The Finnish Symphony in Review

See? It’s not all about Sibelius.

(cover image by Luca Bravo)

You can find the entire series (in reverse chronological order) here.

I’m guessing that for any of you readers who wouldn’t consider yourselves to be diligent students of classical music, many of these names are likely new. For folks who have some level of dedication to digging and exploring the whole wide vast world of what music is out there, names like Einar Englund, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Kalevi Aho, and especially Kaija Saariaho, may not be not new.

We covered more than a century of Finnish music, going as far back as one of the first official Finnish symphonies (if not the first), the breathtaking sole symphony from Ernst Mielck, who tragically died very young, a work which some say was the impetus to Sibelius to put his pen to paper to compose a symphony.

After that, we obviously discussed Sibelius himself, as well as two of his students, Toivo Kuula and Leevi Madetoja, and then on down the line with their students and their students’ students. All that being said, there were some people who I just couldn’t include in the series, and while I never even really got around to deciding on a piece of theirs for the running, I did feel like I should have tried to include them somehow. They didn’t all write symphonies, but would have had a symphonic work, or at the very least a chamber piece, maybe, that would have sufficed. In no particular order:

  • Ernest Pingoud
  • Magnus Lindberg
  • Selim Palmgren
  • Jouni Kaipainen
  • Mikko Heiniö
  • Erkki Salmenhaara
  • Väinö Raitio
  • Someone named Kuusisto, I think Pekka, but maybe Taneli or Ilkka (wrote just the surname. Oops)
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen (yes, that one)
  • Erik Bergman

(Leif Segerstam got a mention in an article more about the idea of him as a composer than for any particular work of his more than 300 symphonies, but they’re not counted among my official list.)

And there are more, I know. Of the above, Pingoud and Kaipainen were the closest to making the cut, and I’ll admit to being extremely unfamiliar with the others.

But despite the ones I neglected to include or mention, I think this ended up being an absolutely superb series, with something for everyone. If you’re keen on nothing beyond the turn of the century, Mielck’s symphony is a superbly satisfying one. Madetoja and Klami gave us excellent symphonies that aren’t too far removed from the world of Sibelius and composers past. Einar Englund’s superbly powerful and surprisingly mature ‘war’ symphony was definitely a highlight of the series as well, undoubtedly influenced by Shostakovich.

The center point, though, the fulcrum, maybe, in the turn from more traditional to much more modern music, has to be Rautavaara. While not everyone studied with him, the symphonists subsequent to him, like Kokkonen, Aho and Sallinen, are brilliantly modern and adventurous without being avant-garde. They possess an intoxicating, potent clarity and concentrated focus in their works. The longest of the four symphonies of those three composers we discussed was Aho’s first (I think) and even it wasn’t very long. They all contain much more power and force than one might expect from their seemingly-small stature. Kokkonen’s chamber work also bears these qualities.

The result is that I have now a list of composers not just to get around to for articles in a series on Finnish composers, but of people whose works I have a feeling will be an immensely enjoyable experience to get to know. Kokkonen may only have four symphonies, but Aho has something like 17 (even if his later work is much different from what we discussed). I may even have really big plans for one of these composers next year. What was your favorite? Were you familiar with any of them prior to reading? I’d love to hear from you about it.

Well, here we are at our last series, our last post for 2017. Did it not seem to absolutely fly by? Scary, isn’t it? I did three big symphony series this year (English, American and Finnish) and they take a lot of time to prepare, time I likely won’t have as much of in the coming year, but we’ll still do at least one, maybe two. In any case, this is no end. There’s much more exciting stuff to look forward to next year, only a few hours after this post, so do stay tuned, and go back and visit the other posts in the Finnish series (or others) if you missed them. Thank you so much for reading this year.

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