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Out of the Chill of Sibelius's Shadow: Finland 100

05 May 2017

Jean Sibelius, Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Toivo Kuula, Ondine, 2xHD - Ondine, Finland 100: A Century of Finnish Classics

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Finland celebrates its anniversary of national independence with 100 years of turbulent musical history resolved in a widely inclusive multicultural society. A century ago, Finland's musical environment was reflected in the intense civil conflict between official national neo-Romanticism and "left-wing" modernism. As a consequence, or perhaps inevitably Jean Sibelius was dubbed the national composer and any who didn't stand beside him were left in the chill of his shadow.

With their new-found independence and their liberation from the Russian Empire, Finnish artists threw themselves into the pursuit of an active and thriving artistic identity through exploring history, nature, language and culture. The sound of Finland was yet to be established and the vast majority of 20th century composers looked to Karelian folk tunes, the Kalevala or the Finnish nature as their foundation. These flavours of Finland were expressed through the accepted methods of the Classical-Romantic tradition.

In spite of being governed by an overtly Russian policy, Finland's classical music had been characterised by the universally regarded "super-culture" of the German cosmopolitan influence. Before independence, Finland's musicians and composers would train in German institutions, spending much of their study and professional lives steeped in German culture. In fact, many musicians living in Finland were German born and the famous Helsinki Music Institute (now Sibelius Academy), was founded by the proudly Finnish composer and musicologist, Martin Wegelius, who had studied in Leipzig. During and after WWI Finnish and German connections grew stronger, turning to the powerful nation for materials, military aid, and consequently cultural influences. 

The relationship intensified even further and helped establish the national musical identity only months after Finland's liberation from Russia. The Finnish Civil War erupted between the Reds (the Socialism-favouring working class) and the Whites (the upper classes and bourgeoisie) and the deep-seeded hatred for the Russian ideals became clear. Finland did not want any remnants of Russian influence found in their culture. With the help and support of Germany, the White nationalists defeated the socialist Reds and quickly reinforced a German-inspired national art through the wealth and influence of the bourgeois establishment.

"He was simply chosen, perhaps like Shostakovich (whom he greatly admired), as a reluctantly obliging musical emblem."


By June 1918, the goal was to institute a government-funded right-wing patriotic-nationalist ethos and so they looked to a well-known highly regarded 53-year old composer, Jean Sibelius as the endorsed voice of Finnish classical music. Sibelius had already proven himself a patriot and advocate of nationalistic ideals, albeit inadvertently, with his Finlandia (1899), Karelia Suite (1893), and over a hundred songs for voice and piano inspired by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. It is not known if Sibelius himself was ever explicit about his nationalistic tendencies. He avoided expressing opinions of other composers and seemed to simply be inspired by his country and heritage with no obvious ulterior motives. He was simply chosen, perhaps like Shostakovich (whom he greatly admired), as a reluctantly obliging musical emblem. 


Sibelius at home in Ainola in the 1940s



After his 7th Symphony, Sibelius, for some unknown reason, never wrote another significant major work. It was as though the pressure of his assumed position had smothered his creative output. His wife, Aino, eludes to a possible creative crisis imposed by the expectations of the government:
"In the 1940s there was a great auto da fé at Ainola. My husband collected a number of the manuscripts in a laundry basket and burned them on the open fire in the dining room. Parts of the Karelia Suite were destroyed – I later saw remains of the pages which had been torn out – and many other things. I did not have the strength to be present and left the room. I therefore do not know what he threw on to the fire. But after this my husband became calmer and gradually lighter in mood." 

Sibelius's shadow, self-nurtured or not, grew far and wide. His modernist contemporaries such as Ernest Pingoud, Aarre Merikanto, and Väinö Raitio had a strong interest in the lush French impressionist music and therefore, were politely and surreptitiously condemned. All were cosmopolitan in approach and all dealt with their lack of inclusion differently.

"After all, only rubbish sells well these days. I can only marvel at the uneducated taste of our audiences and critics. But never mind!”

In the most tragic of outcomes, Pingoud, a Finnish of Alsatian parentage, threw himself under a train in Helsinki in 1942. He was born in St. Petersburg and studied with Russian composers Anton RubinsteinAlexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov while publicly denouncing Finnish nationalism and producing music inspired by Scriabin and Debussy. Merikanto too struggled both artistically and personally. Fortunate for him, in 1945 he was able to break his reliance on heroin, an addiction that had hindered his health for years, and began regaining respect by winning several competitions for works like his 4th Violin Concerto and he eventually became professor at the Sibelius Academy. Raitio, the wealthiest of the three simply continued to write the so-called "evil-sounding cacophony" that compelled him, seemingly uninterested in the effects political agendas had on his output. He did, however, write in a letter to his wife Hildur:
“My opera and ballet were probably performed only twice. In some way I am happy, for it means that they are truly good and valuable. After all, only rubbish sells well these days. I can only marvel at the uneducated taste of our audiences and critics. But never mind!”

The divide in the musical climate between the nationalists and modernists gradually dissolved and blurred together thanks to the enduring legacies of Pingoud, Merikanto and Raitio. They have influenced the likes of Erik Bergman, who took a stronger stance against the national prejudice with works like Colori ed improvisation, Birds in the Morning, and Sub Luna, while Joonas Kokkonen's symphonies and his work Music for String Orchestra delved deeper into the modernity of serialism and empathy for the human condition. Slightly less radical was the work of Einojuhani Rautavaara who identified with the old and the new creating a unique blend of traditional romanticism with modern techniques. Although considered a neo-romantic, Aulis Sallinen carried on this blending of styles with a new simplicity - a refreshingly original and highly challenging approach to compositional processes. Paavo Heininen's work seemed, for the most part, to challenge tradition more overtly by introducing duality woven into the material of his Adagio... concerto per orchestra in forma di variazioni: diatonicism/chromaticism; continuity/discontinuity. And finally the relevant work of Kaija Saariaho, an accomplished spectralist known for an extensive oeuvre including her chamber work Circle Map, and the broadly modern Magnus Lindberg (Era), who are perhaps the clearest and most recent examples of Finland's embrace of styles, which in itself has become something of a national identity.

Anthony Dunstan



Finland 100: A Century of Finnish Classics


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