Leevi Madetoja: Symphony no. 2 in E-flat, op. 35

performed by the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra under Paavo Rautio, or below with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgards

(cover image by Vincent Guth)

I received a telegram from Viipuri yesterday that made my blood run cold: “Yjrö fell on the 13th day of April” was the message in all its terrible brevity. This unforeseen, shocking news fills us with unutterable grief. Death, that cruel companion of war and persecution, has not therefore spared us either; it has come to visit us, to snatch one of us as its victim. Oh when will we see the day when the forces of hatred vanish from the world and the good spirits of peace can return to heal the wounds inflicted by suffering and misery?

— Leevi Madetoja, in a 5 May 1916 letter to his mother, Anna

Leevi Antti Madetoja was born on February 17, 1887 in Oulu. He studied under Sibelius from 1908-1910, something he, as any young Finn would be, was thrilled to have the opportunity to do, even if their studies were not very formal or organized.

Madetoja’s father was first mate on a merchant ship, and sailed off to America to make money and/or establish a new home for his family, but he died of Tuberculosis sailing the Mississippi River in 1888. In fact, Madetoja never met his father, as he departed before he was born, and the young boy grew up poor and malnourished.

He studied violin and piano on his own, and is “certainly the only notable classical composer whose primary instrument was the kantele,” says Wikipedia, citing Ritta Pullainen. The kantele is a plucked string instrument native to Finland.

He first studied with Armas Järnefelt at the Helsinki Music Institute, and was later chosen to study with Sibelius, as mentioned above. Wiki speaks at greater length on this, and in fact devotes an entire section to the relationship between the two composers. Wiki describes Sibelius’s lessons as “unstructured and sporadic,” but conveys that the young student revered the Finnish master, practically worshipped him, but also that Sibelius would feel intimidated by the success of the younger generation of composers. We will hear a Sibelian influence in his work.

After his studies with Sibelius, and with his help and some financial assistance from the Finnish government, he went to Paris to study with Vincent d’Indy. His friend and fellow Sibelius student Toivo Kuula had spent some time there and piqued his interest in the place. Unfortunately, d’Indy fell ill and they had only one lesson together, after which Madetoja stayed, teacherless, in Paris. He returned to Oulu briefly, and then back to mainland Europe, in Vienna and Berlin, where Sibelius again came to his aid, arranging studies for Madetoja with Sibelius’s own former teacher, Robert Fuchs.

Madetoja later went on to have a career as conductor and composer, and I suggest reading his Wikipedia article, more comprehensive than many of the composers we’ll visit in this series. He also moved and worked and rubbed shoulders with some other names you might recognize, making it all the more odd that he’s not better recognized outside his home country.

The second symphony dates from 1918, right on the heels of his first. It was composed in the wake of the Finnish Civil War, certainly a turbulent time for the nation, but also for the composer, as expressed in the opening quote. He lost both his brother Yjrö as well as his dear friend and fellow composer Toivo Kuula in the war. This gives an especially nationalistic and personal tone to the work. Robert Kajanus conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic in the premiere of the work on December 17, 1918, almost 99 years ago.

And how very Sibelian it is. It has the broadness and lyric undercurrent and sense of unfolding and crispness that Sibelius’s earliest symphonies had, but there’s a nagging, almost militaristic ostinato-like figure that does tell us that something else may be afoot. The elder Finn’s first two symphonies begin with gestures that feel like the crunch of the first step into snow that makes the beginning of a long journey. I hear that in the magical opening of Madetoja’s second. It’s movement with pastoral elements, or what ‘pastoral’ might sound like when your country spends much of the time frozen and snow-covered, I guess. The contrasting theme is a bit more forward, marchy, but overall, it’s just exquisite music with a nice sense of forward motion and some enticing ambiguity.

In fact, this forward motion pushes over, in the form of an oboe solo, with material from the first movement, into what becomes the second, marked andante. It is the longest of the four movements, at least in Rautio’s reading. Listen for the treatment of the chirpy, shimmery woodwinds floating atop a rich current of low strings. This is a sound Madetoja clearly learned from Sibelius, but I don’t mind it at all. It’s a beautiful arc that ends in much the way it began.

The third movement, marked allegro non troppo, gives us some real punch, almost violent in contrast with the previous movement’s serenity. What you’ll notice, though, is that from the beginning, the first theme presented is still closely related to the thematic material of the first two movements, which were themselves connected. It is here that we, if not for the first time, at least the most outright hear the sense of tragedy and loss of aforementioned war experiences, where he lost both his brother and his friend. The turbulence of this movement sounds more akin to Shostakovich at times than Sibelius, but the latter is still very present. It would seem that this movement functions as the scherzo of the piece, but maybe it’s the real heart of the symphony, the first time where the violence and tragedy and grief of it all really come to the fore, yet still end somewhat serenely, with a sentimental glimmer of hope from the oboe.

The third movement is connected to the fourth as the second was to the first. If we were to read into this as program music, we might say something about a “tentative optimism” or reluctant hopefulness or something. The work ends quietly, but not with the sort of unrelenting despair as we might hear from Shostakovich or others. That being said, the quiet, still ending is very powerful.

I’m not sure that, all things considered, I’d hear this work as the expression of loss and tragedy that the opening quote from the composer would seem to suggest, save perhaps in a subtle, underlying sense of tension or unrest in the first two movements. At the very least, maybe there’s some kind of acceptance, but that’s all still very subjective. What I find most compelling about this piece is its unity, how the first and last pairs of movements are connected, but even these two halves share some identifiable themes. That may sound easy enough to do, but it’s much more than just being repetitive; it’s also not arbitrary variations. There’s a narrative here, and with that development, sense of internal unity, clear influence from Sibelius, and connection to personal and national tragedy, we have a symphony with many layers to enjoy.

This is the first clear influence of Sibelius we’ve heard, as even the works that came before Sibelius’s fourth (with the exception of Mielck) would have existed concurrently with his influence, so it’s from here that we move forward to see how The Finnish Voice, if there is such a thing, developed, and take a look at how these composers accepted or rejected or dabbled in modernism, tradition, and more. Please stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.


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