Kaija Saariaho

The wonder that is Twitter. I was having breakfast in front of my laptop when a tweet popped up in the corner of my browser (thanks to the Echofon plug-in for Firefox),

And the remains of my Subway roast chicken sandwich watched the following with me:

As a little girl, Kaija Saariaho heard music in her head when she was trying to sleep, and thought that it was coming from the pillow. She felt the urge to write it down. According to wikipedia, this former student of the Sibelius Academy was “awarded the title Musician of the Year 2008 (announced by Musical America, the US publishing company for performing arts), for being “among the few contemporary composers to achieve public acclaim as well as universal critical respect”. Her opera, Love from Afar, which took her 8 years to write, is apparently already the 21st century’s most performed opera.

Kaija Saariaho (b.1952)

“Her work in the 1980s and 1990s is marked by its emphasis on timbre and use of electronics alongside traditional instruments; Nymphéa (Jardin secret III) (1987), for example, is for string quartet and live electronics. It contains an additional vocal element: the musicians whispering the words to a poem by Tarkovsky. In the late 1990s Saariaho began to expand beyond electronics, often writing strictly acoustic pieces, focusing increasingly on melody.

Saariaho was influenced by post-serialism, but she grew to find it too restrictive: “You were not allowed to have pulse, or tonally oriented harmonies, or melodies. I don’t want to write music through negations. Everything is permissible as long as it’s done in good taste.” (Wikipedia)

I have listened to a few pieces on Youtube. They are intriguing, if not immediately to my taste. What interests me from the video via the tweet from @carnegiehall is that she is now composer-in-residence at the Carnegie Hall, New York, reining over the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair.

I am reminded of how Sibelius found appreciation, fame and fortune through the performance of his works in America.  The number of eminent composers coming out of Finland is disproportionately impressive, compared to the rest of the world – a result, I’ve always believed, of the lasting influence of her greatest composer. Whether or not you (or I) can appreciate the works coming from Saariaho or not, the Finnish forces of music are truly a fine example to behold of how the personality of a faraway nation can reach every end of the earth through the sounds of her people.

Follow me on Twitter @dustofhue.

And the sounds are godlike – Last Three Symphonies of Sibelius

An Essay on Sibelius’ final three symphonies, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh. These notes were published as the programme notes for The Philharmonic Orchestra’s 3rd concert of the complete symphonies of Sibelius, performed on 27 July 2008, which is reviewed here.

© All Rights Reserved (Text). Permission is NOT granted to reproduce any of the following text without authorization from the author. Please see Copy/Write for more information.
Jean Sibelius Square, Toronto, Canada
Photo of Jean Sibelius Square, Toronto by nyxie.

On the evening of September 20th, 1957, just a little over 50 years ago, Jean Sibelius died, aged 91. At the time, not far away in the capital of Finland, the Helsinki Orchestra and Sir Malcolm Sargent were performing the Fifth Symphony.

Written during the time of World War I, one might have expected such a work to reflect the times. But no, the symphony that Sibelius created was the complete opposite: life-affirming, noble, brimming with humanity in the face of nature’s majesty.

The final version was completed in 1919. It begins with a serene horn call at dawn, heralded by birdsong on woodwind. As the mood of anticipation unfolds, the developing material pours into a swinging string theme that precedes a trumpet call echoing through the mountains. Though sometimes misty and ominous, the music always retains a certain “human” feeling. We seem aware of our presence in the landscape.

Continue reading And the sounds are godlike – Last Three Symphonies of Sibelius

Strength and Satisfaction – Sibelius’ Second & Fourth Symphonies

An Essay on Sibelius’ Second and Fourth Symphonies. These notes were published as the programme notes for The Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2nd concert of the complete symphonies of Sibelius (Northern Exposure), performed on 30 March 2008, which is reviewed here by Dr Chang Tou Liang.

© All Rights Reserved (Text). Permission is NOT granted to reproduce any of the following text without authorization from the author. Please see Copy/Write for more information.
 

Sibelius around 1910

Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony is often related to a difficult period in his life – not only was he in a financial crisis, but the threat of cancer hung over his life. Many commentators describe the bleak, dark music of the Fourth as a reflection of impending doom.

While there is no doubt that such thoughts would find a place in his art, it is important to understand that the Fourth is not about doom – rather, the composer must have thought this was his final chance to set down his symphonic ideals once and for all, before he loses his life.  Sibelius’s (and his critics’) mixed feelings about his preceding three symphonies, and the threat of death propelled him from the world of his first three symphonies, all the way to the absolute core of his symphonic thinking. Continue reading Strength and Satisfaction – Sibelius’ Second & Fourth Symphonies

The Chagrin of a Nationalist Romantic – Sibelius’ First and Third Symphonies

An Essay on Sibelius’ First and Third Symphonies. These notes were published as the programme notes for The Philharmonic Orchestra’s 3rd concert of the complete symphonies of Sibelius, performed on 4 Oct 2007, which is reviewed here.

© All Rights Reserved (Text). Permission is NOT granted to reproduce any of the following text without authorization from the author. Please see Copy/Write for more information.

To the casual listener, Jean Sibelius is popular as a “Romantic Nationalist” composer; to the serious listener, he is a unique master symphonist. To both, Sibelius is one of Nature’s greatest musical avatars.

Mosaic of Sibelius made of stamps, for the Finnish Stamp Jubilee Exhibition

Sibelius once described his Third Symphony as “thoughts crystallizing out of chaos” – his music drawing order out of unshaped chaos. This idea does not sound new. But Sibelius did not seem to mean that the chaos is completely random.

He also once commented that his compositional process was like having “mosaic pieces” thrown down from heaven with which he had to put back together. In this sense, the chaos is not completely without meaning. It exists in a disconnected state which has not yet come into full being. Like seeds waiting to be grown. Like molecules waiting to crystallize. Sibelius believed his task was to grasp these unformed potentials, and utter them in a form meaningful to their origin.

Written in 1898-1899, Sibelius’ First Symphony is often associated with Romantic music of the Tchaikovskian vein, venting Finnish Nationalist emotion. With its large-scale scoring (including tuba and harp), outpouring of memorable melody, melancholic song, full-blooded brass exhortations and urgent defiance, this association is not surprising in the historical context of the Finns’ struggle for independence .

The audiences loved it. The First made a name for Sibelius outside Finland. But admirers also placed the label “Romantic Nationalist” on composer and symphony.

Sibelius himself never ascribed any program to any of his symphonies. To him they were essays in symphonic art, no more and no less. Coupled with his extremely self-critical attitude and his desire to be recognized as an accomplished composer, the “just another late Romantic Nationalist” label did not sit well with him.

Thus, by the time of the Third Symphony, his symphonic path had visibly changed. Continue reading The Chagrin of a Nationalist Romantic – Sibelius’ First and Third Symphonies

Tapiola

dark forests

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty god,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

– Preface to published score

On the occasion of Earth Day, April 22, 1999.

A bassoonist friend of mine had the fortune to play Tapiola once. It was a run-through conducted for fun, not meant for the orchestra to perform. When I asked him how it was like, he opened his eyes wide and said it was awesome and terrifying; that the sensation of sitting in the orchestra as it weaves its way through the tone painting of the forests made one feel very small. During rests, no one dared to move or make a sound. Continue reading Tapiola

The Bard – An Inktroduction

Time came when winter touched his locks
And age paled his cheeks;
And so once more he took his lyre
And plucked sonorous chords – and died
Rendering up his soul to the spirit from which it came…

J.L. RUNEBERG (1804 – 77)

OF ALL the pieces of music by Sibelius which have touched me, The Bard is probably the most… poignant. Although many are familiar with the monumental creations comprising the symphonies, and respect and love them as I do, The Bard seems to remain perched aside, distant in its high precipice, quietly existing without the fame of its seven great brothers. Continue reading The Bard – An Inktroduction

Sibelius: The First Symphony

Photo: Winter Landscape - Baar, by Nobsta

The common and easily jumped-to conclusion about Sibelius’ First Symphony is that it is a “Romantic”, “Nationalist” and/or “patriotic” work. There is indeed some element of truth in using these convenient terms, but it would be unjustified to claim that that is all to this symphony.

Portrait of Sibelius (1892) by Eero Järnefelt
Portrait of Sibelius (1892) by Eero Järnefelt

Sibelius vehemently denied any extra-musical meaning to all his symphonies, and yet his listeners – first and foremost his fellow Finns – saw everything from forests and mountains to swirling winds and sweeping snowscapes to the being of Finnish-ness in his music. In the final analysis, the composer also admitted that it is not incorrect to find, “let us say, a feeling of nature [in his music]… . [Let that be said], as long as we have it clear within ourselves, we do not become a part of the music’s innermost sound and sense through analysis …”

This compromise is perhaps representative of his struggle to unite the torrent of human feeling he felt (for nature, his home, land among other things) and the “profound inner logic” which propelled his music’s search for symphonic perfection. Continue reading Sibelius: The First Symphony

Sibelius: The Seventh Symphony

ONE MORNING at 2 am, in the quiet of the night, I put on a CD of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and shut off all the lights in my room. What proceeded is a wholly personal experience which I do not ask you to understand; I only ask that you listen. Deep in the darkness, at the height of Sibelius’ last completed symphony, I was delivered into a mountainous haven of musical ecstasy. So utterly absorbed was I that I thought I saw pinpoints of light in my room. Perhaps I was dreaming, half-asleep, maybe even delirious. In any case, I have always imagined these were stars before my eyes, and have called them as such.

Continue reading Sibelius: The Seventh Symphony