Ernst Mielck: Symphony in Fm, op. 4

performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo

(cover image by Chris Brignola)

Ernst Mielck was born on October 24, 1877 in Vyborg. He began taking piano lessons at the age of 10 and in 1891 moved to Berlin to study under Max Bruch. He moved back home in 1896, and died three years later in Switzerland at the tragically young age of 21, just two days before his 22nd birthday.

His output is apparently mostly dominated by chamber music, says Wikipedia, while at the same time only listing a string quartet, string quintet, a romance for cello and piano, and some solo piano work. His sole symphony dates from 1897, shortly after his return to Finland, and if you’ve been looking to sink your teeth into a new Romantic symphony of real substance, this is the work. In Oramo’s recording, it’s listed as the ‘Fairy Tale Symphony’, but I haven’t seen this subtitle anywhere else. Regardless, it’s one of the best symphonies you may have never heard.

Interestingly, he apparently had his greatest success in Germany, rather than his home country. Wiki says:

Mielck faced disappointment in his home country for the lack—with the exception of the Finnish Suite—of nationalistic (political) tendencies; his interest in the culture of his ancestral Germany made him rather a foreigner in the Finnish music scene.

We’ll talk later, and indeed throughout this series, of composers and pieces in relation to Sibelius. He was 12 years Mielck’s senior, but this work still left at least some impression on him. Mielck’s symphony was premiered on October 20, 1897, meaning that not only are we just past the 120th anniversary of the work’s premiere, but that it just barely predates the elder Finnish master’s first symphony. At this time, Sibelius had not yet completed a symphony, but famously, it was this work that apparently inspired Sibelius to finally take on the form, and his first followed not long after.

Mielck’s symphony has a duration of about 40 minutes, and is in four movements, as follows:

  1. Andante maestoso
  2. Allegro non troppo 
  3. Andante cantabile
  4. Allegro

In this momentous, commanding work, a powerfully impressive work for such a young composer, Mielck draws from Schumann and Tchaikovsky, or Rachmaninoff (with whom he was a contemporary, so maybe not). So where was the Finnish symphony before Sibelius? That’s what this and another work or two might give us some insight into. But besides trying to find this work’s place in the development of a Finnish national sound or whatever, it’s just a remarkably good symphony.

It begins quietly, as if far off, with timpani, leading to a slow, almost funereal introduction. Even this early in the work, it’s so apparent that Mielck’s handling of the orchestra is nothing short of exquisite. This passage of a few minutes in length lays down a foundation, a plinth of sorts upon which the handsome, strong, shapely symphony will rest, so even after the first movement explodes into its first real theme, we can still hear the backdrop of this mournful introduction.

It has the kind of understated but unstoppably powerful undercurrent that Schumann’s symphonies have, a sense of refreshment for the soul, from the expressive opening to the commanding crunch of the first theme to the brighter, majestic contrasting figures. Do you hear the Dies Irae quote? There’s also blissfully effective use of contrasts and dramatic pauses, and all of this builds a compelling first movement.

By the time the breathtaking first movement is over, a listener familiar with the late 19th century symphonic tradition should be nothing short of giddy for what is to follow, and the young Mielck certainly doesn’t disappoint.

The second movement is marked ‘allegro non troppo,’ and we experience here the same kind of chiaroscuro, balanced, effective contrasts between hard and soft, light and dark, and just exquisitely written orchestral passages that I dare say stand up to anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote. There are some delightful brass chorales in this second movement, but looking at the title of the third movement, ‘andante cantabile,’ we see that that’s the actual slow movement. This triple-meter movement isn’t a roaring, diabolical scherzo like you might have expected from hearing the first movement, but a pastoral, generally softer approach that still isn’t without its fiery moments.

By the time we reach the third movement, we should have high expectations for the kind of writing Mielck is capable of, and he delivers, with sweetly tender passages of orchestral beauty, broad strokes with beautiful transparent passages and poignant climaxes.

The finale begins without any kind of preparation, in a commanding march that shatters the peace of the previous movement, but almost instantly presents yet more contrast, and this thus makes a very suitable finale for this gem of a symphony. It feels in keeping with the first movement, contrasting heartfelt softer expressiveness with really remarkable power. Overall, though, there’s a much greater sense of triumph than in the first movement. There’s tension and conflict galore, a marvelous, richly rewarding finish to a symphony just brimming with energy and color and fine detail. The final bars, though, may surprise you in how the work finishes, showing in my opinion yet another layer of the composer’s maturity.

Not only is the music delightful, but the sense of drama, of unfolding and revealing, of forward motion, is something I’m such a sucker for. As memorable first (and only) symphonies go, I think also of Hans Rott, who made such a large impression on the young Mahler. Rott’s first symphony is wonderful, no doubt, but I also feel it’s a slightly immature work; compare it with its cousin, Mahler’s first, to see how the composer might have polished it or tightened up the composition a bit. It’s youthful and wild.

Mielck’s first effort, though, I feel is very mature in its development and handling of the material. It’s a biggish symphony, but has such a convincing cohesiveness that once you have heard the work a few times and begin the first bars of that introduction, you can already anticipate the entire rest of the journey as a cohesive whole rather than just a string of nice movements. Bravo.

What a terrible shame that Mielck’s life ended as early as it did. This is unquestionably one of the most memorable, satisfying symphonies I’ve heard in recent memory, first symphony or otherwise. It is so familiarly a part of the beautiful Romantic tradition, and yet not derivative or cliche. There’s not a single thing about this work that would prevent it from being an uproarious success in any concert hall when played like Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony play it. It’s a beautiful first piece for our Finnish symphony series, but stay tuned for more, because we’ll be discussing Finnish composers for the entire rest of the year. Thank you so much for reading.

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