Eero Tarasti: Interview for Philharmonie Luxembourg; Questions by Dr. Tatjana Mehner
TM: When we speak of nature and wilderness in music, is this not a paradox in itself?
ET: Indeed, you are right in the sense that in the big categories of nature/culture (Lévi-Strauss), we never know on which side to put music. When we think of just the symphonic repertoire of Western art music, nature has appeared in manifold forms, so it has been represented by various devices by composers through the ages. Yet, some think that this is purely conventional, depending on the title of the piece. The British aesthetician Roger Scruton said that if we change the title of Debussy’s La Mer into Forest Fire, it has the same impact. However, nature exists in musical style as a particular “topic” or “topos”, as we say. How certain composers interpret it is also decisive. Say, after Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony all pastoral music, portrayal of storm, idyllic atmosphere by a brook etc. went on that line. After Wagner’s forest murmurs in Siegfried, this became the prototype of forest in music, or the Rhine River in Rheingold. For some, nature was a completely negative concept in regard to music, as was the case with Theodor Adorno. He could not accept Sibelius because it was “all nature” by a composer who retreated to “the land of a thousand lakes” to conceal his inability to write proper counterpoint and harmony, as he wrongly argued.
In any case, nature in music became an important element of style in the Romantic era. How many symphonic poems referred to nature in one way or another: from Mendelssohn’s Hebrids, Smetana’s Moldau and Liszt’s Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne or Vallée d’Obermann to Rimsky-Korsakov’s sea pictures in Scheherazade à la Sinbad the Sailor or Liadov’s Enchanted Lake to Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Forest of the Amazon or Erosão. A special case is the appearance of light in music: Many portray morning and dawn like Ravel in Daphnis and Chloé or sunset, evening or night like Richard Strauss in Abendrot. One composer said that nothing fades so quickly as light in music; perhaps this is not quite true, taking into account such synaesthetic composers as Messiaen or Scriabin.
Yet, nature means also something more profound in musical aesthetics. For many the very essence of our classical music is based on nature’s facts and offerings. The triad itself emanates from the natural acoustic phenomenon of the overtone series, and so all tonal music follows this law. Moreover, Wilhelm Furtwängler a.o. once said that all music is based on eternal fluctuation between tension and relaxation, so there was a biological, natural principle as the origin of musical form. The highest category of any symphonic music required of the music that it be organic. A musical work, say, a symphony, was like a living organism, consisting of musical cells that communicated with each other. Such a form was higher than a mere potpourri, i.e. a suite of separate pieces, dances or whatever else without inner connection, growth and development. So we are definitely bound to the idea of nature in music.
TM: What is “Nordic” in music?
ET: This is an interesting question linked partly with what was said above. The French aesthetician Jean-Aubry wrote: “La Musique est la fleur de la terre même”. Many take it as evident that music reflects the nation where it was born. Only later with modernism do we start to think like Stravinsky that music does not have a passport. However, the category of “Nordic” does not indicate only one country but a whole cultural area in the North. If European music had two big categories, the German instrumental music and the Italian vocal art, as Carl Dahlhaus, the professor from Berlin once said, then where does Nordic music belong? Certainly the Mediterranean is a huge cultural style category of sensual aesthetics. But is there something like a Nordic territory, then, in music?
After all, what is the North? Scandinavia? Sure, but then Finland and Iceland are ignored. When we speak of the Nordic countries, we also include Finland, although its mythology and language have other roots. What would be the typically Nordic musical expression? One such statement would be certainly the Piano Concerto in A minor by Edvard Grieg. One could hardly imagine anything more Nordic. For Norwegians its opening represented a waterfall at a fjord. It manifested qualities of a landscape. We encounter similar ideas often linked to Jean Sibelius. His music is felt to be quintessentially Nordic due to its evocation of the lakes, forests and landscapes of the composer’s homeland. However, what a paradox – considering what he thought of himself. He did not want to appear in music history as any exotic Nordic phenomenon, Erscheinung aus den Wäldern, but in the line of the Music tradition with a capital “M” like Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler etc. In this sense it is insulting and a colonialist discourse to put someone in the Third World of exotic, Oriental or Nordic composers.
Nevertheless, Scandinavia constitutes a certain cultural identity, sure, something different from that of Central Europe. Yet, how dependent it was on it. The father of Finnish music was the German Friedrich Pacius, pupil of Louis Spohr, who came in 1835 to Helsinki, nominated as its music teacher. He brought to Finland from Uppsala the choral song, particularly the male choirs. This is nowadays considered something definitely Nordic by its timbre and quality, even if sung in Finnish. When the Helsinki Philharmonic for the first time performed to an international audience at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900, conducted by Robert Kajanus, the musicians were forbidden to talk loudly with each other because this would have revealed to the Frenchmen that they were almost all Germans.
Then there is of course folk music and its impact, and the modalities, i.e. certain scales stemming from it. When Liszt heard in Rome for the first time Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, he came up to the composer exclaiming: “Wonderful, it is G, G and not G sharp, that is something truly Swedish” (!).
Nordic music is very much something patriotic, especially in Norway and Finland, who had to fight for their independence. In Sweden and Denmark the background is different; they had courts, opera and riches, which enabled and fostered musical life very early on.
Who are the great Nordic composers? Grieg, Sibelius, Nielsen? The Swedes would like to add Alfvén, Stenhammar, Peterson-Berger, but I am sure their Nordic fellows would not allow them in the same category.
As to the aesthetic expression, there is the idea and feeling of Nordic melancholy, Wonne der Wehmut – think of Solveig’s Song, the Swan of Tuonela. And this expression expands the North beyond its usual borderlines even to Russia and the Baltic countries. They all for instance identify with Sibelius, like with his Finlandia, as “their” composer. When much Sibelius was played on Swedish radio last year during the composer’s 150th anniversary year, one lady asked: “Why is there so much sad music, has the King or Queen died or why is it so?” Yet, some of the great Nordic names, like Nielsen, are anti-romantic by nature. On the other hand, he bases his works upon Grundtvig’s religious melodies, whereas Sibelius’s melody comes ultimately from the Kalevala and runic song.
Magnus Lindberg and the musical avant-garde
Well, it is true that nowadays it is hard to articulate the musical scene by any national categories. The foremost Finnish avant-garde composers have often been trained in Paris and IRCAM under Boulezian aesthetics, and it is hard to distinguish anything Finnish in their musical languages; they often even live outside of the country. Lindberg’s Kraft was a revelation, as I recall its premier at Finlandia Hall in Helsinki; I happened to be there with the French music philosopher and John Cage specialist Daniel Charles. The whole piece emerged from the new aesthetics of the association of young composers called Ears Open; there were names from Esa-Pekka Salonen to Lindberg, Anssi Karttunen and others. They had their special humour also, as in the ensemble TOIMII (It Functions). The work was extremely fauvist, with aggressive sonorities, combining computers with normal instruments and elements from music theatre referring to Zen. In his later output Lindberg has taken more “organic” types of dramaturgical forms, as my Japanese doctoral student Takemi Sosa is showing in his dissertation.
One has to note that most of these names had once been pupils of Einojuhani Rautavaara, the grand figure of Finnish contemporary music, who only just a week ago passed away. Rautavaara was a liberal teacher who allowed young people to take their own directions. More pedagogical and directive instead had been another composer, Paavo Heininen, whose impact as a representative of the serial school has been likewise remarkable. Rautavaara had had his dodecaphonic period in the 1960s but abandoned it and later created his particular “angel” style (indicated by the titles of his symphonic works: Angel of Light, Angel of Dusk. Between these periods he had been a prominent opera composer. Lindberg has not tried this avenue of operas, in spite of early works like Faust for the radio, combining voice and instruments. The other leading avant-gardist of Finland, Kaija Saariaho, instead has recently become famous as a prolific opera composer using her spectral style as the starting point – like Lindberg also in part. Moreover, Saariaho is a light composer; let us only remember her Lichtbogen.
Light in music
In spite of the centrality of light and timbre in music, it is always taken as a secondary thing, as not so important a parameter of music; there is no theory of it. Goethe said already that “Colours are acts of light”, and so it is much in musical texts as well. Yet timbre is never a purely acoustic phenomenon but depends on other parameters as well. Kandinsky already sketched a universal grammar of arts regarding its forms and colours. The Italian music therapists Stefania Guerra Lisi and Gino Stefani have a system of globalità dei linguaggi, in which every emotion, physical activity and their musical signifiers has its colour. The Hungarian string pedagogues the Szilvay brothers developed the coloured strings system to educate violinists, making them imagine that every string had its proper colour. Keys had their colours, since the 18th century culminating in Scriabin and his correspondence of colours and tones in Prometheus. The German composer Helmut Lachenmann had his theory of Klangtypen der neuen Musik, which he used in his music. I have myself attempted to create a semiotic theory of light in music (in my recent book Semiotics of Classical Music, Berlin 2015). Light can well serve as a narrative element of any music. As early as Beethoven in the slow movement of Appassionata the variations were made to unfold as from shadow to light. All varieties of light can be heard in a piece like Debussy’s Feux d’artifice. Light is also deeply involved in what was said above about the Nordic luminosity; strings in the upper register are always Nordic! Or Nordic voices in vocal expressions from Jussi Björling to Birgit Nilsson.