Aarre Merikanto: Symphony No. 3

performed by the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra under Petri Sakari, or below by the Finlandia Orchestra under Tauno Hannikainen

(cover image by Andreea Chidu)

Aare Merikanto was born on June 29, 1893 in Helsinki, the son of Oskar Merikanto, himself a composer. Oskar Merikanto studied at the Leipzig Conservatory with Carl Reinecke and others, and was a performer and conductor in addition to composing.

His son Aarre studied music in Helsinki (with Melartin) in 1911, Leipzig (with Max Reger) from 1912-1914, and then in Moscow (with Sergei Valisenko) from 1916-1917. Wikipedia tells us that “Merikanto’s early style was rooted in Finnish romanticism, but in the 1920s he developed a personal, atonal but not dodecaphonic Modernist style.” This earned him a mixed reception, and his opera Juha, which is now considered one of his most important works, was never performed in his lifetime. After a period of more modern compositions, he later returned to a more neoclassical style, as we shall hear with his third symphony today (which also happens to be my 900th article).

He also served as professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy, and his impressive list of students includes Rautavaara, Usko Meriläinen, Aulis Sallinen and Paavo Heininen, all of whom we shall see in this series.

In total, Merikanto wrote three piano concertos, two cello concertos, four violin concertos, three symphonies, an opera, a number of cantatas, and much else.

The third symphony dates from 1953, well after the composer’s return to a more neoclassical style. In listening to the work, one might think that it smacks a bit of Stravinsky’s neoclassical style, but maybe not quite. Stravinsky or Prokofiev, but less Russian. There’s a pastoral rustic nature to this work that’s more attached to the spirit of flowers and butterflies and chirping birds than some ironic Haydn pastiche.

The first movement unmistakably bears this out. Its crisp lightness sticks with the listener in much the same way that one of Shostakovich’s haunting melodies does, except this is just pure sunshine, maybe late afternoon sunshine, through some trees. Woodwinds dominate the opening, and strings echo a reply.

While the first movement doesn’t have the rhythmic wildness and fire of Stravinsky, the same vibrant, colorful quality of the Russian can indeed be found here.

What’s perhaps most interesting about this work is that the first (and longest) movement, as you’ll see, is that the first movement is marked Scherzo- VivaceBut is that meant to be in the bouncy, buoyant nature of the music, or in its structure? I don’t know. It’s not really that important. If we do indeed look at this charming first movement as a scherzo, it comes in two parts, the chirpy opening part, and a slightly broader, string-driven second part. The trio, if there were to be one, is brought on by a sudden quietude, followed by a more shadowy passage. Even though some of the gestures and elements of the opening do return, the overall effect is that the second movement is being unveiled in short glimpses in the first movement.

The second movement is also exquisitely written. Marked andante, it sounds like the spirit of Sibelius has inspired this movement, with broad, melancholy string lines and fluttery flutes. It’s still, simple, magical. Can you hear some kind of connection to the first movement, remnants of the way it emerged from that scherzo? I feel like I can, especially when the oboe appears. The most impressive thing about this movement, I feel, is that despite how quiet and still it is, it never stops moving forward. It’s not propulsive, or driving or anything, more like a stroll, but it’s a very nice one. It ends with what sound like the breaths of someone that slow as they fall asleep.

But then it’s time to wake up. The finale is marked allegro and begins with a bassoon immediately answered by strings. Be careful. Once this movement’s main theme appears, you may not be able to get it stuck out of your head. This sounds more outwardly, “traditionally” neoclassical, but it’s still undoubtedly a modern piece, and elements of fanfare and counterpoint and contrast are all woven into this five-minute tapestry that brings this little symphony to a warm, grand finish.

The finale is certainly the liveliest movement of the work, but even here it’s a bit laid back, in the way that Brahms’s non-scherzos (like in the second symphony) have a spring in their step but still stay pretty low-key. Among pre- and post-war symphonies, this is a refreshingly light, very enjoyable work that certainly doesn’t lack substance. It has an interesting, interconnected structure, almost more like a three-part symphonic poem than what you’d expect from a scherzo, but that certainly doesn’t detract from its charm.

Take another listen or two to this work, because it’s just about the warmest, sunniest thing we’ll have for the rest of the series, with the exception of another semi-neoclassical work. As always, thanks very much for reading, and stay tuned for more excellent Finnish music.

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