Finnish Classical Music
On the 6th of December 1917 Finland declared independence and naturally, in 2017, we celebrate our 100 years of independence. (If you’re interested, I suggest you go read a little about Finnish history; it’s quite interesting, especially in the light of the Russian revolutions and the Second World War.) Because of this special occasion I thought I’d share some Finnish classical music!
Finnish art music is rather a young phenomenon: we didn’t really see many composers until the XIX century. However we have a long tradition of folk music which I find quite unique as well. If you’re interested in that, feel free to explore! The influence of traditional sung poetry (as found in Kalevala, our national epic) has influenced most composers throughout the 1800s and 1900s.
Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775–1838) is regarded as the first Finnish composer though Finland was still a part of Sweden until 1809 when we became an autonomous part of Russia. He mostly composed chamber music. I personally don’t know much about his music and have only played one of his pieces as he is mostly known for composing for wind instruments. His most performed piece is a sinfonia concertante for clarinet, french horn and bassoon from 1808.
Fredrik Pacius (1809–1891) is also known as the “father of Finnish music” despite being of German origin. He lived most of his life in Finland and is known for composing the Finnish national anthem Maamme, “Our land”. He also composed the first Finnish opera, Kaarle-kuninkaan metsästys. The Finnish National Opera, however, was only founded in 1911.
Robert Kajanus (1856–1933) was mostly known as a conductor, especially as a brilliant interpreter of SIbelius’ music, but he was also a composer of the romantic period. Nowadays his music isn’t performed much except for the pieces Suomalainen rapsodia, “Finnish rhapsody” and Aino, a sinfonic poem. AIno is a very popular girl’s name in Finland and it’s thought that Elias Lönnrot who assembled Kalevala came up with it when he accidentally wrote the adjective aino (old form of ”only”) with a capital A.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is undoubtedly the most famous and adored Finnish composer of all time. He is not only known for his seven symphonies but also his Kalevala-inspired symphonic poems such as Kullervo, Satu, Lemminkäinen, Finlandia, Pohjolan tytär, Tapiola. Many Finns want the Finlandia hymn to be our national anthem, and it truly is a beautiful song – however it wasn’t meant to be sung in Sibelius’ opinion, and the famous lyrics about breaking free from the Russian oppression were written by poet V. A. Koskenniemi as late as 1940 when the Winter War against Russia ended. Sibelius approved of this version. He also composed one of my favourite string quartets, Voces Intimae, as well as some tear-jerkingly beautiful choir pieces like Sydämeni laulu (”The song of my heart”) and Sortunut ääni (”Broken voice”). He must, however, be most famous for his violin concerto in d minor as well as the orchestral pieces Valse triste and the Karelia suite. I sincerely recommend finding a list of his works and listening to all of them. Sibelius is often described as a brilliant descriptor of the Finnish mental landscape and nature and I truly believe he has managed to capture something truly Finnish in his work.
Oskar Merikanto (1868–1924) is known for his solo songs and a piano piece called Valse lente.
Selim Palmgren (1878–1951) was a famous concert pianist who
composed mainly for piano and male choir. He was considered Finland’s
best piano composer and his works were influenced by impressionism as
well as late romanticism. He is most famous for his five piano
Toivo Kuula (1883–1918) was Sibelius’ first student. As a student he became known for his chamber music works, a violin sonata and a piano trio, since not much chamber music had been written in Finland at the time. His style was inspired by late romanticism, impressionism as well as folk music, which, combined, made for a interesting style which got a lot of people interested in his music. Nowadays he is known for his orchestra and choir pieces, lieds and a popular wedding march that he wrote for his friends. Kuula died in a shooting at the end of the Finnish civil war in 1918.
Leevi Madetoja (1887–1947) was the most notable romantic composer after Sibelius who taught him and admired his work. Madetoja’s work was very much influenced by his time spent in Paris. His main works are his three symphonies as well as his operas called Pohjalaisia and Juha. He is also known as a choir music composer.
Erik Bergman (1911–2006) is one of the most notable post-war composer in Finland. He was a modernist that used the twelve-tone technique as well as serialism and aleatorism as well as improvisation is his works. He is known for orchestral works such as Aubade, Arctica and Musica marina though he wrote for a plethora of different types of ensembles.
Joonas Kokkonen (1921–1996) was a central character in the rise of Finnish opera in the 1970s with his opera Viimeiset kiusaukset (”The last temptations”), that has been performed internationally as well, for example in the Metropolitan opera in 1983. He was a student of Aarre Merikanto and composed, in addition to the opera, symphonies, chamber music and a cello concerto.
Einojuhani Rautavaara (1926–2016) has to be the most famous modern Finnish composer both nationally and internationally. He sadly passed away last year and his death was all over the media, which I think tells that he was very much respected. Rautavaara had multiple different phases: he began as a neuclassicist but moved towards serialism and avantgardism in the 1950s and 1960s. This style was at its peak in Rautavaara’s fourth symphony, Arabescata. After this phase his style started shifting towards neoromanticism and tonality. Throughout his career Rautavaara was fascinated with mysticism, religions and the metaphysical. His works include symphonies, concertos, chamber music, lieds, choir music as well as operas such as Vincent (as in van Gogh), Aleksis Kivi (after the Finnish national novelist) and Rasputin. I personally find his 1972 piece Cantus Arcticus one of his most fascinating. I strongly recommend you listen to Rautavaara’s music if you aren’t familiar with it already!
Aulis Sallinen (1935–) is one of the most internationally well-known modern Finnish composers. He is known for his operas, Punainen viiva (”The red line”), Kuningas lähtee Ranskaan (”The king leaves for France”) and Kuningas Lear (”King Lear”), among others. I personally know him best as the composer of folk music-inspired piece Aspekteja Peltoniemen Hintriikin surumarssista which is the title of his third string quartet published in 1969.
Paavo Heininen (1938–) is one of the Finnish modernists and also Aarre Merikanto’s student. His work is often divided into a twelve-tone technique and a post-serial period. He is mostly known as an orchestral composer with his six symphonies and multiple concertos such as Autrefois for flute from 2008.
Magnus Lindberg (1958–) is another Korvat auki composer. He is a modernist that uses a lot of complicated rhythmics. His works Kraft, Kinetics-Marea-Joy and Cantigas are, in my opinion, one of the finest modern Finnish classical pieces. He has composed works for the Berlin Philharmonic and has been invited to compose for and conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Lindberg is definitely a composer you should get to know!
Lotta Wennäkoski (1970–) might be a familiar name: her work Flounce was performed at the Last Night of the Proms this year! I myself have done a first performance of an orchestral piece of hers and have had the chance to discuss with her in music theory class. Her way of finding new colours from each instrument is really interesting and to me, she is another very important composer of our time.
This list cannot be complete. Here are some names I would’ve liked to talk more about, but simply don’t have the time to: Armas Järnefelt, Uuno Klami, Jouni Kaupainen, Armas Launis, Ilkka Kuusisto, Jaakko Kuusisto, Olli kortekangas, Max Savikangas, Jukka Tiensuu, Veli-Matti Puumala (his piece Rope was a wonderful experience for a young me!), Minna Leinonen (she was my music theory teacher for a year and thanks to her I fell in love with modern music).
Some Finnish musicians & conductors
Opera singers: Karita Mattila, Jorma Hynninen,
Conductors: Esa-Pekka Salonen (also a composer), Leif Segerstam (also a very productive composer), Hannu Lintu, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Susanna Mälkki (notable female conductor!), Osmo Vänskä, Jorma Panula, Mikko Franck, Anna-Maria Helsing, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, John Storgårds, Klaus Mäkelä (born in 1996 and already has an impressive career as a conductor and cellist),
Ensembles: Kamus Quartet, Meta4 (string quartet),
Soloists: Pekka Kuusisto (violinist; winner of the Sibelius competition in 1995 at the age of 19, performed at Proms in 2015), Jonathan Roozeman (young cellist born in 1997 already making a fantastic international career)
If you have something that should absolutely be added to list list, feel free to do so!