Overtures from Finland

The dramatic arrival of Finnish orchestral music on the international stage at the turn of the twentieth century is now so synonymous with the figure of Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) that it is difficult to gain a proper sense of the musical hinterland from which he emerged. Regarding Sibelius as a one-off phenomenon, however, is to marginalise the work of his contemporaries, many of whom were vital creative voices in their own right. This collection of overtures gives an excellent sense of the range of Finnish music during its most formative phase. Some of the works have vivid pictorial associations, and others were composed for theatrical productions or are more abstract in design. But beyond their stylistic diversity, the works share a creative richness and a compelling handling of form and texture: Sibelius’s contribution is no less remarkable when heard in this context.


Kajanus: Overtura sinfonica

Before Sibelius had properly established his career, the leading figure in Finnish music was Robert Kajanus. Born less than a decade before his celebrated younger colleague, on 2 December 1856, in Helsinki, where he died on 6 July 1933, Kajanus was the founder of the Helsinki Orchestral Society (later renamed the Helsinki Philharmonic), the first permanent professional orchestra in the Nordic countries. Kajanus studied in Finland with Richard Faltin, and later in Leipzig (where his teachers included Hans Richter) as well as with Johan Svendsen in Paris. A performance in Berlin in 1890 of Kajanus’s symphonic poem Aino (1885), based on passages from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, had a catalysing effect upon the young Sibelius who was inspired to compose his monumental Symphony Kullervo just two years later.

Kajanus’s Overtura sinfonica is a late work, from 1926 – the same year in which Sibelius composed his final orchestral score, the tone poem Tapiola. The overture opens with a Straussian confidence, surging exuberantly forwards. A lyrical violin solo leads to a subdued second subject group, and an extended development showcasing Kajanus’s inventive use of orchestral colour (notably the celesta). The reprise is prefaced by a Beethovenian string flourish but is then deflected into a new, chorale-like passage. The coda regains the home key unexpectedly in a dramatic coup de maître.


Sibelius: Karelia Overture, Op. 10

In 1893, following the successful première of Kullervo, Sibelius was invited to compose music for a grand theatrical spectacle at Helsinki University, ostensibly in honour of the Viipuri Students’ Association but in reality part of Finland’s campaign for political self-determination (independence from Russian rule was only achieved in 1917). The evening consisted of a series of historical tableaux depicting events from the country’s past and concluded with a performance of the Finnish national anthem. Although Sibelius reported that the audience was so enthusiastic that his music could not be heard, he nevertheless published the Overture and a selection of movements from the score as independent pieces. The so-called Karelia Suite – named after the region in eastern Finland regarded as the nation’s cultural heartland – has since become one of Sibelius’s most beloved works, but the Overture is seldom heard in concert. The work begins with an energetic march in C major, possibly inspired by the festive Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The mood then darkens to suggest an ancient Finnish runic chant. Following the distant sound of the famous horn calls which open the Karelia Suite, the march returns and eventually brings the Overture to a glowingly affirmatory close: little wonder that Sibelius’s contemporary audience was so dazzled.


Järnefelt: Ouverture lyrique / Præludium

Among his friends while Sibelius was studying at the Helsinki Music Institute was a musician who would later become his brother-in-law, Armas Järnefelt. Born into a wealthy middle-class family in Viipuri (now Vyborg in Russia) on 14 August 1869, Järnefelt grew up in an artistically privileged environment. His mother, Elizabeth, regularly hosted cultural soirées and was keenly interested in Leo Tolstoy’s social radicalism, and the family later became ardent advocates of the Finnish national cause. After graduation, Järnefelt went to Paris and studied with Jules Massenet. He became répétiteur at the Royal Swedish Opera, in Stockholm, in 1905, later serving as chief conductor, a position which he held until 1933. He returned briefly to Finland to serve as artistic director of the Finnish National Opera, during which time he oversaw productions of Wagner’s work, including Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. He died in Stockholm on 23 June 1958.

The Ouverture lyrique (Lyrical Overture) is an early work, dating from 1892. The opening theme reflects the influence of Svendsen and Grieg. The second subject is followed by a lively codetta, which returns both in the development and in the reprise. The most imaginative passage is the sensitive postlude which brings the work to a shimmering close. The playful Præludium, which dates from 1900, is one of Järnefelt’s most popular works. The delightful canonic imitation of the opening bars is followed by a brief interlude, its poignant violin solo taking a more melancholic turn before the music’s blithe cheerfulness returns.


Melartin: Overture to ‘Prinsessa Ruusunen’, Op. 22 No. 30

Of the generation of composers who followed Sibelius, Erkki Melartin was among the most original. He was born in Käkisalmi, in far eastern Karelia (now part of Russia), on 7 February 1875, and died in Helsinki on 14 February 1937, having served for many years as Rector and Professor of Composition at the Helsinki Music Institute. Melartin’s diverse and highly varied output included six symphonies, a violin concerto, four string quartets, the opera Aino, and the glittering tone poem Marjatta, Op. 79, based on the Kalevala. His incidental music for Prinsessa Ruusunen (Sleeping Beauty), Op. 22, was written for a production of Zachris Topelius’s fairy-tale play at the Finnish Theatre, which received its première on 4 January 1905. The atmospheric introduction to the Overture suggests the princess’s benighted state. A cello solo unwinds over a tolling bell-like figure in the harp and timpani. The return of the introduction brightens into the major mode, and the final bars anticipate the physical and emotional transfiguration with which the tale concludes.


Mielck: Dramatische Ouvertüre, Op. 6

Kajanus displayed a commitment to the work of gifted young Finnish composers which extended beyond his championship of Sibelius. One of the other talented figures he promoted was Ernst Mielck, born in Viipuri on 24 October 1877, but who died of tuberculosis in Locarno, in Switzerland, on 22 October 1899, just two days short of his twenty-second birthday. Mielck studied in Berlin and later took lessons with Max Bruch. Though he left only a small body of work, his output includes a Symphony in F minor (1897), which predated Sibelius’s First Symphony by two years. The Dramatische Ouvertüre, Op. 6, dates from 1898 and was premièred in Helsinki on 17 March, conducted by Kajanus. In a letter to his cousin, Mielck described the music as portraying ‘a battle between a hero’s good and evil spirits, whereby evil ultimately claims victory’. Brahms’s Tragische Ouvertüre, Op. 81 (1880), may have served as a formal and expressive model. The Overture begins with a solemn Adagio, which gives way to a stormy Allegro. The gentle second subject is based on the principal theme of the introduction and returns in the reprise in a radiant D major. Fate intervenes, however, in a series of hammer blows on the tam-tam, and the music sinks to an exhausted defeat.


Palmgren: Overture to ‘Cinderella’, Op. 21

Regrettably, Mielck never had the opportunity to develop a professional career. His close contemporary Selim Palmgren, however, would become one of Finland’s most internationally recognised figures. Palmgren was born in Pori, on the west coast of Finland, on 16 February 1878, and died in Helsinki on 13 December 1951. Like many of his colleagues, he studied in Helsinki and then in Berlin, where his teachers included the piano virtuoso and composer Ferruccio Busoni (who had previously taught in Finland). Palmgren was especially noted as a pianist, and his output included five piano concertos as well as the opera Daniel Hjort (1910 / 1938). In 1921 he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, New York State – a position that had initially been offered to Sibelius. The Overture from his Tuhkimo-Sarja (Cinderella Suite), Op. 21, originally formed part of the incidental music for a play by Larin-Kyösti (the pen-name of Karl Gustaf Larson), produced at the Finnish Theatre in 1903. Palmgren recalled that the distinctive main theme of the Overture had been inspired by a troupe of Bulgarian folk musicians who had visited his family home when he was a child. This perhaps accounts for the music’s appealingly exotic sense of fantasy and escapism.


Kaski: Prélude, Op. 7 No. 1

Among the other talented composer-pianists of Palmgren’s generation was Heino Kaski, born into a clerical family in Pielisjärvi, in North Karelia, on 21 June 1885. Kaski died in Helsinki on 20 September 1957, the same day as Sibelius, but his music never gained anything like the acclaim of that enjoyed by his more famous compatriot. Kaski studied privately with Ilmari Krohn and Erkki Melartin, and later spent three years in Berlin studying with Paul Juon, but much of his professional life was taken up by teaching, which left him little time to compose in larger, more ambitious formats. The Prélude in G flat, Op. 7 No. 1, was composed in 1912, and is an orchestration of one of Kaski’s most popular piano miniatures. The music is in the style of a gentle berceuse that occasionally rises to more emotionally urgent heights before returning to its underlying state of restful calm.


Madetoja: Comedy Overture, Op. 53

Although Sibelius never held a permanent teaching position, he did accept a handful of private pupils, among whom Leevi Madetoja was perhaps the most gifted. Born in Oulu, in north-western Finland, on 17 February 1887, Madetoja spent his childhood under the shadow of tragedy: his father had emigrated to the United States in 1886 to support the family but died of tuberculosis while abroad just two years later. After studying at the University of Helsinki and the Music Institute, Madetoja was appointed assistant conductor of the Helsinki Orchestral Society by Kajanus, and he later worked in Viipuri, where the conditions were especially challenging. The outbreak of the Finnish Civil War, in 1918, brought further tragedy: Madetoja’s brother Yrjö was murdered by red guards on 13 April. Madetoja reflected some of that emotional experience in his resolute Second Symphony, premièred on 17 December. In the same year, he married the gifted poet Hilja Onerva Lehtinen (who published as L. Onerva): they enjoyed an immensely productive creative partnership but the marriage itself was deeply strained. Madetoja achieved national recognition with his opera The Ostrobothnians (first performed in 1924) and his luminous Third Symphony (1925 – 26), but his creative energies dwindled as he struggled increasingly with alcoholism, and he died on 6 October 1947.

The Comedy Overture, Op. 53, belongs to the era of the Third Symphony, and is a brilliant orchestral tour de force with echoes of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. The opening accelerates rapidly from a standing start into a swift scherzo characterised by Madetoja’s distinctive rhythmic inventiveness. The second subject, heard twice, has a jaunty swagger, rapidly swept aside by the return of the scherzo’s swirling figuration, which brings the work to a brusque close.


Klami: Nummisuutarit

The final figure represented here, Uuno Klami, was born on 20 September 1900 in Virolahti, a border town in far south-eastern Finland, where he died on 29 May 1961. His work belongs to the wider world of European musical modernism. Klami studied with Melartin but then spent time in Paris and Vienna, and his music recalls the work of Stravinsky, Roussel, and the Groupe des Six. His output included two numbered symphonies and the early Symphonie enfantine (1928), two piano concertos, and the oratorio Psalmus (1936). The concert overture Nummisuutarit (The Cobblers on the Heath, 1936), based on a play by the nineteenth-century satirical author Aleksis Kivi, is a dashing orchestral firework. The bustling opening briefly gives way to a distracted waltz before regaining its momentum and driving hell-bent towards its final bars. This work was composed less than a decade after Kajanus’s Overtura sinfonica, and it is remarkable to trace just how far Finnish music had travelled, both at home and abroad. Few countries can boast such a rich and resilient creative legacy.


© 2023 Daniel M. Grimley

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