70, written in 1910. Alexander Siloti, one of the big names in the musical life of Russia’s St Petersburg, invited Melartin to provide and conduct one of his shorter works in the city. With nothing suitable available, Melartin set to work immediately on creating a new piece. Six weeks later, he completed Traumgesicht, writing to a friend in late August 1910:
“I have been working terribly hard. The night before last I completed Traumgesicht after 15 hours of work that day. Siloti lit such a fire under me by telegraphing and writing me every so often. When I had told him what I was doing, he wanted to see the beginning, and then he urged me to send ‘taglich mehr, taglich mehr’ [daily more, daily more]! He is very delighted. It is a terribly difficult piece, and such orchestral writing has never before been attempted in this country.”
Lasting some 15 minutes, I’ve selected the opening section of the work to demonstrate Melartin’s distinctive voice.
Smaller scale music now, with a song by Oskar Merikanto (1868–1924) whose works enjoyed enormous popularity from early in his career. Sibelius was seen as an unequivocally ‘highbrow’ composer, appreciated primarily among the upper classes; Merikanto, however, managed to bridge the gap between concert music and the general public during a period when the framework of musical life in Finland was only just being established. In this sense, Merikanto’s efforts were of immeasurable value.
Merikanto was not only a composer but also a pianist, the organist of Johannes Church in Helsinki, an organ inspector, a conductor, a music critic and a teacher. Given that he was an active accompanist, it’s unsurprising that solo songs (he wrote about 150) form the best known and most significant portion of his output, many of which remain to this day among the all-time favourite Finnish songs of any genre. Here’s his Myrskylintu (Stormbird).
Next, I’ve chosen three pieces by living Finnish composers, the first by Kaija Saariaho who celebrated her 70th birthday in 2022. Orion is one of her largest orchestral works, written in 2002 and cast in three movements. The subject of Orion presents two contrasting essentials: the image of him as the giant hunter of Greek myth, known not just for his great beauty but also for his prodigious strength and bravery; and his placement by Zeus as a stellar constellation, following his death at the hands of Artemis the huntress. Those contrasting characteristics of hyperactive hunter and static heavenly body can be heard in both the frenzy and stasis of the final movement, Hunter.
Born in 1935, Aulis Sallinen’s style of composition has reflected more of a traditional approach to melody, tonality and texture, sometimes described as ‘audience-friendly’. He wrote Sunrise Serenade in 1989 in the wake of the completion of his opera Kullervo, the plot of which embodies a tragic tale of misery. Maybe as both an extension to and redemption from that theme, Sunrise Serenade (scored for 2 trumpets, piano and string orchestra) treads a melancholy transition from darkness to light.
Sunrise Serenade (8.553747)
Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958) came to the immediate attention of the world of classical music when he announced his artistic credo as a budding composer in the late 1970s. Together with Finnish contemporaries such as Kaija Saariaho, referred to earlier, he formed a group with the name ‘Ears Open!’ (Korvat Auki!) in 1977 with the goal of reviving the spirit of modernism and innovation in Finnish musical culture. The differences between Lindberg’s piano works dating from that period and those composed in the early years of the 21st century can seem quite stark. Whereas his early works are based strictly on serial procedures, the emergence of a vibrant, more approachable style can be heard in works such as the two Etudes (2001/2004), which even share harmonic, textural and stylistic parallels with Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Messiaen.
Here are two short pieces to enable that comparison: first, the third of his Tre Pianostycke (1978), followed by the Etude No. 2 (2004).
Tre Pianostycke (8.570542)
Etude No. 2 (8.570542)
Finally to Sibelius. But, with a composing career that spanned some 80 years, which piece of his to choose? Recalling a concert I once attended given by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle suggested the answer. I’d been commissioned to write a review of the event, which featured Berlioz’s overture Le corsaire, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and an electrifying performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. What will they choose for an encore, I wondered, that could top out that sort of programme? The answer was Sibelius’ Scene with Cranes that forms part of his incidental music for the play Kuolema. In describing the performance for the readership, I remember deciding that the best way to convey its mesmerising effect was to write: “Trying to describe the beauty of the piece and the performance would be like cutting the throat of a songbird to find out what makes it sing.” So, I’ll leave you to decide if that resonates to any degree with you following this performance by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Pietari Inkinen.
Scene with Cranes (8.570763)