Tauno Marttinen: Symphony no. 1, op. 2

performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä

(Oh. There’s no video for this, but I’d recommend purchasing this one [from iTunes or Chandos] or wherever you get your music. It’s an interesting work. You can also learn more about the composer here.)

(cover image by Kevin Floerke)

Tauno Olavi Marttinen was born on September 27, 1912 in Helsinki. His father was a barber, but also played the piano. He studied piano and composition in Vyborg and Helsinki, and that’s about all the English Wiki gives us. In total, he wrote something like 800 published works, including ten symphonies, a large number of concertos, lots of chamber music, a few dozen operas, six ballets, and apparently an enormous volume of works for chorus or voice.

I don’t gather from the Finnish article that he studied with anyone notable, certainly no names I recognize (of the one or two I saw, none seemed to be composers, and there’s no mention of the Sibelius Academy or any of the other famous institutions at which many Finnish composers studied. However, my friend Johann, who will appear again in a moment, tells me that Marttinen studied in mainland Europe with Wladimir Vogel, who himself studied with Scriabin and Busoni. That’s about all I know about Marttinen, then. He died in 2008.

This probably marks the outer limit of the Finnish series, a composer who’s poorly represented on YouTube, very scantily recorded (relative to his total output of music) even by BIS, Finlandia, Ondine, etc., and who sits outside the inner circle of those who studied at the Sibelius Academy, studied with other Famous Finns, rubbed shoulders with their peers. Granted, most of us outside Finland or Northern Europe may not have heard of Melartin, Madetoja, Merikanto, or Kokkonen, but they’re important Finns, and from everything I can tell, Marttinen was at some remove from this academic environment.

And yet, as you can see here, his output is extraordinary if for nothing else than its volume. You might also notice Edition Tilli mentioned on that site. That’s Johann’s endeavor. I’ve mentioned him before, but he also carries this work, in the event you’re in the market.

Marttinen’s first symphony, with opus no. 2, dates from 1958, with a premiere the following year, apparently. With such an early work from such a prolific composer, it’s likely his later compositions are very different, or at least more mature. One assumes he didn’t stagnate by his op. 2, but at the very least, the symphony here gives us an idea of his starting point, what he was working with early on, and what an impressive opus two it is. I also wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a large volume of juvenilia before this, stuff he didn’t publish until later or that wasn’t assigned an opus number.

In any case, the work is in three movements and lasts about 20 minutes:

  1. Moderato
  2. Allegro molto vivace
  3. Presto

The symphony begins with a magical, colorful opening, colorful, detailed, Strauss-like in its orchestration, with flute and cello solos appearing out of what we might assume would lead to a Brucknerian orchestral passage. But no. There’s a transparency to his sound in the clarity of the utterances from low brass or woodwinds, but when the strings do take over, they’re commanding and supple. Put Webern’s Passacaglia in a blender with Sibelius and a dash of Strauss, and this is what you’d get.

I’m not sure we have a true sonata-form structure here (at all), but there are contrasting, more serene passages dominated by strings, but even these carry great tension, as the Jaws-like motif in the basses toward the end of the movement ominously suggests. Overall, it’s a dark, at times menacing, but very captivating first movement, and strikingly effective. It ends without fanfare.

The second movement is slightly shorter, and seems to draw from the more serene passages. Marked ‘allegro molto vivace’, it isn’t a slow movement, but seems to serve as a scherzo of sorts, with a subdued, relaxed triple meter. The excitement here is a sort of nervous, buzzy kind, again with very fine detail in orchestration. What one might consider to be the trio of this work, or else the substitute for a slow movement, features a violin solo in the middle of the movement, the stillest, most somber passage of the entire work, and the other strings follow suit.

There’s a quick flash of a climax at the end that one thinks will push us through into the finale, but it dies before then. Marked presto, it begins with chirps from woodwinds, but unlike the second movement, pushes forward much more strongly. This is the longest movement of the work, at nearly half the playing time of the entire symphony. We hear a triumphant, quite traditional fanfare before a Mahleresque drum thump introduces a solemn English horn solo.

What I find interesting about this work is its paradoxical unconventional nature in such a familiar language. There’s really nothing here that a lover of late Romantic music (Mahler lovers, for sure) wouldn’t immediately take to. While the structure and layout might not be standard, the result is an incredibly compelling symphony.

Even though I’m not hearing the kind of motivic development from cells or rows or pitch/interval content that makes up so much modern music, there is still a sense of continuity, of concise, dense cohesion, which partly comes from the spinning of the narrative and use of exquisite orchestral color. Every gesture moves forward from what was already spun, and the fabric that results, overall, is captivating, even if we don’t understand the mechanisms of the weave.

I can’t fathom this article will get much traffic. I had to do some serious digging to find the little information I have on this, and ultimately, the article is a collection of bland statements likening Marttinen’s (obviously unique) language and style to a mishmash of other composers, but for a work that you guys can’t listen to, it’s the best I can do. It is also perhaps a good example of how we don’t need to get the nuts and bolts of motivic development and internal structure and all that to appreciate a piece, especially one as vivid and immediate as this.

So that’s that, folks, a really obscure Finnish composer, at least to this American living in Asia. Spend a few bucks if you can and listen to this richly satisfying work from a composer I’ll bet you’ve likely never ever heard of before, but stay tuned because we have much more from Finnish composers, some of whom you may have even heard of. Thanks so much for reading.

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