Erkki Melartin: Symphony no. 1 in Cm, op. 30

performed by the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonid Grin

(cover image by Hannu Keski Hakuni)

Erik “Erkki” Gustaf Oskarsson Melartin was born on February 7, 1875 in Käkisalmi (or Kexholm in Swedish), which since 1948 is known as Priozersk (Приозе́рск) in Russia. He studied under Martin Wegelius in Helsinki, as well as with Robert Fuchs in Vienna from 1899 to 1901.

He taught at Helsinki Music College, later the Helsinki Conservatory, and conducted the Vyborg orchestra from 1908-1911, touring as far as North Africa and India. He was also the first to conduct Mahler in Scandinavia. He is also claimed to be the “first Finnish composer to bear Mahler’s influence.”

All of that being said, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most non-Finns haven’t heard this name. Wikipedia even says:

Despite working in the same time period as Jean Sibelius he was not influenced by the more famous composer’s style, and his work has been largely overshadowed by Finland’s most revered composer.

In total, he wrote six completed symphonies, four string quartets and a number of other chamber works, three stage works, as well as works for solo piano and a number of songs.

As to Melartin not being influenced by Sibelius… if they were contemporaries, it doesn’t much surprise me that one didn’t influence the other. They’re kind of separate branches on the family tree, and we find no such derivative nature in Melartin’s work. In fact, I’d argue that we hear splashes of Bruckner, and something perhaps somewhat akin to Sibelius, but what I’d chalk up to something inherently Finnish, or more broadly Scandinavian, as I also sensed in some of last year’s Swedish series an organic, lyrical, earthy quality.

In any case, if you were to ponder what may have been had Sibelius not risen to his international fame, you might want to take a listen to Melartin, which we’ll begin now.

It’s really a very solid first symphony. It’s not long, only about a half hour (actually less), but has immediate appeal and substance that stands up to multiple listenings. It’s not going to shake anyone to their core or force us to ponder the meaning of life, but as a first symphony, it’s a darn good one.

The first movement winks at Bruckner. The broad, brassy opening with all its orchestral bigness maybe isn’t quite as epic as what Bruckner himself penned, but it’s plenty grand. It also juxtaposes giant broad strokes with small gestures from flute or woodwinds.

But big or small, craggy or sinuous, there’s an overall pastoral nature to the music, especially in the more tender second subject. The work begins bigly, but it moves on to quieter, sunnier spaces for most of the rest of the movement. The first movement is the longest, taking up about a third of the work’s playing time. Besides Bruckner, I hear Nielsen, but that’s not to say that Melartin is just trudging along in others’ shadows. It’s a great, engaging first movement, and what follows is especially memorable, even after some of the handsome heights in this movement.

The second movement begins without preparation, right in the middle of a gorgeous, lyrical line. It’s the kind of movement that might be subject to being plucked out of the work and played on its own. It’s so shimmery, so placid and warm, with ethereal passages of harp and woodwind solos. If you wanted to be especially cliche, you could talk about a ‘winter wonderland’, but it’s more like a cool autumn day, watching the sun set from a mountaintop vantage point.

The scherzo is an interesting movement. It could be seen as straddling the line between a softer, more subdued scherzo, and a percussive, driving one. On the other hand, maybe it just can’t make up its mind. There are more clamoring passages, but also quieter, chirpy sections. It’s overall still quite pastoral, but it seems at many points that there’s an outburst just around the corner, which provides some interest to a movement that seems like it had lots more potential than was used. This movement ends quietly.

Be careful with the finale, though. It’s one of those tunes you won’t be able to get out of your head. It’s almost too sunshine-y, but bright and celebratory and very cheerful. Melartin treats the orchestra with the utmost delicacy, so even in these larger passages where a lesser composer might rely on just a pretty tune, which this entire work does have, there’s lots of detail to enjoy. It’s sort of a march, really, and I’d be more convinced of this celebratory triumph if we’d had a bit more of a struggle in the preceding three movements.

The work is no doubt quite charming, but it doesn’t carry as much weight as Mielck’s from earlier in the week. That being said, it’s a very nice work, and we have five more symphonies, and much else, to enjoy from Melartin that we’ll ostensibly get around to at some point. This work is a good one but certainly not his best.

There’s so much more Finnish music coming up for the rest of the year, so do stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading.

 

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