Helvi Leiviskä: Symphony no. 3

performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jussi Jalas

(No YouTube, but you can watch a performance here under Hannu Lintu. Click the video for the piece and it should load.)

(cover image by Teddy Kelley)

When a good friend happens to recommend a more carefree attitude to life and a less critical approach to composing, among other things, I feel inside me that I have no other choice than to remain faithful to my ideal.

Helvi Leiviskä

Helvi Leiviskä was born on May 25, 1902 in Helsinki. She studied at the Sibelius Academy with Erkki Melartin, then in Vienna with Arthur Willner, later (back in Helsinki, I think) with Madetoja and Leo Funtek. She herself later became a music teacher, and then librarian, at the Sibelius Academy.

She composed three symphonies, a piano concerto, a violin sonata, piano quartet, and other orchestral music. Hillila and Hong, in their Historical Dictionary of the Music and Musicians of Finland, say that “Fugal techniques figure prominently in her orchestral works.” Jean Christensen says on p. 142 of New Music of the Nordic Countries:

The last Romantics did sometimes adopt newer means of expression–Neoclassicism or Dodecaphony, for instance–but without sacrifying the traditionalistic core of their musical ideals. Among the most important in this group of composers were the symphonists Helvi Leiviskä (1902-1982), Lauri Saikkola (1906-1995), Nils-Erik Ringbom (1907-1989), Olavi Pesonen…”

and also Tuukkanen, Aaltonen, and Pylkkänen; none of these others will be discussed in this series.

YLE Concert Program Notes (by Osmo Tapio Räihälä and Kimmo Korhonen translated by Susan Sinisalo) state of Leiviskä’s career that:

…no one objected to or belittled her music. On the contrary, certain critics praised it in glowing terms, but could not resist adding that it was “just like a man’s”. Male was the yardstick: Leiviskä was “just” a female composer, despite being a considerable symphonist.

Leiviskä isn’t the only female composer we’ll be seeing in this series, but there’s certainly some discussion to be had about expectations for female composers and the discriminatory views against their music, no matter the quality. In many cases, it’s ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ Music is so often labeled ‘too masculine for a female’ or ‘too feminine for a female,’ when most likely a listen to the work without knowledge of the composer’s gender wouldn’t elicit such opinions. Hmmmm.

In any case, the work is in three movements, lasting about a half hour. The finale makes up nearly half of that.

  1. Allegro scherzando
  2. Fuga pastoralis
  3. Allegro

The opening allegro scherzando title perhaps calls to mind a symphony from a few weeks ago that also began with a scherzo-like movement, Aarre Merikanto’s third. How convenient it would be to be able to say she studied with him or was influenced somehow by his work, but she didn’t study with him. But there are some similarities.

Leiviskä’s opening movement isn’t as purely, innocently neoclassical, sounding at first utterance quite modern, but the light, floral colors come through loud and clear after a few moments. It’s a bit more relaxed in nature than Merikanto’s effort, or really most things that have the word scherzo attached to them, but this is ‘scherzando,’ an adjective (?) rather than a noun. I do find myself wondering if this recording is a bit on the slow side, but Lintu’s reading above is about the same.

Despite some of the things that might lead you to believe otherwise, there are moments in this first movement of real weight, but overall it strikes me as a bit of an odd first movement, ‘scherzando’ or otherwise. The orchestral color and depth and breadth are fascinating for sure, and there are some standout parts for horn, trumpet, but overall there’s a quiet, introspective sound to this movement. ‘Scherzando’ probably wouldn’t come to mind as a word to describe most of the movement. The final climax calls a bit of Sibelius to mind.

The second movement, about half the length of the first (actually less), references the work’s pastoral nature in its title. A pastoral fugue, eh? We heard lots of fugue from Aho last week, but here we have quite a different treatment. It’s generally broad, also relaxed. Instead of the voices weaving into and out of each other, or intertwining like we heard in the rich counterpoint of Aho, this is a more… Dali-esque approach, where the voices almost melt or bleed into each other. The lines are not quick and clean and crisp, but broad and soft and warm. There are familiar sounds and colors as the short movement unfolds. It’s… buttery, but with a middle section that flutters and comes to life in playful contrast with the outer passages. The palette is distinctly modern, with some very interesting harmonies, but overall somewhat Debussy-like in its color and sound.

The work was described somewhere in one of the above references, or maybe just in my own notes (oops) as “distinctly neoclassical” (maybe my words?) and as having “expert, airy counterpoint” (not my words) and sparing orchestration. We have certainly heard this to be the case, but the opening of the finale is immediately different. The program notes mentioned above describe it this way:

The finale sets off as a determined march before giving way to a calm Andante cantabile in which the symphony’s playful opening theme momentarily pops up in various instruments. After various build-ups and retreats, the symphony finally ends on a peaceful note.

In this way, the previous two movements feel like setups, prefatory material for this moment, and it indeed comes at about the halfway mark of the work. You can probably see how a critic would describe the first two movements (I think) as feminine or whatever, but there’s real bite to this march, an ominous sense we haven’t heard yet. The timpani even seem to suggest Beethoven’s fifth, but he doesn’t (officially) have a copyright to that famous figure.

Suddenly we have Shostakovich coming to mind, a really heartfelt, tragic sense making itself known in this finale, the singing of horns, a lone bassoon, really an entirely different landscape from the preceding movements. This is the heart of the work, where everything comes together. It reveals itself to be not three separate movements that form sections of a whole, but one single trajectory that supports this great finale.

As if that single trajectory wasn’t enough, there’s a bit of a cyclical idea, as the program notes mention. Some of the content seems to reappear, but I personally don’t hear any of the mood itself. It’s changed, specific to the context of having followed that heavy march theme and all the rest.

This is just another good example of how many unique symphonies there are. The thought of studying and digesting each of Mozart’s (or Haydn’s!) symphonies may make your brain cry, but even among a single composer’s prolific output, we can find specific qualities, unique approaches and ideas, and this a good example of that. Finnish composer, female composer, symphonist, whatever labels are or aren’t important, this is an interesting and compelling work that I’d certainly never have come across had I not decided to investigate the Finnish composers more seriously.

It’s almost the last symphony in our series. That title will go to our composer for Thursday’s piece, but even after that, we’ll still have two more composers to meet, and another female among them. You should be able to guess who. In any case, stay tuned for all of that and thanks so much for reading.


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