Program Notes for Finland 100 Concert
by Bradley Clem and Claudia Jensen
In our celebration “Finland 100,” all roads, in a sense, lead to Sibelius. As the music critic Tom Service wrote, the rich and vibrant musical culture of Finland, “which has produced more world-class composers and performers per capita than any other country,” can be traced directly to Sibelius. The influences are not always obvious but, as Service observes, the composers who followed in Sibelius’s footsteps create music “that investigates worlds of texture and harmony that could not have been conceived without him.” Our concert today explores these varied yet linked sound worlds, beginning with Sibelius himself and then circling back to his work at the end, when we can hear, with new appreciation, the depth of his vision and the range of his influence.
Born: December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland
Finlandia, like the following piece on our program, the Karelia Suite, was one of Sibelius’s early works. Both pieces were written originally as part of a larger composition and were then detached from that work, and both were re-engineered later by the composer into their final and familiar form. In the case of Finlandia—or, as it was originally titled, Finland Awakes—the original context was a fundraising event held in 1899 to support Finland’s Press Pension Fund. As the Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett explains, however, the event was a “thin disguise for its true purpose: to rally support for the freedom of the press,” a freedom that had been under attack by the Russian censors who were overseeing Finland at that time. Finland Awakes was the finale of this evening, the climax of a series of pieces meant to highlight episodes from Finland’s history. This grand finale was immediately popular, and Sibelius reconfigured it the next year, when it received both its final musical form and its final title, as Finlandia. It is not based on folk traditions, but employs the burnished orchestral grandeur of the late nineteenth century to achieve its effects. The rigorous opening motif, a kind of growl by the double basses and brass, moves into a rhythmically vital fanfare section before dramatically broadening out into the famous hymn. (This was not based on an actual hymn but recalled a patriotic song that would have been familiar to the first Finnish audiences). The hymn theme is repeated, gaining in power and determination, punctuated by the agitated motifs we heard at the opening, especially the one-note trumpet fanfare. The work culminates in a final statement of the hymn, completing what has been called a “call-to-action” work, a “calling card” in Finland’s struggle for independence.
Karelia Suite (1893)
On his honeymoon, in 1892, Sibelius and his new bride went to Karelia, which is in eastern Finland (and Russia), by the White Sea. During his stay, Sibelius not only composed but he also noted down some folk songs. Thus, when asked later by students at Helsinki University to write a work depicting incidents from Karelian history, Sibelius was eager to oblige. The 1893 premiere of this work (like that of Finlandia a few years later) was, according to Andrew Barnett, not just a concert but “a nationalist rally.” Shortly thereafter, Sibelius rearranged and recomposed the work to create the familiar three-movement suite we’ll hear today.
Like Finlandia, the Karelia Suite shows Sibelius’s mastery of orchestral forces, approaching them in painterly fashion to create a vivid soundscape. The first movement, “Intermezzo,” takes its name from its position in the original work, where it was placed between two tableaux. It begins gradually, with a long buildup that introduces, in fragments, the brass fanfare theme, which is developed throughout the orchestra, propelled by syncopated rhythms and an insistent tambourine. The theme gradually envelopes the entire orchestra, settling back, at the end, into a nest of tremolo strings.
The second movement, “Ballade,” was indeed sung as a ballad in the original version, but in the suite, the melody is given over to the English horn. (The original setting was a castle in the mid-fifteenth century, where a bard entertains the royal party.) It offers a multitude of contrasts to the first movement, in meter and in the muted orchestral setting. The dense inner section reflects the regal setting of the original; this is where we hear the singing English horn. The final “Alla Marcia” movement presents skillful buildups in orchestral forces, with a brass-focused interlude that recalls the opening movement.
Born: October 14, 1952, Helsinki, Finland
Leino Songs (2007)
The composer Kaija Saariaho has been much in the news recently for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of her L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), which was performed in New York last season. The opera was described by conductor Susanna Mälkki as creating “a mysterious world of sounds,” and this is exactly what Saariaho does in the songs we’ll hear today. The four songs are set to writing by the path-breaking Finnish poet Eino Leino (1879‒1926). As Saariaho says in an interview, these are the first songs she has set in her native language. She emphasizes that, although it was very important for her to write in Finnish, for a long time the language was “too concrete” for her to do so. After living for many years outside of Finland, she explains, she finally had the distance to see the possibilities of the language and how she could approach it musically.
The four songs display many facets of her technique, relying not on literal word painting but rather, as she says, on the ways ideas from the text can influence what the orchestra does and how it responds. In the first song, “Sue katselen” (Looking at You), she explains that she was influenced by the long vowel sounds embedded in the poetry. In this setting, she contrasts the precise, almost pointillistic fabric of the orchestra and the soaring lines of the soloist. The text offers dream-like images of closing one’s eyes, drifting, and breathing softly. The driving second song, “Sydän” (The Heart), is propelled by dissonances in the orchestra and by the percussion section in particular, especially the timpani, reflecting the bleak questioning of the poem. The third song, “Rauha” (Peace), takes us to a new realm, one of intense physical images of fragrance, flowers, trees, and, above all, silence and stillness. The fourth song was actually the first of the cycle to be written, but, as Saariaho explains, the dramatic climax at the words “fly, fly, fly!” felt like the natural conclusion, with the orchestra dwindling away into silence after the final line: “Away, away, away, the time has come to rest.”
Säkkijärven Polkka (traditional)
We open the second half of our program with this quick and sprightly polka, named after the Finnish town of Säkkijärvi. It is famous among accordionists, and was popularized by the performer Vili Vesterinen (in fact, the 1955 movie biography of Vesterinen is called “Säkkijärven polkka”). It is probably relevant to our celebration of Finland 100 that the Finnish town for which this polka is named is now part of Russia (the city is now called Kondratevo).
Born: October 9, 1928, Helsinki, Finland
Died: July 27, 2016, Helsinki, Finland
Lintukoto (Isle of Bliss) (1995)
The wild and windswept quality of our next piece, Rautavaara’s Lintukoto, carries us off immediately. The arching sweeps of sound and the flowing melodies suggest the tale upon which the work is based. Birds play a very important role in Finnish mythology, and Lintukoto is said to be a magical island where the birds retreat in the winter. The mythical island is located close to the sky, thus the instrumental birdsongs that emerge from the symphonic texture seem somehow grounded, not soaring above the earth but part of it, merged with the wind and the sea. The writing in Lintukoto, as is typical of the composer’s late works, is dense and colorful; we’ll hear distinctive percussion voices emerging from the orchestral fabric (especially the commanding timpani at the beginning) and many individual instrumental voices popping up for brief moments, propelling the melodic motion forward, and then submerging again. There is luminous writing for the upper strings, another of the composer’s stylistic fingerprints.
Rautavaara was closely tied to Sibelius throughout his career, and he was one of the pallbearers at Sibelius’s funeral. He studied composition at the Sibelius Academy and, after receiving a Koussevitzky Foundation scholarship (at Sibelius’s recommendation) and studying abroad for several years, he returned to the Academy, where he taught from 1966 through 1991.
Born: December 11, 1905 in Hausjärvi, Finland
Died: January 11, 1992 in Helsinki, Finland
Akselin ja Elinan häävalssi (Akseli and Elina’s Wedding Waltz) (1968)
This dreamy waltz is the best-known work by the Finnish film composer and conductor Heikki Aaltoila. It was written for the 1968 film “Here, Beneath the North Star” and depicts the lives of villagers beginning at the end of the nineteenth century and moving through the struggles of Finland’s independence—a natural link to our final work, by Sibelius, which was written during this very period.
Born: December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland
Oma maa (My Own Land), Op. 92 (1918)
We conclude with Oma maa (My Own Land), a cantata written in 1918, during the unsettled, sometimes violent, period following the withdrawal of direct Russian government supervision over Finland. (To describe events very simplistically, there was a struggle between the “Reds”— Socialists along with some remaining Russian soldiers—and the “Whites,” the militia headed by the general and statesman Gustaf Mannerheim, whose forces ultimately prevailed.) Sibelius composed it in a most unusual place: the Lapinlahti Mental Hospital in Helsinki. He was not there for a cure but as a refuge during this period; Sibelius’s brother, who worked at the hospital, urged him to come for his safety. The director of the National Choir, Armas Maasalo, commissioned the work, and Sibelius delivered it quickly. As Maasalo recounted, the composer explained that “the quiet surroundings beside a large cemetery [near the hospital] had been beneficial for his work.”
Oma maa is written for choir and orchestra and it uses a text by the Finnish poet Samuli Kustaa Bergh (1803‒1852). The poem not only extols the beauty and importance of one’s homeland, but it does so with deeply resonant images of nature: tree roots and Northern Lights; islands, water, and clear winter nights. The poem evokes music as well, mentioning the “resounding kantele”—a reference to an ancient stringed instrument associated with the Finnish bards of old who “sang songs of Väinämöinen,” a folk god and hero.
The musical setting is equally lush, and one of the reviews of the premiere performance, in October 1918, observed that the composer had found “convincing expression for the beauty of Finland.” Just as Sibelius was completing the cantata—indeed on the very day he finished it—he noted in his diary that there was news indicating that the violence was almost over, that there might be “a decisive turning point in a few days. Perhaps tonight.” This spirit of hope and relief seems to infuse Oma maa, especially the ending. As Andrew Barnett has written, “with hindsight, it is easy to interpret the work as portending, or at least aspiring towards a more peaceful future” for Finland. The work is an entirely fitting way to end our concert, launching Finland into the future we celebrate today.