Sallinen String Quartet no. 1, op. 14

performed by the Jean Sibelius Quartet, available on Spotify

(cover image by Martin Adams)

We now welcome Aulis Sallinen to the Editor’s Choice series. He’s the only living member of the roster that I’m aware of. We first saw him in the Finnish series at the end of last year, with his fantastic first symphony, from 1971, quite a bit later than this work.

I emailed Ondine (or Chandos?) about trying to acquire a copy of the booklet (written by Veli-Matti Puumala) for research purposes in preparing for this article, and they got back to me just in time, so thanks, Ondine! There’s precious little information on this work, and I was eager to see as much as they could offer. It wasn’t much, as the focus tended to be more on the later quartets. First though, we’ll have a look at where it sits in the composer’s output and see what we can surmise about the work!

There is, though, some confusion before we even get past the work’s opus number. Well, confusion, that is, if you trust Spotify to be correct with their information. Actually, this time, it’s not Spotify’s fault. Ondine’s release lists this work as op. 14, but shows the second quartet as op. 4, which seems…well, wrong. Wikipedia gives the opus number as 2, which is what I originally used for this article, because it seems to make more sense, but 14 seems more widely used, and there must be a reason for that. (Interestingly, Ondine does not give opus numbers to the subsequent quartets, so perhaps there was some re-cataloging or something. I don’t know.)

Regardless, the work was completed in 1958, when he was only in his early twenties, and more than a decade before the work we discussed last year, and in fact, it is by some number of years the earliest work Wikipedia lists from Sallinen, even in the Finnish version. The second string quartet would be next, in 1960, and his first (listed) orchestral piece isn’t until 1963.

A guest reviewer at Gramophone says:

Sallinen’s first two quartets are apprentice works, written in the standard semi-serial style of the day. No. 1 (1958) is laid out in three movements with accelerating tempo markings, No. 2 (1960) as a single span. However anonymous they seem now, both contain ample evidence of Sallinen’s technical attainment and their overshadowing by the Third is unjust.

Puumala says that “The first two quartets are products of a young composer starting out on his career, but Sallinen’s own personal touch is very much in evidence.” He continues:

The style Sallinen adopts for this quartet is a Neo-Classically flavoured hybrid of motivic and twelve-tone methods. Melody and harmony continually strive to fit into the twelve-tone mould, or chroma, with parity. The quasi-fugal beginning of the first subject, for example, steps through all twelve pitches.

As noted above, the work is in three movements, each of which is between four and five minutes long, for a total of less than 15 minutes, as follows:

  1. Lento
  2. Interludium
  3. Vivace

As mentioned (and is evident) above, the tempo increases as the work progresses. The Lento first movement begins in an icy, still fashion, or like the twelve pitches Puumala mentions are germinating, sprouting out of the ground. Even at this deliberate tempo, though, the music reaches climaxes and goes somewhere. It doesn’t have the same transparent clarity that something from, say, Schoenberg has, where the series (of notes in the row) sticks in your ear, at least not to me. There are some repeated figures, but they’re not as ‘sticky.’ Overall, though, as unmistakably modern as it is, it’s quite delicate and expressive, which may go against what so many people perceive such music to be capable of.

The second movement’s ‘interludium’ marking isn’t necessarily indicative of a certain tempo, but more as the connection between the two extremes. The previous movement finished quietly, and from the very beginning of this central movement, there’s more motion. It is as if we are listening to it thaw, begin to flow, and I wonder if some of these figures are indeed inherited from the first movement. As this movement develops, we finally begin to hear a drive, movement toward a destination (where that is, I’m not sure) rather than just an atmosphere of sound, in keeping with the overall accelerating trajectory of the work. There is increased use of texture, like the clicky, wooden col legno tapping of the strings with the wooden part of the bow, as well as pizzicato and sul ponticello.

Even just within the four minutes of this central movement, there’s significant momentum built, and it feels like we’ll jump without pause into the final ‘vivace,’ but no. The building speed comes to a quiet halt before the last installment begins, and with the first thing that the less analytical listener, like myself, could have some fighting chance of retaining in the ear and identifying once it’s gone. It’s almost march-like, and sets off this barely-longest movement of the quartet.

That said, it’s not all full-tilt running toward the end of the piece. This more driven sentiment comes and goes among stiller passages, strengthening the impression that these three movements are interconnected. It’s by far the most eventful, happening movement, ‘exciting,’ if you wanted to sound banal, and ends without me knowing much more about it than when it started, except that I find it interesting.

Really, I cannot pretend to know anything about it beyond what I’ve just sort of blathered about above. Even Puumala’s notes on don’t give much information about the characteristics of the series used, or motivic/thematic material, etc. how something is adapted or manipulated through the development of this work, but maybe that’s just because there’s not a lot of that here, in this early “apprentice” work.

We’re actually moving on from Sallinen for now, since this work is so early in his output, in the interest of keeping something that resembles chronological order. Stay tuned for Schnittke before Sallinen, and thanks so much for reading.


One thought on “Sallinen String Quartet no. 1, op. 14

  1. Schnittke next, you say? Goody!

    Re: Sallinen, the adjective that overwhelmingly comes to mind (so often used derogatively, although I can’t for the life of me think why) is “filmic”, so it’ll be interesting to hear where the roots of that lie…

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