Paavo Heininen: Symphony no. 2, op. 9 ‘Petite symphonie joyeuse’

performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic under Ulf Söderblom

(Oh, this one also isn’t on YouTube, but I’m sure you can stream it or preview it or find it somewhere if it interests you.)

(cover image by Daniel Posthuma)

Paavo Heininen was born on January 13, 1938 in Helsinki. He studied with Merikanto, Rautavaara, Englund, and Kokkonen (all of whom we’ve now seen in the series) at the Sibelius Academy. He spent some time in Cologne, where he studied with Bernd Alois Zimmermann, and at Juilliard, where he studied with Vincent Persichetti and Eduard Steuermann. He also studied privately in Poland with Lutosławski. He himself also taught at the Sibelius Academy, where his students included Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, and Jouni Kaipainen (only one of whom we will see in this series). Heininen is the first composer in this series who is still living, considering Rautavaara’s recent passing. He will be 80 next month (January ’18).

Wikipedia doesn’t mention it, but in his book New Music of the Nordic Countries, Jean Christensen states that:

Heininen was the first in Finland to use Dodecaphony practically right from the outset, without any significant neoclassical phase. (p. 164)

He could have picked up his interest in 12-tone music from Steuermann, perhaps, or also from Lutosławski. I haven’t found any specific mention of where he got this influence.

Overall, Heininen wrote six symphonies, four piano concertos, and a handful of concertos for other instruments, a large body of chamber works, and solo works for various instruments. He also worked to complete some of the works of his teacher Aarre Merikanto that had been destroyed, including his third violin concerto, as a “reimagining” of the work.

Christensen also gives us some very interesting context to this symphony, stemming from Heininen’s first symphony, his opus 3. It was “Dodecaphonic in technique and expressionist in tone,” and was also refused performance for a central movement that was considered to be too difficult. This was apparently crushing for the composer, who, I seem to recall, rather lost some enthusiasm for composing. But it didn’t last, apparently, because his second symphony wasn’t far behind.

This trauma with the first symphony gives us a bit of insight into his subtitle and overall approach to the second symphony. It dates from 1962 and according to Christensen, was written while Heininen studied in New York with Persichetti. The work is in four movements, with a total playing time of about 25 minutes, as follows:

  1. Allegro
  2. Allegretto
  3. Andante
  4. Allegro

The sound of the opening is French-ish to me, evoking Debussy or Stravinsky.  Is there some intention behind the French title, instead of Finnish? Actually quite a number of the (sub)titles of his works are in French. I’m not familiar enough with Persichetti’s work to attribute any of this sound to his influence, though.Christensen tells us that the work is both neoclassical and still Dodecaphonic.

The neoclassical, light texture is apparent from the get go, spontaneous and bright, but not like Prokofiev’s pastiche of the Classical era. The rhythms and overall unfolding of the first movement might seem to be a bit episodic or sporadic in the splashes of color and the mixing of voices in the movement. I’d almost describe it as cheeky. There’s nothing cacophonous or acerbic about it, but it’s not a melodious, sweet thing that’s going to sweep you off your feet. The basic themes will stand out in this colorful tapestry that makes up the longest movement of the symphony.

The second movement is a tame, relatively relaxed scherzo, and it may be more accurate to describe it as a minuet, with its more polite nature. It’s the shortest movement of the symphony and evokes the playfulness of Prokofiev or perhaps even Shostakovich, but without the sarcasm or bite.

The third movement andante returns us to some of the more sensual texture that was suggested in the opening. Beginning with flute, clarinet and oboe solos, and even a saxophone, it’s soothing and warm and round, made up more of supple curves and turns than the angles and bounce of the previous movements. At times it reminds me of the quieter portions of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite. This movement contains the fullest, most traditional symphonic-sounding swell in the whole symphony, almost cinematic.

The finale is instantly jarring, a big and meaty opening to this finale that quickly turns to the same colorful, rich texture of the opening movement, again like Stravinsky. Is it some kind of a rondo? Maybe. A march theme appears that again could possibly be mistaken for Prokofiev. It’s not a sappy Tchaikovsky piece, but I think most naysayers would agree it’s pretty palatable for a dodecaphonic work, no?

While there are moments in this symphony that I really enjoy, passages that shine with a more memorable glimmer, overall, I’m a bit perplexed at the cohesiveness of this symphony. Perhaps there’s some underlying Brahmsian motif I’m missing in the work, a figure or idea that is the backbone of these four perky movements that make up a compact, colorful symphony.

I don’t dislike the work at all. I’m interested in Heininen’s work more from what I’ve read about him and it, but this symphony perhaps isn’t the best representation of what his work is. After all, it’s only his opus no. 9. I’ll be interested to hear more of his stuff in the future, but for now, here he is with a vivid work, one that’s perhaps more interesting than memorable. Can’t win ’em all.

We’re coming down now to the final few weeks of the year and our Finnish series. There’s some good stuff left, so do stay tuned and thanks so much for reading.

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