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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.

Esa-Pekka Salonen appointed first-ever Artist in Association at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet

Photo © Katja Tähjä.

Photo © Katja Tähjä.

Beginning this season, Salonen will assume a diverse and comprehensive role as a conductor, composer, artistic advisor and ambassador. His five-year engagement begins with the current production of Elektra and continues through 2021.

The Finnish National Opera and Ballet (FNOB) has appointed composer, conductor and creative forceEsa-Pekka Salonen Artist in Association, a newly created, five-year position. In this capacity, Salonen will have a broad remit: conducting performances, introducing his compositions into the repertoire and acting as artistic advisor. The Artist in Association relationship includes duties beyond artistic tasks, as Salonen will act as an ambassador for the FNOB in developing new partnerships.

Salonen’s first appearance on the podium will be at the premiere of Elektra on 2 September. He will also conduct the four premieres of the FNOB’s new Ring cycle beginning in 2019. His other conducting duties will be announced separately for each season.

“We have always been interested in the art and thinking of Esa-Pekka Salonen, whether as a conductor, a composer or a cultural personality. We are pleased that at this point in his remarkable career he is willing to commit to wide-ranging support of Finnish opera and ballet. He will inspire both performers and audiences”, says Lilli Paasikivi, Artistic Director of the Finnish National Opera.

“During the last thirty years, the majority of my work as a conductor and composer has taken place abroad. It feels good to finally make long-term plans in my native country, and especially at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, where the flame of artistic ambition is bright and powerful”, says Esa-Pekka Salonen. “Opera interests me more and more as an art form, and I’m very enthusiastic and excited about the future collaboration with the excellent team of the FNOB.”

The FNOB will also appoint a conductor to lead performances throughout the season and oversee the continuous improvement of the orchestra.

Another aim of the new venture is for Salonen to mentor emerging Finnish conductors: the young and talented Klaus Mäkelä (b. 1996) has been appointed as Salonen’s assistant for the upcoming Ring cycle.

Finnish National Ballet’s visit to Copenhagen opens Finland’s centenary year

The guest performances to be given by the Finnish National Ballet in Copenhagen on 27–29 January 2017 is one of the spearhead moments of the official celebrations for the centenary of Finland’s independence and the first such event to be held in the Nordic countries. The FNB will give four performances of one of its major hits, The Snow Queen, at the Royal Danish Ballet on 27–29 January. The visit has special significance not only because The Snow Queen is based on the familiar story by Danish author H.C. Andersen but also because choreographer Kenneth Greve, Artistic Director of the FNB, is Danish and a former member of the Royal Danish Ballet.

While the FNB is away, the distinguished Eifman Ballet from Russia will give guest performances in the main auditorium on 12–15 January. Known for their pioneering productions, the company will be performing two works by their director Boris Eifman, both exploring the life of a great artist.Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA is a recent work, having been premiered in St Petersburg in May 2016. RODIN, which dates from 2011, reflects on the complicated love affair of two artists, Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel. There will be two performances of both works.

Rap artist Paleface to provide lyrics for school opera about tolerance

Karri Miettinen, better known as rap artist Paleface, will be writing the lyrics for a new participatory opera for schoolchildren. Titled Ihmepoika A [Wonder boy A], the opera will be composed by Timo Hietala and directed by Riikka Oksanen, with visual design by Anna Kontek. The performances will be produced jointly by professionals and pupils in the 5th and 6th grades. The premiere will be given by Kaisaniemi Comprehensive School at Almi Hall on 7 April, after which the production will visit as many as 80 schools around Finland beginning in autumn 2017.

Ihmepoika A is the seventh school opera commissioned by the FNOB. Over the years, more than 20,000 adolescents have participated in the making of an opera. The Ihmepoika A project will involve a director, three soloists and two musicians working with participating school classes. The FNOB will also provide sets, costumes, makeup and basic stage equipment.

The school opera project supports the new national curriculum and features a topic with current relevance. Ihmepoika A is about differences and multiculturalism. “Paleface, being a rap artist who writes powerful lyrics, is an excellent choice for this new project,” says Tuula Jukola-Nuorteva,Head of Education.

A season of grand stories 2016–2017

The autumn season of the FNOB starts off on 26 August with the premiere of Romeo and Juliet, a new dance work by Natália Horečná. The second new full-length ballet of the autumn is Alice in Wonderland by Jorma Elo, to be premiered on 7 October. In May 2017, the centenary of Finland’s independence will be celebrated with a quadruple bill of Finnish choreographers entitled Voima[Force], featuring works by Susanna Leinonen, Virpi Pahkinen, Jyrki Karttunen and Jorma Uotinen.

Audiences will be treated to two new opera productions in September. After the eagerly awaited premiere of Elektra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen on 2 September there will be something completely different: a marriage of two great arts, circus and opera. “This is a night of surprises. InCircOpera, we hope to give audiences laughter, smiles, excitement and danger,” says director Jere Erkkilä. The other new opera productions being premiered this season are The Flying Dutchman (18 November), Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (27 January), Blank Out (Musica nova Helsinki, 4 February),Eugene Onegin (17 March) and Only the Sound Remains by Kaija Saariaho (12 April).

The full repertoire including revivals, concerts and other events are listed on our website, Tickets for performances in the autumn are now on sale. Tickets for performances in spring 2017 will go on sale on 4 October 2016.

See Natália Horečnás interview.

See also:

Reminiscences of Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016)

Einojuhani ja Sini Rautavaara, 2011. Kuva Ari Korkala/Music Finland.

Einojuhani and Sini Rautavaara, 2011. Photo Ari Korkala/Music Finland.

The news about the passing away of the great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara a few days ago quickly circulated throughout the musical world, yet it was also received as a surprise. That is, we had already started to consider him an ‘omnitemporal’ person who permanently existed in Katajanokka, Helsinki, but had had time to have many phases and successes in his long life. His departure feels almost the same as Jean Sibelius’s, as Rob Weinberg already stated.

Everyone may now remember the Rautavaara whom one was able to know during his life span. Although rather few met him directly any longer in the last years, memories of him live on.

First, many had him as a teacher at the Sibelius Academy even before he was named professor of composition in 1976. Ten years earlier, he was already a celebrity and had received the Wihuri Prize (the same as awarded earlier to a.o. Stravinsky, Shostakovitch and Messiaen). He was my examiner for my music theory exam. He sat at the piano and played a diminished seventh chord in a certain position. “What is this?” he asked. I recognized it: the opening of the finale of Beethoven’s Appassionata. “Great, you have been accepted.”

Later, Rautavaara classified teachers into the following categories: the famous, the nice and the schoolmasters. He himself belonged to the second category, the nice, and thanks to this, a certain kind of pluralism emerged in the music pedagogy of Finland as its main ideological principle. When I defended my thesis on Myth and Music in 1978, I met him at Finlandia Hall, where he said that he understood my topics. After I had become professor at the University of Helsinki, he came to my reception with his young wife Sini. The problem was that Sini had to get a master’s degree in musicology by studying Einojuhani’s music. My colleague Erkki Salmenhaara said that a composer’s spouse cannot study her husband’s music in a sufficiently objective manner. I disagreed, but then things went in another way.

At that time Rautavaara had already entered his opera period. We were able to be present at the premieres of numerous operas: Thomas, Vincent, Aleksis Kivi, Rasputin, The House of the Sun. In many of them the central roles had been written particularly for such singers as Jorma Hynninen and Sini. These operas formed a brilliant series of Finnish stage music, which received high international acclaim. Fortunately, we published from Rautavaara a diary of the creation of Vincent in the magazine Synteesi (for research in the interrelationships of arts) in a thematic issue on Suomalainen ooppera (Finnish Opera, 3/1987). It opens the door on the composer’s creative process in that period.

I notice that I have compared Rautavaara to Stravinsky in many of my earlier essays, with the Europeanity, the Finnishness, the Russianness and the Americanity as the background. He is of the nomadic composer type (also in the sense defined by Daniel Charles). Even the fact that the name of the young Rautavaara was connected via Olga Koussevitsky to Russo-American circles and hence, via Serge Koussevitzky, also to Sibelius – when considering Rautavaara’s A Requiem in our Time – provides him with a mythical glamour. Cantus arcticus made him a pioneer of zoomusicology in the line of Messiaen – François-Bernard Mâche.

But all these phases were preceded by dodecaphonics, as a result of which many intendents of orchestras started at one point to consider him the composer who emptied concert halls. Yet, an academic dissertation appeared to defend even this direction: the doctoral thesis of Anne Sivuoja-Gunaratnam at the University of Helsinki in 1997, which considered this phase even in the light of semiotics. It is quite crucial and conducive to elevating a composer’s profile when theses about the composer are published. Also, another doctoral thesis appeared about Rautavaara, the one by the Pole Wojciech Stępień at the University of Helsinki in 2010 on the ‘angels’ in Rautavaara’s output. The work was later reprinted by the American publisher Ashgate and achieved international fame.

Rautavaara had entered his ‘angel’ period, which may, after all, have been neither spiritually nor technically so far afield from the Icons, composed long before during his time in New York; behind this piano suite we can note his teacher Vincent Persichetti’s diagrams of modes. They were also used by Eila Tarasti in her study on the Icons; in addition, she pondered Rautavaara as a synaesthete. This analysis has appeared in Synteesi but also in English many times, in, for instance, the anthology Musical Semiotics in Growth (1997) (this article will soon appear online on the pages of

The new meditative angel style expressed Rautavaara’s transcendental world view (see Tarasti 2013: 310 for Rautavaara’s position in the paradigm of musical world views of such composers as Sibelius, Mahler, Kalevi Aho, Erik Bergman, Erkki Salmenhaara, Magnus Lindberg, Harri Vuori).

The titles of his symphonies like Angel of Light and Angel of Dusk reflect this style period. In this manner the angel appears in the first mentioned symphony: “The radiance of light is emphasized by being juxtaposed with an equally strong darkening effect. In the third movement of Angel of Light a dark and somber motif ascends against a thick texture of strings in the upper register, as if rising from the depths of the orchestra” (Tarasti 2012: 325). I recall vividly that passage when Mikko Franck conducted the symphony at St. John’s Church in Helsinki. Furthermore, another conductor, David Pickett, commissioned and conducted one of Rautavaara’s symphonies with the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra in Indiana.

Angel of Dusk, a double bass concerto, was performed in turn by the Music Society of the University of Helsinki in a concert at the Solemnity Hall in 2003. As we could not get a full symphony orchestra, a version of the work for two pianos was performed, with Marja Rumpunen and Juha Ojala as skilful pianists. Our young friend, the Polish virtuoso Janusz Widzyk from the Berliner Philharmoniker, played as a double bass soloist. After the music, there was a dialogue with the composer in the darkened hall, the participants in armchairs, illuminated only by a big standing lamp to create the atmosphere. Thankfully, all this was recorded on video (the tape resides in the archives of the Department of Musicology at the University of Helsinki).

Another time I was able to arrange a Rautavaara event in the summer congress of the ISI (International Semiotics Institute) in Imatra, Eastern Finland. This took place in the famous Church of the Three Crosses designed by Alvar Aalto, a place of pilgrimage for all architects, in 1999. The composer himself provided accompaniment when Sini performed his Lorca songs. Eila Tarasti played the Icons. The conductor Kalervo Kulmala conducted the Academic Wind Orchestra, which played A Requiem in our Time. Then Markku Heikinheimo played on organ the concerto Annunciations. This became an impressive and memorable evening for semioticians and the rest of the audience.

But even before that event, we had heard that concerto in Minneapolis in St. Paul’s huge Cathedral as a part of a festival dedicated to Rautavaara. It lasted one week in the late winter of 1998 and was funded by the millionaire Aina Swan Cutler. I have commented on this week and Rautavaara’s speeches there in my diary Minnesota 1999 (see Tarasti 2004, but also the magazine Rondo; this report will likewise appear on the pages of

I was in collaboration with Rautavaara in those years when he still taught at the Sibelius Academy, in, for example, the lecture series on contemporary music, which he chaired. He also visited my Department. Rautavaara’s speeches about music were always incredibly witty, showing a remarkable erudition. He belongs to those writing composers in the line of Wagner, Busoni or Stravinsky. He had always something humorous and unusual but also profound to say. He argued, for instance, about Madetoja, Melartin, Kuula and others that in international comparison they fall in the same category as Sibelius but remain overshadowed by him. He related that he saw the opera Jephta’s Daughter by Väinö Raitio at the Finnish National Opera as a young man but remembered only one line: “Here we have the moon lights/but I have pain in limbs” (an untranslatable pun in Finnish: Täällä loistaa kuun valo/mutta minulla on luuvalo). When he once heard at our home the song Rise, Be Shining (Nouse, ole kirkas) by Helvi Leiviskä, the Finnish woman symphonist, he said: That is unbelievably heavy, to force the singer to rise from the depths in that manner.

Rautavaara was a very well-liked social personality; many were able to experience this. I remember when he moved to Brändö in Helsinki, close to our home, to the home of Armi Klemetti, widow of the famous choirmaster Heikki Klemetti, and Rautavaara changed the interior completely since he did not like any traditional furniture. He attended receptions organized by the Music Society of the University of Helsinki in such places as the Embassy of Japan due to the Japanese Music Week we had arranged. He was a central figure in the legendary dinner at the home of Einari (Kurre) Marvia and Liisa Aroheimo-Marvia in 2003, with his cousins, the soprano Aulikki Rautavaara and Gunnel. He had much to tell about his famous singer cousin, an opera star favoured by Richard Strauss and also a film star in Germany in the 1930s. This party was to remain her last. I also remember Einojuhani and Sini at a dinner at our home in Laajasalo on a bitingly cold winter day, together with the Marvias and professor Matti Klinge and his wife Marketta, when we spoke about European music and its values.

So we have to take farewell from one phase in Finnish music history and, above all, from a person whose impact was so overwhelming and whom we recall with emotion as a charming, intellectual and sensitive man. In all that he composed, wrote or spoke, his identity, his ‘Moi’, and his style were present. Their radiance will not fade in our minds.

— Eero Tarasti


Einojuhani Rautavaara 1987. “Työpäiväkirja (Diary) V/86 – V/87”, Synteesi 3/87: 2-9.

Anne Sivuoja-Gunaratnam 1997. Narrating with twelve tones : Einojuhani Rautavaara’s first serial period (ca. 1957-1965). Helsinki: Suomalainen tiedeakatemia. Suomalaisen tiedeakatemian toimituksia. Humaniora; vol. 287.

Wojciech Stępień 2010. Signifying angels : analyses and interpretations of Rautavaara’s instrumental compositions Helsinki: University of Helsinki, Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies ([Tallinn] : printed in Tallinna Raamatutrükikoda, [2010]). Studia musicologica Universitatis Helsingiensis; vol. 20.

Eero Tarasti 2004. “Minnesota 1999”, Pariisin uudet mysteerit ja muita matkakertomuksia. Imatran Kansainvälisen Semiotiikka-Instituutin julkaisuja nr.2. pp. 75-123.

Eero Tarasti 2012. Semiotics of Classical Music. How Mozart, Brahms and Wagner Talk To Us. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.



Review: A Stranger in Sicily – the premiere of the new opera by Paolo Rosato at Metropolia, Helsinki

After the premiere,  composer and libretist  in the middle holding flowers

After the premiere, composer and libretist in the middle holding flowers

Tero Halonen as Lars Cleen

Tero Halonen as Lars Cleen

Whoever has visited Northern Italy, Sicily or Calabria has noticed that there are blond and blue-eyed Italians there; they are descendants of the Normans who settled there in medieval times. The first idea for the opera by Paolo Rosato ripened when Rosato was teaching in Trapani, Sicily, where the castle of Erice evokes those ancient times. Therefore the novel of Pirandello’s in which a stranger, a Nordic sailor, stays in Sicily due to the shipwreck of his boat has a certain cultural basis. Yet in the libretto by Walter Zidaric, it has been changed a little so that when Pirandello’s sailor is actively observing his new environment and attending to its life, in the opera he is passive, object of his new community’s hostile attitudes. He is called a ‘beast’ (or bête in French) in the opera, not quite a human being at all, with strange manners, strange language and strange physiognomy. In Pirandello he is Lars Cleen, a Norwegian. In the opera he is made a Finn. However, Finnish is not used in the opera, which is mostly sung in Italian. Only the Finnish folk song Minun kultani kaunis on refers to Finland, when Lars hums it in his hopeless homesickness. In fact, I had heard fragments of the opera in Louvain three years ago. There the audience said the opera is a tribute to Finland since the composer has often stayed in and visited our country. However, one national tune does not make an opera a national one – as little as, say, Glazunov’s Finnish Fantasy is ‘Finnish’ in its style merely due to quoting the folk tune Kukkuu, kukkuu, kaukana kukkuu. When I heard Paolo was going to use the Minun kultani melody, I warned him that the tune is definitely a humorous one in a Finnish context. But here it does not matter: It is part of Lars’s nostalgic souvenirs.

The basic atmosphere of the opera is existential. It portrays a person who is ‘thrown’ (Geworfen as Heidegger puts it) into a world but does not find his place there; he feels alienated. But so is the Italian coastal village community, in which Lars’s hosts – who call Lars Larso – are dominated by one rich man, Don Nica, who is master while others are ‘slaves’. The fisherman Don Pietro Milo has found Larso seriously ill on the shore and taken him to his home out of mere Christian compassion since local hospitals had no place for such a creature. Larso is thus taken care of by Milo’s niece Venerina and her aunt Donna Rosolina. They are scared of this new person, but at the end Venerina and Larso have a baby. However, this does not save the situation; Lars only wants to get out, home, and finally the Swedish boat arrives. Nevertheless, it is too late; Lars in the end gives up on all things and commits suicide. Why he does it remains slightly a mystery.

So this is the plot of this opera, whose music is mostly contemplative, melodious, mostly very singable and sonorous in spite of an avant-gardist and almost atonal tonal language. The original work was written for a large orchestra, but for the Helsinki performance the composer made an arrangement for a 10-membered chamber ensemble. The sound of accordion has an important role in the soundscape of the work. The music in its somewhat minimalist expression is impressive, evoking musica povera. Yet, the climaxes, in which a choir is also needed, are expressionistic and overwhelming.

The production of the opera at Metropolia, together with the Music Society of the University of Helsinki, was a long project; it became possible through support from the Niilo Helander Foundation and the Pacius Memorial Foundation. Metropolia provided singers, the conductor Edward Ananian-Cooper, the stage, correpetition by Ilona Lamberg and the producer Meri-Kukka Muurinen. The University provided the choir under the direction of Kati Pirttimaa and the stage director Jukka von Boehm, and of the singers Tero Halonen, performing the main role of Lars Cleen, also has an academic background. We can be very happy about the result! For Metropolia this was certainly also a pedagogical project for its singers. But it has been able to produce in recent times a lot of highly professional and entertaining stage works. Now the Helsinki audience experienced an avant-garde work by a remarkable Italian composer of the young generation. At the premiere there were people from Helsinki high societies, as well.

The staging by Jukka von Boehm used the stage just as it was appropriate, dividing it into two chambers with space between. The ascetic visual image by Eero Erkamo underlined the basic atmosphere. The lights by Tuukka Törneblom and costumes by Hanna Hakkarainen were just suitable to the story. The characters on stage became clearly profiled. The tempo of events was slow, hesitative, contemplative, existential, which was an enjoyable change from many too fast and noisy contemporary productions. The orchestra played with intensity, and the same has to be said about the choir. Tero Halonen’s role as Lars Cleen was a new achievement for this young tenor, who is actively performing in various operas and productions in Helsinki. He is just the right ‘type’ for the role, a little clumsy and shy Nordic youngster; vocally he mastered excellently the difficult pitches of his role. Matias Haakana was a dramatic tenor in the second role as Don Milo; his voice has a large volume and an electrifying impact on stage in every appearance. Marja Kari also had a singing quality to her voice, with strong expression needed by her role as Venerina. Sirja Pohjanheimo-Vikla was a contrast to her in the role of Rosolina, just suitable by its bright colours. Samuli Takkula was convincing as the patriarchal order in the role of the capitalist Di Nica. The mute role as a Turkish boy by Muhamed Awadi emphasized the highly actual topics of the whole work.

The audience received the premiere with great enthusiasm. There are already plans to bring this production to Italy as well, which it definitely would deserve.

— Eero Tarasti

Iitti Music Festival opened with avant-garde music: Heiner Goebbels in Finland


The wooden church of Iitti, which serves as the concert venue

Iitti Music Festival started last Wednesday  for the 12th time, so it can be said to be a tradition. Every successful festival seems to follow the recipe: one famous artist who knows the place, who is homme ou femme de terrain, as it is said. In Iitti she is of course the pianist Laura Mikkola. Iitti is a charming, small country place, with a wooden church with good acoustics, a nice cafeteria, delicious local food for buffets and coffees, about 100 volunteers to prepare all, some sponsors and a cultural history – for instance, Bertolt Brecht was in Iitti when writing his Puntila.

The opening concert on June 11 at Iitti Church, which is like Mikkeli’s wooden church in miniature, first featured Sibelius, namely the melodrama Skogsrået recited by Hannu-Pekka Björkman and played by Andres Mustonen, Florin Szigeti, Katariina Ruokonen, Jakob Kullberg, Pauliina Koskela, Maria Luhtanen and Kristian Attila. The piece is always suggestive to be heard; the Sibelian ‘driving force’, as the Estonian composer Leo Normet used to say, appears there. Melodrama may seem to have vanished as a genre, but this is not true. It is the winner – namely in the form of film music. What else is cinema music than just speech upon tones?

Malinconia is a brilliant concert piece for cello and piano from the early output of Sibelius, performed brilliantly by Jakob Kullberg and Laura Mikkola. After the intermission we heard the lovely Forelle Quintet by Schubert, always gemütlich and attractive, which has the rare combination of using also a double bass. Famous musicians played it, among others, Andres Mustonen from Estonia, violin, Vladimir Mendelssohn, alto, Petri Mäkiharju on the double bass, at the piano again Mikkola and the cellist Kullberg.

Heiner Goebbels in a dialogue with Eero Tarasti at IItti Music Festival June 11,2015

Heiner Goebbels in a dialogue with Eero Tarasti at IItti Music Festival June 11,2015

Yet, between these enjoyable classics we heard the world premiere of Heiner Goebbels’s Surrogate Cities (1994) on the text of Hugo Hamilton; it was a seven-minute trio version (at the piano Mikkola, on percussion the skilful Japanese Kazutaka Morita) abridged from the original, huge one-hour orchestral piece with 100 musicians, as the composer told in the dialogue with him before the concert. The text portrays urban spaces from shopping centers to slums, but this fragment was about a woman who runs through a city, which is nowhere else than Berlin. She rushes through landscapes, but why? There is an anguished and hurried atmosphere which Björkman expressed very convincingly.

Heiner Goebbels is not unknown in Finland; he has been performed by Avanti, and he has visited the Finnish Broadcasting Company. For the dialogue I asked beforehand five younger Finnish composers, Facebook fellows, what they thought of Goebbels and what they considered his major work. The answers were interesting and told a.o.: He is well known as a theater-oriented composer who has collaborated with Heiner Müller; this friendship has been compared to the relationship between Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht. A well-known piece is his Songs of Wars I Have Seen on Gertrude Stein’s texts portraying her war experiences in France under Vichy in 1943 (yet the issue here is that what is told consists of completely everyday matters, weather, food and noise of bombers only at a distance).

Others said: He is famous for radiophonic works; he would hardly write any string quartet or piano pieces (the composer admitted in the dialogue that he never just writes music like Pierre Boulez). Moreover, one said: “Strange guy, academic, a sociologist if I recall, studies in the theater discipline. Discovered his field between theatre and opera. As an experimentalist and innovator has a remarkable position in the European scene. His roots are in the axis Müller-Eisler-Brecht; he has been able to ‘brand’ himself, good social skills; I cannot mention any major work of his, perhaps he is himself his major work.” Again one said: “As a German his music is stylistically more many-sided and postmodern than many an angry German modernist. He has a lot of style quotations and visual narratives.” Then my friend and colleague from Paris Professor Ivanka Stoianova wrote to me:

Je connais bien Heiner Gœbbels, il faisait partie de notre catalogue Ricordi München, j’ai bien suivi son travail que j’ai toujours trouvé très intéressant, mais je n’ai rien écrit sur lui! (Moi-même je suis étonnée…) C’est quelqu’un de très bien, très intelligent, cultivé et inventif, surtout dans le domaine du théâtre musical. Il a beaucoup travaillé avec l’Ensemble Modern (ils ont, peut-être, beaucoup d’information sur son travail). Je ne connais pas son nouveau livre, bien sûr. En tout cas, ce sera une très belle rencontre avec lui pour toi! Tu peux lui dire bonjour de ma part et que je serais ravie de le revoir/ré-entendre à Paris et de lire son livre. Il est venu ici plusieurs fois avec de beaux spectacles!

In fact, the book mentioned here is the quite new essay collection by Goebbels entitled Aesthetics of Absence. I could not get it because only one copy is in a Finnish library, and it was checked out.

Now my questions to the composer were the following:

You have just published a book Aesthetics of Absence, almost like Struttura assente once by Eco in 1968. You always have some kind of philosophical aspect in your activities: time, space, subject stemming from Immanuel Kant’s categories. You quote philosophers like Merleau-Ponty and others. You like intellectual writers from Canetti to Gertrude Stein. Would you tell something of this and your new book? John Cage seems to be important to you. Did you know Daniel Charles, author of For the Birds? Aesthetics of freedom, liberty, deliberation is central for you like for Cage. The spectator should be active, creative like once in the French nouveau roman etc.

“Yes, from John Cage I have staged his work Europeras, which deconstructs the traditional opera. I took all its parameters, singers, costumes, scenery, orchestra separately and treated them at random by chance with a computer. This is against the traditional opera in which one just receives and emotionally identifies oneself with the ‘message’ from stage. The important thing does not happen on stage but in the mind of the receiver. I am against a totalitarian theater in which there is no free space for a spectator.”

You move in all arts; you are very interartistic. Do you take yourself primarily as a theater man or a musician, a composer? You have the same dilemma as Richard Wagner, theater or music. Nietzsche criticised the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk: It was for him dilettantish to try to combine various arts.

Goebbels strongly refused any analogy with Wagner.

There is much collage and citation in your music: Zofia Lissa wrote about the functions of musical citations; Yuri Lotman said that the quoted element must remain strange in its new environment; Lévi-Strauss spoke about ‘bricolage’.

“I do not cite or quote any composer with the idea that I would then compose my own work upon it. I have the respect for the music and composer whom I cite. I am rather confronting it as such with my music.”

 You are also a kind of anthropologist. For instance, your work Eraritjaritjaka refers to the Australian aboriginal language and quotes a word which means “longing for something which has been lost forever”. For me this evokes also Bruce Chatwin and his Songlines! Your music represents multiculturality and also the mixture of genres and styles. We have in Finland Erik Bergman who also used different cultures as his musical source. Do you consider yourself a postmodern composer?

Goebbels did not want to put himself into any such category. “Yes, the aforementioned piece was based on Elias Canetti’s work with the subtitle ‘Museum of Lost Phrases’. My theme was to create Abstand, distance. Abstand um das Publikum zu motivieren. Die Bühne wird vom Publikum besetzt, weil es nie genau das sieht, was er erwartet.

Is there a political aspect in your output? Are you Adornian in your aesthetics? How much are you indebted to Hanns Eisler and Brecht’s epic theater? Verfremdung?

“I do not see that the political moment in music or theater would be in any message transmitted from stage to audience. The political is purely in the form, in the new utopian form of communication which I try to create in the space of the arts.”

 My last questions were: How do you see the future of classical music amidst popular culture? Do you feel the dichotomy between popular or commercial music and classical music is relevant for you?

“Good popular music is not the commercial one. You have to separate these issues. The best popular music written, say, in the 1980s was not at all the most marketed one.”

— Eero Tarasti