Aulis Sallinen: Symphony no. 1, op. 24

performed by the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic Orchestra under Ari Rasilainen

(cover image by Teodor Drobota)

Aulis Heikki Sallinen was born on April 9, 1935 in Salmi, in the Republic of Karelia, a federal subject of Russia. His family moved around a number of times due to his father’s work, and when Finnish Karelia was evacuated, they settled in Uusikaupunki, where Sallinen attended school.

He first studied violin and piano, and would later attend the Sibelius Academy, where he studied under Merikanto and Kokkonen. He would also later teach there, and as young as his mid-20s, was impressively put on the board of directors of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and later became chairman of the board of Finnish Composers. He was apparently recognized more as teacher and administrator rather than composer, until he was awarded the position of “Professor of Arts for Life” by the Finnish government, giving him the financial stability to focus on composition full time.

In total, Sallinen composed eight symphonies, five string quartets, eight pieces called ‘Chamber Music’ for various ensembles, which are still listed as orchestral works (string orchestra with various soloists), concertos for violin, flute, cello, horn, English horn, a large body of chamber works, and six operas.

Hillila and Hong’s Historical Dictionary of the Music and Musicians of Finland mentions that “The first symphony was a prizewinner in a contest at the opening of the Finlandia Concert Hall in Helsinki in 1971.”

Mark Sealey says at Classical.net:

Sallinen’s music should be called conservative when compared with the other leading Finnish composers, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Magnus Lindberg. It’s lusher, more figurative and pays closer homage to the orchestral priorities of a century and more ago… it’s music that’s full of vigor, originality and expert technicality.

We again have a single-movement symphony, clocking in at a mere 14 minutes minutes, but it’s a magical, haunting, powerful quarter-hour. Hillila and Hong say that “Its opening insistently repeats a motive over a sustained triad; and its sparse scoring, despite large instrumental resources, recalls Sibelius.” Sealey, though, says that “There are moments, indeed, well into the first symphony… when the development is not so fast as you might want. Nothing like Sibelius’ impetus…”

Opinions. I’m more inclined to agree with H&H.

Anyway, you can have a look at the score here. The work begins poignantly with a viola solo, joined shortly after by violin. Flute, piccolo and glockenspiel afford a magical, haunting glimmer to the melancholy tones of the strings, and this sets the mood of the entire piece, heartfelt, but somewhat bleak. Things get underway when cellos and double basses pick up the figure that viola started. By the time the flute echoes the same figures, I find myself entirely entranced in this world, one that’s expressive and lyrical, but also dark and somewhat hard-edged, morose.

More than Sibelius or Shostakovich, Allan Pettersson comes to mind in the way the work unravels from these single few gestures, barren, exposed, but so passionate and full of depth. In contrast with this first section, but still related to it, is one in which long pauses hold the tension in the air, punctuating a conversation between flute and bassoon. The string voices that interrupt here and there remind me of some of the death shrieks in Mahler’s music, like the second symphony (the only one that is actually referred to that way), or third or tenth. This section seems to act like a scherzo, being notated in 9/4, the first time I’ve ever seen that time signature.

In little fragments and bits, I hear what seem like references to the Dies Irae, and what was originally an airy, arctic sounding passage has filled out to one of greater body and complexity, generating immense amounts of tension, afforded partly by woodblock, snare and bass drum pounding out an almost unnerving heartbeat.

As if coming off the near-unbearably tense energy of this central scherzo-like passage, glockenspiel, bells and vibraphone fall into a triplet-figured rhythm, something that has the feeling that it’s going to be what drags us, haunts us through to the end of the work.

Surprisingly, though, and immensely satisfying, is that the figure from the very opening, what the flutes echoed out across the barren landscape at the very opening, returns in violins as cellos echo a similar, nearly triplet-feeling rhythm. It seems to develop into a march, something with the haunting, almost ostinato-like persistence of Shostakovich, a plodding, painful march, nothing triumphant. The timpani thunders out the first beat of every 3/4 bar, and snare answers on the subsequent two.

Ultimately, the opening theme does not return for a reprise, but the march-like passage cools off, as if dimming away, disappearing to leave wailing horns, fluttering flutes, and serene, almost sacred, organ-like strings for a still finish to this absolutely magical, epic-sounding but very compact 14-minute symphony.

Of all the works we’ve discussed in this series, this is one that I find (along with Kokkonen and Aho) to be one of the most strikingly powerful. It has a sharpness to it, a focus and clarity in its expression that gets right to the heart of the listener and the subject matter. It’s absolutely breathtaking, and so easy to hear and give a few listens to with how brief this intense work is.

This really is the joy of spending a little time to dig through and find something truly special to enjoy, isn’t it?

We’re nearing the end of our Finnish series, but there’s still a little bit left. This is, however, the last symphonic work we’ll discuss in 2017, and I’d say it’s a fantastic one to be the last. We’ve got two more works left this year, very interesting chamber pieces, so do stay tuned for those. Thank you so much for reading.

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