Usko Meriläinen: String Quartet no. 1

performed by the Medici String Quartet

(Again, we have a piece with no YouTube video. I’ll be perfectly honest: this piece will not be many people’s cup of tea, but if you’re a lover of Webern or Schoenberg or anything like that, stop what you’re doing and go get this album. It’s a remarkable quartet. Also, on the topic of beverage choices, I use an analogy with wine below, so you should check that out at the bottom of the article.)

(cover image by Anastasia Zhenina)

Usko Aatus Meriläinen was born on January 27, 1930 in Tampere. He studied at the Sibelius Academy with Aarre Merikanto and Leo Funtek. In total, he wrote six symphonies, three string quartets, two piano concertos, a cello concerto, guitar concerto, among other concertante works. He completed five piano sonatas along with other solo piano works, a ballet, and other orchestral pieces, including a concerto for orchestra. In his career, he had some association with the Kuopio Symphony Orchestra (which has a snazzy website), and some other institutions.

Again, Wikipedia is quite sparse on information, but thankfully I was able to read a bit of Jean Christensen’s New Music of the Nordic Countries. On page 163, he says:

In the early phase of his career, Meriläinen concentrated on orchestral music and concertos, and it was only during his Dodecaphonic period that chamber music became a significant medium for him.

Of this period, Christensen says on the previous page, 162, that:

Meriläinen’s Dodecaphonic period was brought to a belated close with the First String Quartet (1965).

As with Heininen, I was curious where this interest in serialism came from, but thankfully Hillila and Hong, in their Historical Dictionary of the Music and Musicians of Finland, give us an answer, stating that he studied it with Ernst Krenek in Darmstadt in 1956. What an important detail that is.

It’s always difficult writing about pieces like this, ones that make use of serialist techniques (or other modern approaches), especially those as obscure as this work. I’d like to be able to share something insightful about the composer’s approach, like certain qualities of the series, or its pitch content, certain intervals that are emphasized throughout the work, but I’m afraid I can’t. I can’t even be sure of whence comes his interest in serialist procedures, or what part of his career it dominated, but here we are.

What I can do, though, is say that this style does interest me. I’ve listened to some of his solo piano work, and the second piano concerto, and they’re very intriguing. Boulez comes to mind in some of his work, and I can’t make any statements to Meriläinen admiring Boulez or having any influence from Darmstadt or anything, but one imagines that with a work from the mid-60s, it must have some relation. Maybe?

I can’t suggest as passionately that my all my readers/fellow listeners go purchase a recording of this work like I did with the Kokkonen piece last weekend, because that one was really very much in the modern end of a centuries-old classical tradition, while this piece carries plenty of challenges of its own, meaning it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Not most people’s cup of tea. But if you’re interested in a Finnish composer who might have taken a page out of the books of Webern, or Boulez, or Stockhausen (well, maybe not Stockhausen), then give Meriläinen a listen. Believe it or not, we’ll be seeing him twice in this series as well.

The first quartet is dated from 1965 and is in three movements, totaling around 18 minutes, with the central movement making up about half of that time. They are as follows:

  1. Moderato
  2. Vivace
  3. Allegro deciso

So what is there to say about a work that you can’t listen to for free on YouTube, that I feel safe in saying you probably won’t like, and about which it seems virtually nothing has been written (in English, Finnish, Swedish, French, German…)? Well, let’s see.

The first thing you might notice if you decide to go dig up a recording of this work, and I would understand if you didn’t, is that the individual melodies of each of the independent instruments are actually rather pleasing. They’re afforded a haunting, harsh sound by the use of sul ponticello bowing technique, that glassy, screechy sound that you might associate with Webern or someone It’s where the player bows the string very close to the bridge (the Italian meaning ‘on the bridge’) to create that unique texture.

The other thing you might notice is that they at first seem rather independent of each other, but they come together shortly thereafter, kind of completing each other’s sentence more than actually singing together. If you weren’t speaking with a Webern aficionado, you might be able to convince them that this is from his pen. While it has harsh textural elements like the bowing or pizzicato, there’s not actually a ton of dissonance here, less than you might expect. The result of the first movement is actually rather soft. The first movement is generally quiet, almost nocturne-like, really, save a few passages where the music bustles to live, like an anthill being disturbed.

The second movement, marked vivace, makes up about half the playing time of this quartet, and there’s plenty going on here. It begins with much more pizzicato, a kind of florid detail, again with the insect analogy, kind of like a writhing, crawling mass of ants or bees. The first movement had more transparent lyrical lines that a listener could follow and warm up to, but this is a little more… pointillist. Very interesting. This largest movement perhaps takes on the role of a scherzo, with a quiet, almost solemn central trio-like section bookended by the busy-ness of the pizzicato-laden outer sections. However, the movement is almost in two halves, with the ‘scherzo’ theme, if it is that, only returning at the very end.

The finale again presents us with strong, memorable music, the kind of thing that settles into your brain as something that might be stuck in your head later in the day. That’s not to say it’s cheery or melodious, but it has force. This final movement, the shortest of the three, lives up to its ‘allegro deciso’ marking, with a sense of determination and purpose in the opening subject, not just noise. The contrasting passage is actually remarkably tender,

The Wine Part

For a work like this, I can’t do much better than describe it in either very general or very subjective terms, but regular readers will know I do rather enjoy modern music, like that from the Second Viennese School or others. That’s not to say I can speak intelligently about each individual piece, but I’m certainly more amenable to enjoying it than others. So for a piece like this, to describe the colors or textures or moods broadly is… in some ways absolutely useless.

The thing I think it might just accomplish, though, is that descriptors like ‘tender’ or ‘soft’ or ‘nervous’ might not come to mind when the average Joe listens to the work. But just because you can’t pin a name on it doesn’t mean it’s not there and you’re not noticing it. For example, wine tasters, even amateur ones, use very specific references or comparisons that others might find weird, or even off-putting. To say that a wine has overtones of grass, or leather, or wood, pencil shavings, whatever, might seem absurd, but once you try it and do some comparing and mouth swishing, you might actually realize it’s there.

Perhaps the same can be done here. What initially may seem acerbic or chaotic or menacing may take on softer tones, greater depth, with just the slightest change of perspective or increased patience.

It’s perhaps absolutely absurd that I’m using such a wildly obscure composer as Usko Meriläinen to try to make this point, when the real poster-child serial composers are Webern or Schoenberg, Boulez, etc., but I find something really very sensual and well-crafted about this work, and it impresses me more with each listen. So yes, if that’s your thing, and you can’t get enough of it, you’ll love Meriläinen’s first string quartet.

Meriläinen is the last composer in the series who gets two posts in the series, so stay tuned for another piece of his next weekend. I wasn’t sure how this article was going to go, but I’m really happy with how it turned out. Thanks so much for reading.

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