Revisit: Rautavaara Symphony no. 1 (2003 version)

performed by the Belgium National Orchestra under Mikko Franck, or in the earlier two-movement version as below, by the Leipzig Radio Symphony under Max Pommer

It’s another revisit.

For some ridiculous reason, when this blog started, I took on works from composers like Rautavaara, Aho, Myaskovksy, Milhaud, Tubin, Messiaen, Bax, and Hovhaness before I even touched Brahms, Schubert or Beethoven.

Actually, I’d say that reason was the desire to find something new, the way high school kids are in search of the indie band they can latch onto and say they knew “before they were cool.” Has anyone else had the predisposition that Beethoven and all the other household names are boring because they’re so well known? I guess I did. And I was wrong.

But here we are.

Einojuhani Rautavaara was born on 9 October 1928 in Helsinki, and passed away recently, on 27 July, 2016. I knew his name, and very little of his music beyond a few symphonies that caught my ear, but it was sad nonetheless to hear of his passing, for, even if he were never to write another piece of music, to have someone with his experience and insight around is a value for the music world, and I will not do justice today to that loss.

I had hoped to get around to becoming more familiar with his music (spoiler alert: I’ve been pondering over a Finnish symphony series for quite some time, and it doesn’t take long to think of a few big names, like Rautavaara, Sibelius, Aho, Melartin, and others who will make it a very nice series, once I get around to it), and while I wouldn’t have ever had the opportunity to chat with the composer about his music, I do feel like I have missed out now.

Rautavaara’s father was an opera singer, and his mother a doctor, but both his parents died while their son was in his teens, so he moved in with his aunt. Rautavaara studied under Aare Merikanto (another Finnish name to remember!) at the Sibelius Academy. While there, he wrote a requiem that gained the attention of Sibelius himself, who recommended the young composer (then in his early twenties) for a scholarship at Juilliard. He there studied under such people as Roger Sessions, Aaron Copland, and Vincent Persichetti, who you’ll remember also taught Philip Glass.

This first symphony dates from not long after Rautavaara’s time in America, and one might hear tinges of people like Piston or Schuman in the language of the work, but I’d say, overall, the strongest and most obvious influences are those of Shostakovich and Sibelius. It might be a bit cliché or even… redundant to state that a Finn who studied at  the Sibelius Academy and was recommended by Jean Sibelius to attend Juilliard actually sounded something like Sibelius, but I’d say it calls Shostakovich more strongly to mind, or it is at least the more standout, unexpected likeness.

This piece apparently went through a number of revisions, originally being written in 1956, revisited in 1988, and finally in 2003. The original (or at least an earlier) version was in only two movements, coming in at a total of like 16 minutes or so. The version in the box set from Ondine is the final (?) three-movement version from 2003, and comes in at around 28 minutes.

It’s an oddly structured piece, I think. And first, let me actually say that my being frank about this work might not sound like a way to recognize the recent passing of a very significant modern composer, this first symphony shows characteristics of the great work he would write even just a few years after this.

So yes, it’s a bit oddly structured. Something Rautavaara does very well with, I think, is broad, sprawling, open, long lyrical melodies, or entire landscapes, and if someone turned on the first movement and said “This is Sibelius’ infamous long-lost eighth symphony,” reality aside, it might sound darn convincing. Timpani roll, sudden swell of strings, celli in a sweeping, gorgeous melodic opening line, and this is sustained for some time before woodwinds enter. This first movement makes up for more than half of the playing time of the symphony and sets a grand, richly expressive, pensive mood for the work. It’s a very promising beginning, with everything from the richness of those opening gestures down to a tender violin solo that comes later in the movement.

After that, then, we’re treated to the second movement, marked poetico. This is even more where the composer might shine. It’s serene, still, like wading through knee-deep fresh snow in an untouched landscape, but not wanting to move lest it all be disturbed. The movement ‘opens up’ a bit toward the middle, blossoming out with some more forward motion and passages of more in-your-face strings and such. While the music is undoubtedly beautiful, it’s almost too serene in many places, practically static, but that’s fine. There’s a melancholy about the piece so far, not unlike Sibelius, that’s engaging, but there’s not as much narrative in this movement. It’s a bit introspective.

And then the third and final movement, at almost half the length of the second (which was about half the length of the first). If the second movement was standing in one place, rotating about your current position and taking in an awe-inspiring landscape, then the third movement is jumping on a sled and sweeping playfully through the trees of that landscape. It’s a short, quick scherzo-like movement, marked allegro. Up to this point, things are going quite swimmingly symphonically.  We’re in our third movement, and we have a transparently-orchestrated, colorful, playful movement that calls Shostakovich to mind. The members of the ensemble toss around little repeated figures. Clarinets, flutes, and tuba each get some of their own time to shine, as does percussion, and the whole thing really does sound like one of Shostakovich’s brighter, more playful moments, so perhaps more like Prokofiev, too. It does have its more boisterous, big moments.

If this is our symphonic scherzo, the trio section, or what might masquerade as one, starts sounding more militaristic, with low brass and percussion taking the lead, and a little bit of this heavier nature carries through to where our original playful theme returns, much like a scherzo structure. The final few bars of the symphony are very percussive, and it’s with those last few notes and bangs that we put on the brakes for a moment.

That’s it. And that’s when I start scratching my head a bit, wondering what the overall dialogue of the work is, what its structure tells us about the work. These are things I wouldn’t have discussed or thought too much about back in the autumn of 2013 when I tried writing about this piece, but considering those things, it begins to puzzle a listener, a little bit.

Originally, in its two-movement form, I could see how this would be even more head-scratching. Of the three movements that now exist, if you had to pick one that’s the least like the others, I’d say it’s the third, but it’s the second movement (it seems) that was later added, and the first movement extended (?) (I’m really not sure).

So those are my two thoughts… For one, where’s our final movement? We were so close, so why stop now? Wouldn’t something of equal weight to the first round out this work, give it more body, a sense of completion? And if so, would it elucidate any narrative or underlying structure or expression in the work that would unite these seemingly disjointed movements?

But there isn’t a finale, and apparently never was intended to be one, so this is the work as the composer intended it. My questions above aren’t criticism, just curiosity. I do find the three movements a bit disparate, mostly the third, and ending abruptly that way. Then again, perhaps the interpretation of the piece as three movements of a traditional four-movement work isn’t at all what the composer had in mind. I could very well be missing something(s).

In any case, this post in light of Rautavaara’s recent passing is not to criticize his first of eight eventual symphonies. Far from it. The work at hand shows the qualities that make his later works (like the third and fourth symphonies) stunning pieces of music. Aside from his symphonies, he’s written many concertos and much else, none of which I’ve had the occasion to listen to, but I do look forward to working more of his music into a Finnish series in the (maybe not very) near future.

If Rautavaara isn’t a name you already know, take some time and go do some reading and listening. I wouldn’t necessarily call this the best jumping off point, but it’s a start.

That aside, stay tuned tomorrow for an announcement of a new series for September. I was tempted to toss this post in with that, but despite the geographical proximity, there aren’t any good musical reasons to do so, that I’ve found, so here we are and here it is. Be on the lookout for that new series. It’s a good one.

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