Covert Connections between Jean Sibelius, Maurice Ravel and Uuno Klami
“An altogether new music with completely classical means”
Finland in the 19th century was extremely provincial, even in comparison with its neighbouring countries. The musical scene was dominated by Robert Kajanus, both as conductor and composer, from 1880 until the appearance in public of Jean Sibelius, nine years his junior. By 1902, Sibelius had established himself as a national monument with his patriotic orchestral poem Finlandia and first two symphonies. His personal style was increasingly recognized as the Finnish style per se. Contemporaneous with the First Symphony, op. 39 were two major contributions to the genre from Denmark and Sweden: Carl Nielsen’s Second, subtitled “The Four Temperaments”, and Hugo Alfvén’s Second, in D major. But it was really Sibelius who opened a new chapter, creating, in Otto Klemperer’s formulation, “an altogether new music with completely classical means”.
The slow introduction – solo clarinet accompanied by a soft timpani roll – hints at the explosive tension of the main movement to follow. Although the melody sinks from mf to ppp, these roughly 30 bars are beset with extreme disquiet. Containing five crescendos and six decrescendos, they hardly reflect an elegiac mood, let alone one of resignation. The Allegro energico that breaks in is piercingly incisive, thrusting massive blocks of sound against one another without ever letting the symphonic flow come to a standstill. Even under the fiercest attacks, the movement never breaks apart, but is held together by flexible rhythmic constructions and, even more, by subtle, harmonically distorted modifications of the opening melody.
In spite of its song-form structure, the Andante second movement repeatedly turns rough and transforms the opening melody, which almost suggests a lullaby, into a funeral march. Flying in the face of every textbook rule, its tonality is E flat major, which could not be in sharper contrast with the opening movement’s E minor. Also unconventional is the scherzo with its melodically defined timpani part. The finale outdoes all the previous conflicts rather than resolve them. Beginning with the clarinet introduction from the first movement, but now passionately intoned by the whole string apparatus, it draws its immense power from the combination of opposing sections: a broadly flowing song of freedom, recalling the hymn from Finlandia, is juxtaposed against passages in which the orchestra seems to be revolving wildly around itself – republican national consciousness and shamanic delirium as irreconcilable neighbours...
Cradled and forged
The great mystic of the North, by the way, had a soft spot for the South. His Second Symphony was written in Italy; the tone poem The Oceanides sounds thoroughly impressionistic; and in his piano works Sibelius often used titles such as Rêverie, Dialogue, Air de danse and Scène lyrique. For Finland’s other composers, however, he remained the erratic Nordic peak, insurmountable despite their every effort. Einar Englund, whose Second from 1947 nonetheless became the most frequently played postwar Finnish symphony, published an autobiography in 1996 entitled In the Shadow of Sibelius. Already before the war there were some notable contributions to the genre by Erkki Melartin (1875-1937) and Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947), but they were unable to secure a permanent place in the repertoire. That feat was accomplished by Uuno Klami, although not with his two symphonies – a field in which he lagged behind his two compatriots just mentioned. Klami had a preference for smaller forms, and if he has survived comfortably in Sibelius’s shadow it is largely because of his Kalevala Suite. The piece derives from the Finnish national epic poem by that name, which also inspired compositions by Sibelius and many others. Its closeness to and distance from the old master are both substantial. Klami tends to tone-painting effects, something not found in Sibelius, even in his symphonic poems, which reflect the spirit or atmosphere of a subject without illustrative detail.
The first two of the Kalevala Suite’s five movements describe “The Creation of the Earth” and “The Sprout of Spring”. The middle movement is a nature fantasy not directly connected to the Kalevala material. The fourth movement relates to the “Cradle Song for Lemminkäinen” that his mother sings after rescuing the hero from the underworld. Following this section so clearly indebted to the national-romantic tradition, “The Forging of the Sampo” is comparatively modern in its tonal language and probably the reason that the Kalevala Suite has occasionally been hailed as a “Finnish Sacre”. The Sampo is an enchanted artifact, or magic mill, forged by the smith Ilmarinen. An attempt to steal it leads to its destruction, but barley and rye sprout from the broken fragments.
When Klami went to Paris to study in 1924, he made the acquaintance of the similarly reticent and reserved Maurice Ravel. They were also close artistically. Problems of form did not exist for Klami. He sought to write effective, stirring music, extrovert and completely optimistic – Ravel inevitably became his idol. The lionized French composer’s influence on him is abundantly clear in Klami’s First Piano Concerto Une nuit à Montmartre (1925) and in Merikuvia (Sea Pictures; 1932). The French school offered Klami – as it had earlier Leevi Madetoja – a chance to escape the overwhelming figure of Sibelius.
A Divertissement in Mozart’s purlieu
The G major Piano Concerto, completed in 1931, is Ravel’s last purely instrumental work. After it came only the three songs Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. Probably as the result of an taxi accident, Ravel in 1932 began rapidly losing his ability to write, and he could speak and move only with effort. The concerto therefore has no valedictory quality, though it contains extensive mystical and meditative sections. The first movement, marked Allegramente (i.e. cheerfully, joyfully), opens arrestingly with the crack of a whip. After a brief, nervous orchestral introduction, the soloist takes over and leads the ensemble into realms recalling a Gershwinesque blues style. A sun-drenched, Spanish-flavoured harp solo yields to dreamy piano runs and trills before the brass formulate a properly boisterous last word. It all corresponds to a veiled sonata-form movement, but the composer preferred for the work to be understood as a divertissement. He also commented on the Adagio assai with a similar understatement, saying that he pieced it together bar by bar, taking the Larghetto from Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet as his model. That, of course, does not begin to account for all the magic of this movement, nor does the ploy of giving a slow waltz to the left hand while the right plays the main melody. Strings and woodwind introduce a second theme, spiked with dissonance, but return before long to the departure point of this singular specimen of modern music. The Presto finale can be regarded as a continuation of the first movement, but it concentrates on virtuosic effects and avoids all the depths plumbed earlier.
The aesthetic of pure faire plaisir became disreputable in France only after 1945. In Germany and Scandinavia it never had many followers. Jean Sibelius, for example, who knew French music very well, did not consider Debussy or Ravel to be its leading exponents, but rather Albert Roussel. And no wonder: the symphonic composer Roussel came from the comparatively bleak north, near the Flemish border.