Radio Ö1 journalist Peter Kislinger provides a survey of the mdw Festival ’16 focus on Nordic compositions and describes how even Jean Sibelius was already bedevilled by notions of the “typically Nordic”.

“Music is about as rooted in Nordic countries as is the orange tree.” As late as 1800, this scornful opinion was voiced by none other than Hegel. But now, 200 years later, these countries—above all Finland—export more music and musicians to the South than the South does oranges to the North. Music from these countries is frequently reduced to clichés: northern light, melancholy, calm, cold, nature. But music is a sovereign land with its own laws.

Wherein lies that which is special about Nordic music, and/or about the North’s current musical output? For years, my answer has been: there is no “Nordic” music, just as there is no “modern” music. What do the quarter-tone compositions of Sampo Haapamäkis have to do with Aho’s 16 polystylistic symphonies, and what do the latter have to do with Lindberg’s Kraft, or Kraft with Al largo? Or Rautavaara’s serial 4th Symphony Arabescata with his 7th Symphony Angel of Light, Pärt’s first three symphonies with Fratres, Pēteris Vask’s violin concerto Distant Light with Saariaho’s electro-acoustic Jardin secret, or the latter with Saariaho’s symphonic Orion, and what characteristics are common to the clarinet concertos of Aho, Eliasson, Hakkola, Fagerlund, Kaipainen, Rautavaara, Saariaho, and Tiensuu? The answer is that they were all written during the past 40 years by people born in the North. And if I were to win the “Euromillionen” jackpot, I’d offer my entire winnings to anyone who could credibly discern just what is Nordic or Baltic or even Finnish, Swedish, Latvian, or Lithuanian about such works.

Both in Finland and elsewhere, opined Finnish composer and musicologist Mikko Heiniö, there is a widespread belief that music from Finland is typically Finnish by nature. And from there, it’s easy to conclude that “music that employs certain stylistic elements is typically Finnish by nature,” etc. This misunderstanding already plagued Jean Sibelius: national school, “apparition from the woods”, meadows, 187,888 lakes. And in our latitudes, some concertgoers and even musicians still can’t think of much more than that. His true achievement, said Sibelius in 1915 at the age of 50, went unrecognised. The self-ironic sigh in his diary that read, “For most people, you’ll remain an apparition from the woods,” is to this day misused in Central Europe as a sort of teaser or catch line in newspaper stories. Back in 1892, his idiosyncratic Kullervo Symphony was labelled “unmistakably Finnish”. And then as now, people believed to hear the Finnish summer, Finnish chirping of birds, forest weavers, the sound of a shepherd’s horn. Enviable, this ability to hear what’s Finnish about all this and also identify migrating birds’ nationality! This “ability” was actually the product of a PR campaign that was launched one month before the work’s première. The press described Kullervo as “authentically Finnish”, “highly original”, and “the most significant Finnish masterpiece ever composed”. Weeks before, insiders had still shaken their heads at the work’s “very difficult language”. But then: “We recognise the melodies as our own, though we’ve never heard them in this way.” And the reason was that the Swedish-speaking Sibelius had only gotten to know Finnish folksongs during his mid-20s, and his own style had developed not through reliance on folklore, but as early as 1890/91 in Vienna. Kullervo, in any event, was sold to its overwhelmingly Swedish-speaking but Finnophile audience—whose musical socialisation was thoroughly European—as something typically Finnish. But Sibelius had created the archaic impression made by the Kullervo Symphony using not Finnish folklore, but three established techniques: church modes, quartal harmony, and 5/4 metres.

Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (*1928), who passed away on 27 July of this year, warned back in the 1970s that the “consciousness of thousands of years of European musical tradition” had still “not yet come of age” during the 20th century. Styles and techniques, he said, are elements of “one and the same dense fabric”. By this, he meant not stylistic mixing, but rather a “belief in synthesis”—but he was conscious of how contradictory styles and compositional methods lead to violating the taboos of any system. And taboos, he said, are “often not much more than witnesses to short-sightedness and, frequently, to racism.” That which “the zeitgeist demands”, the “up-to-date”, had indeed not concerned him since Cantus arcticus (1972): “Up-to-date music? What’s that supposed to be? The times demand nothing at all—but people do, and their demands depend on the times.” Those in art who “go along with the times are doomed to fall behind them. Almost before you realise it, the most radical modernists have become the most rabid conservatives. But it’s no use to snobbishly state: if my art is not in keeping tune the times, then it’s the fault of those times. I’d rather have my music be timeless than in tune with the times.”

His students Aho, Lindberg, and Salonen, though they work in different styles, have made similar statements—most pronouncedly Kalevi Aho (*1949): “Typical of the present in Europe is an ideal of freedom that rests upon oscillation and plurality. From this, I conclude that it is impossible to speak of a centre of musical development. I find it somehow amazing how provincial and chauvinistic attitudes can be in Paris, London, or Vienna. The contemporary music circles there are no larger than they are in Finland. Much of what recently still counted as progressive is now passé. What is new about musical material is not of value in and of itself. New things do not arise exclusively from new compositional techniques. More important are content and that which I call musical dramaturgy.”

So korvat auki! Open your ears! Give a listen to some works by Nordic composers, many of whom I’ve mentioned above. And who knows: perhaps I’ll even lose my bet…

  • You can watch some of our events from the mdw festival’16 on demand in our media centre.

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