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essay: What’s new on Tolkien

Letters, Recordings and Performances

“… the most overwhelming pleasure
was provided by Finnish …
But … there been another call …
I heard it coming out of the west …
O’Donnell Lecture by JRR Tolkien
Oxford University, 21 October 1955

On the inaugural O’Donnell Lectures at Oxford University Professor Tolkien recalled the country he got acquainted with after reading The Kalevala and the Finnish Grammar by Sir Charles Eliot. Tolkien began writing his The Story of Kullervo when he was a student at Oxford and most likely before the beginning of the “war to end all wars” – eventually he also began to write an essay on The Kalevala before going to France in 1916, less than a month prior to the deadly Battle of Somme. In his essay Tolkien was interested in comparative mythography, specially in the cases of Finnish and Welsh mythologies. On the present occasion I’d like to tell the reader about two stage works based in the writings of Tolkien, one from Wales and another from Finland.

I began my contact with the British composer Paul Corfield Godfrey (now living in South Wales) thanks to the kindness of Simon Crosby Buttle, the awarded British tenor working for the Welsh National Opera since 2009. According to the legend, Mr. Buttle approached Mr. Godfrey and they eventually considered the performance of sections from the latter’s scores after Tolkien’s books: The Professor was still working at the University when Godfrey first read his works. In 1971 orchestral excerpts Godfrey’s The Hobbit were performed in London – and that was before Orson Bean voiced the first Frodo and Bilbo Baggins that appeared in the movies (Bean would also become involved with Reichian psychoanalytic therapy).

Nonetheless, events prior to those in The Hobbit would definitely strike Godfrey. I am of course speaking of The Silmarillion, which is often considered one of Tolkien’s more difficult texts. To avoid confusion, I have prepared a table with a brief timeline of Tolkien’s works (The Silmarillion comprises events from Creation up to the Second Age). From top to bottom, the first row defines the different periods in Tolkien’s Legendarium and the second identifies Tolkien’s works related to each period. Finally, I offer a brief account of each period:


Ages of Lamps and Age of Trees

First Age

Second Age

Third Age

Fourth Age


Quenta Silmarillion


The Hobbit

The Lord of the Rings

Creation of the World and the Gods

Creation and destruction of the Lamps. Creation of the Two Trees.

Destruction of the Trees. Silmarills are forged. Sauron arises after the defeat of Morgoth

The Rings of Power are forged. Sauron is “defeated.”

Bilbo Baggins acquires The One Ring.

The One Ring is destroyed.

Godfrey and Buttle saga continued, they were joined by the Volante Opera Productions -with its headquarters in Cardiff, it was founded in 1999 by Julian Boyce (Buttle’s colleague at the Welsh National Opera). Eventually, Prima Facie Records, which previously released songs and chamber music by Godfrey, also joined the efforts. And thus the Company was formed, little by little, as in the events described in The Council of Elrond.

On July 2023 The Complete Silmarillion was made available to the public. I’ve listened to it all and had substantial discussions with the composer. Allow me please to share a few notes. The whole cycle is being sold in a box with 5 double-CDs accompanied by a 128 pages guide to the listener and the complete libretto – it’s being sold for £65, but one may buy each of the 5 CDs separately for £15 at the official website. The first recording appeared originally in 2018, it was related to The Fall of Gondolin (so it was not the first chapter of the The Complete Silmarillion). In 2023, the fifth, The War of Wrath, was released along with the complete box set.

Godfrey’s The Complete Silmarillion is certainly a great collectible for a die-hard Tolkien fan. It’s a majestic work of musical art that covers the Ainulindalë (The Music of the Ainur”), a section from the Age of Trees, the First Age (in more detail) and brief allusions to the Second Age. It should be remembered that Christopher Tolkien himself (the Professor’s son who edited The Silmarillion and published many of his father’s works) assisted Godfrey in the original stages of his creative process – sadly, Christopher passed away at the age of 75 in 2020.

Godfrey’s Silmarillion-cycle is undoubtedly the largest-ever recording after Tolkien’s works (“now total over ten hours” – the composer told me). And though nowhere close to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht (with 29 hours) nor Richard Wagner’s Ring (with 15) it is surely the largest-ever musical composition created in Wales, a small country but rich in tradition – not only for its early depictions of the Arthuriana, but also as being the homeland of the House of Tudor – including Queen Elizabeth I.

The recordings might not please every listener. They are labeled as Demo Recordings, with no orchestra involved – this made me constantly think on Luigi Pirandello’s Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore but in an somehow inverted situation (and hopefully an orchestra will be found!). Buttle offered what I believe to be but a temporary solution: a sampled orchestra (opposed to synthesised). Even so, other artists from the chorus of the Welsh National Opera joined, including Angharad Morgan as Galadriel (she also offers lessons in singing) and Jasey Hall as Sauron (who is also a skilled tubist). Buttle, by the way, appears in many roles, including Elrond and Ëarendil.

The Ainulindalë (CD1: Fëanor) is of outstanding value – it’s Tolkien’s words turned into music in its most exemplary form. Anyone familiar with Tolkien’s writings will remember that the universe was created in The Music of the Ainur. So now we may hear it, as close as it is allowed by the Tolkien Estate. But do not mistake Godfrey’s Ainulindalë with Wagner’s overture for Das Rheingold – the former’s “water theme first appears definitively in the prelude to Scene Seven of Fëanor … But of course there are also the themes associated with [sea-god] Ulmo [performed by Martin Lloyd, who, among many others from the Welsh National Opera chorus, were residents in 2014 at Savonlinna performing Nabucco and Manon Lescaut]” – so said the composer (further confirmed by Buttle). CD1 continues with the story of Fëanor (Simon Buttle), who have been described as a reinvented Ilmarinen, for they were both skilled forgers.

With Fëanor’s death in CD1 we continue with CD2 where the listener joins the love-story between Beren and Lúthien (with Morgan and Boyce in the main roles). I particularly enjoyed the musical treatment on the song The Promise Fulfilled with its oscillations between somber and soft tonalities. You don’t have to understand or have previous knowledge of the text to feel the essence of the section. I speak of course of the doomed Oath of Fëanor (that led to many sorrows and death) and Finrod’s own oath to Beren which fostered the alliance between elves and men.

Still, I was even more thrilled by Lúthien’s dance. In the composer words: “initially as a light-hearted game in her enticement of Beren.” I understand it as a reminiscence of Herder’s translation of the Danish ballad that eventually became Goethe’s Erlkönig (then turned into music by Carl Löwe and Franz Schubert) – with a plot-twist nonetheless. After losing his hand and dying, Lúthien manages to bring Beren back to life after a plea to Mandos (with, in my opinion, not without influence of the Orphic myth). On a discussion over Lúthien’s dance, the composer told me:

I deliberately avoided any attempt to depict the Elves (or hobbits) as ‘fairy-like’ in the style of Mendelssohn, which I am sure Tolkien would have thoroughly disliked – although I find the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream enchanting, especially when performed in the context of the complete play with all the melodramas included.

Moving on to CD3 (The Children of Húrin), I was at first absorbed by its psychoanalytic implications (being a trained psychotherapist myself, how couldn’t I?). Renowned Finnish psychoanalyst Tor-Bjorn Hagglund once wrote “Kullervo is a prisoner of his own oedipal hatred of his father and his desire for revenge” (p. 172). In addition: “the Oedipus complex of childhood becomes predominantly that of Väinämoinen, of Ilmarinen, of Lemminkänen or of Kullervo” (p. 174). On top of that, the world as we know today could have been deprived of both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Though Allen & Unwin had already published The Hobbit, Tolkien’s new writings were rejected by them. This rejection urged the Professor to write a very long letter to Milton Waldman in the early 1950s. On that occasion the former said: “There is the Children of Húrin, the tragic tale of Túrin Turambar … a figure that might be said (by people who like that sort of thing, though it is not very useful) to be derived from elements in Sigurd the Volsung, Oedipus, and the Finnish Kullervo” (Letter 131) – speaking of which, in November 2023, The Expanded Edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters was released, with sections from Letter 131 that were previously excluded from the standard volume of Tolkien’s letters. The new Expanded Edition includes 150 new letters and restored ones (such as Letter 131).

Erik Tawaststjerna studied the incest motive in Jean SibeliusKullervo. It’s recognition appears (as the reader certainly knows) in Scene Two, with an oscillation between A flat major and A flat minor: “This is no Tristan-like meeting … it is an encounter between two primitives who experience all powerful sensations and feelings” (p. 116). “Voi, poloinen, päiviäni” (Sibelius, p. 289) sings Kullervo on his lament “accompanied by convulsive chords … and in it Kullervo longs for death” (Tawaststjerna, p. 117). Eventually, Godfrey told me about his speeches to the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor “I have there referred to the quotation in my setting of The Children of Húrin from the Sibelius Kullervo symphony – which in turn dovetails neatly into the whole world of the Kalevala and the influence of Finnish mythology on Tolkien’s legends.” At this point, I should ask the reader to forgive me, for the issue is already known, even outside Finland: Godfrey directly quoted Jean Sibelius in his depiction of Túrin Turambar’s recognition of the incest he has committed (though again with Buttle in the role, “the casting would not happen like this if these works were done live”, emphasized the tenor).

On CD4 (The Fall of Gondolin) we are led to the hidden realm of the elves that was so tied with Túrin’s tale. I felt that the song Man Kenuva in Elvish was particularly interesting – it echoes the motive related to the idea of sailing across the Ocean towards the Blessed Realm with echoes from Ulmo (A minor-seventh). Such song appears in the Epilogue titled The Last Ship, which

was selected largely because I wanted a substantial poem in Elvish to be sung by the voices across the water to act as a counterpoint to the setting of The happy mariners … unlike the earlier Elvish hymn to midsummer in Gondolin, there is no attempt to forge an individual ‘Elvish’ style as I attempted in the earlier setting with its overtones of Russian chant and Tudor polyphony and its close approach to the meaning of the text. The more distant and impersonal setting of The last ship will of course be almost incomprehensible to an audience in performance, even if they understood every word of the text – said the composer.

In a even more musicological tone Godfrey pointed out that its

sense of ‘other-wordliness’ is deliberately underlined by the manner in which it moves harmonically in keys that often move away from the principal tonality (as in the final double chorus) and reflects the way in which sounds moving towards or away from the observer are subject to relativistic changes in pitch … I have sought to underline elements in the narrative by appeals to the subconscious ear of the listener.

In CD5 (The War of Wrath), I was astonished by Galadriel’s dance in the Epilogue. It is certainly a traditional motive in the Arts. Though I’m particularly fond of Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach’s Der Feentanz from 1895, one should not disregard Geofrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (of course written in Medieval English): “The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye; Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede” (Wife of Bath, 860-1) nor Henry Purcell’s “Trip it, trip it in a Ring; Around this mortal dance, and Sing” (p. 6, 1693). According to Godfrey:

The music for the Elvish dance at Galadriel’s words in the Epilogue [of The War of Wrath, CD5] … goes back a very long way – in fact to the early 1970s when I wrote my opera on The Hobbit, where the rhythm formed the setting of ‘Dance all ye joyful, now dance all together!’ sung by the elves in Rivendell. I later purloined the theme for use in my description of the Outling dance in my setting of Poul Anderson’s The Queen of Air and Darkness (which can be heard also on YouTube), and it fitted ideally into the music at that point in the Epilogue, adding a lift and lightness to the harmonic texture which is then contrasted with the same rhythm slowed down and given a more mournful form by Círdan immediately afterwards.

Artwork: Ted Nasmith Cover Design: Volante Opera Productions Copyright 2023 - used by permission

Artwork: Ted Nasmith
Cover Design: Volante Opera Productions
Copyright 2023 – used by permission

Furthermore, if The Silmarillion is already recorded, we are still waiting for its performance. Godfrey and Buttle are currently working on the stage design for it. As of today, we know only of stage performances and movies on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit – with the exception perhaps of the Children of Húrin, that was rehearsed in Priscilla Tolkien’s home in a preparation for the Oxonmoot in 1982. Moreover, in early 2023, The Watermill Theatre at Berkshire, England, revived the musical spectacle originally created by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus. The Finnish folk music band Värttinä collaborated with Indian composer Allah Rakha Rahman for the original performance in Toronto back in 2006. A shorter performance was prepared for London West End in 2007, and a recording is available.

Furthermore, as many in Finland know already, Suomenlinna was the stage for the 1988 and 1989 performances of The Lord of The Rings, with Kari Väänänen, who also acted in many movies by Aki and Mika Kaurismäki, including La Vie de Bohème (1992) and A Spice for Life (2019). Väänänen acted as both Aragorn and Gollum (better known as Klonkku in Finland) in the 6 hours live production and in the 9 hours and 30 minutes TV show directed by Timo Torikka (who acted as Pippin in the Suomenlinna production). Later on, in 2002 and 2003 the city of Jyväskylä received a production of the Lord of the Rings once again with Toni Edelmann, who had already created the music for Suomenlinna and the TV show.

More recently, the Turku City Theatre offered a performance of The Lord of The Rings. The Helsingin Sanomat from February 16, 2018 gave an overall positive review, though with criticism on the high influence from Peter Jackson’s movies. Next year, the audiences will meet Sami Keski-Vähälä and Pirjo Liiri-Majava works – they worked respectively in the dramatization/adaptation and with costume design for the Turku 2018 performance, and now will join the crew that is preparing a performance in Tampere (Liiri-Majava was also costume designer for the performance of The Hobbit at Turku back in 2021).

At the Tampere Theatre, Ella Mettänen as Frodo will lead the way against the forces of Sauron. The actress already raised awareness to a serious clinical problem that affects social in life in Kipeä Esitys at the Takomo Theatre, Helsinki. If Mettänen spoke of chronic pain at the Takomo she will apparently be tackling – either directly or indirectly – feminist issues at Tampere. It’s certainly one thing to have one of the hobbits (namely Pippin) being performed by an actress (Amelia Gabriel), as it was the case in Watermill/Berkshire. But if all of the 9 members of the “Fellowship of the Ring” were males in the book, now 4 will be females in Tampere. Following Mettännen, Annuska Hannula will appear as Pippin, and Elisa Piispanen as Merry – Samwise Gamgee will still be acted by a male actor (Antti Tiensuu). The last member that is now a female is the dwarf Gimli (Elina Rintala). But it doesn’t stop there: Mouth of Sauron, Gorbag and Shagrat (all evil male characters) will be performed by the same artist that will act as Galadriel (Arttu Soilumo), Arwen (Henna Tanskanen) and Bilbo Baggins (Eeva Hakulinen), respectively. Not that I want to omit the other members of the crew, but it seems to me that Tampere is preparing a radical move that took place incipiently in Berkshire/Watermill – instead of 1 character with a switch of gender, now there are 7.

Gender studies in Tolkien’s works appeared as soon as other serious scholar approaches. The earliest study is possibly Doris Myers Brave New World: The Status of Women According to Tolkien, Lewis and Williams. Published in 1971, Myers’ study was heavily influenced by civil rights movements in the USA during the 1960s and 1970s. According to Janet Croft and Leslie Donovan: “readers and critics have discussed his Middle-earth narratives as lacking in women, preserving cultural stereotypes of female roles, and reflecting antifeminist tendencies” (p. 14). We should possibly also take The Kalevala into account. Scholar Kaarina Kailo stressed out that women are usually represented according to relational terms and are deprived of proper status. And when failing to abide to patriarchal norm, women are deemed as deviant, such is the case, for instance, of Louhi. For Kailo, Elias Lönnrot deliberately reshaped the tales he collected to fit his patriarchal agenda. Such criticism is something to have in mind after the Tampere production of The Lord of The Rings, specially considering the influence The Kalevala had on Tolkien.

In any case, such a feminist approach to Tolkien should be done carefully. As Croft and Donovan observed, there is a “continuing and alarming tendency among some current Tolkien scholars to remain unfamiliar with or to disregard outright the more positive readings of Tolkien’s female characters and gender politics” (p. 16). The authors remembered that even in 2014, after feminist attacks on Tolkien were already heavily worn-out, the author of a chapter for A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien insisted on the passivity of Tolkien’s female characters.

Finally, it should probably be correct to affirm that Tolkien himself was the first to switch genders of traditional characters – in his own way. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien tells us:

The song of Lúthien before Mandos was the song most fair that ever in words was woven, and the song most sorrowful that ever the world shall hear … And as she knelt before him her tears fell upon his feet like rain upon the stones; and Mandos was moved to pity, who never before was so moved, nor has been since. (p. 186-187)

As the narrative continues until the end of Beren and Lúthien, we may continue to hear the echoes from the Orphic myth, which I chose here to quote after Claudio Monteverdi’s adaptation:

“Ahi sventurato amante,

Onde qual’ ombra errante

D’insepolto cadavero e infelice

Rendetemi’l mio ben, Tartarei Numi”

(1609, pp. 66-68).

– Daniel Röhe

Useful Links:


Croft, Janet and Donovan, Leslie. Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J. R. R. Tolkien. Mythopoeic Press, 2015.

Hägglund, Tor-Björn. “The Forging of the Sampo and its Capture.” The Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review, 1985, 8:2, 159-180.

Monteverdi, Claudio. L’Orfeo. Favola in Mvsica. In Venetia Appresso Ricciardo Amadino, 1609.

Purcell, Henry. The Fairy-Queen. Tonson, 1693.

Sibelius, Jean. Kullervo. Breitkopf & Härtel, 1961.

Tawaststjerna, Erik. Sibelius. Volume I. 1865-1905. Translated by R. Layton. University of California Press, 1976.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Revised and Expanded Edition. William Morrow, 2023.

____. The Silmarillion. Allen & Unwin, 1977.

Dmitri Bashkirov 1931-2021

Dmitri Bashkirov. Kuva © Melodia.

Dmitri Bashkirov. Kuva © Melodia.

Amfion julkaisee Suomessakin usein vierailleen venäläisen pianotaiteilijan Dmitri Bashkirovin muistoksi uudestaan osan E. Tarastin 3.5.2010 julkaistusta esseeestä ”EPISODEJA ERÄÄN PROFESSORIN ELÄMÄSTÄ, OSA 13”:

13.2.2010 Sibelius-Akatemia järjesti Dmitri Bashkirovin pianokurssin, jossa soitettiin Chopinia. Häntä kannattaa aina kuulla ja etenkin opettajana. Mitä muistoja tulvii mieleeni. Soitin itse hänen mestarikurssillaan Jyväskylässä kesällä 1969, opettajani Liisa Pohjolan kehotuksesta. Jyväskylän kesä oli huipussaan  ja siellä kuultiin ensi kertaa Suomessa monia venäläisen koulun mestareita, Jevgeni Malininia ja muita. Kurssilla soittivat kaikki tuon kauden nuoret pianistilupaukseme mutta myös varttuneempia pedagogeja kuten Anna-Liisa  Virtanen, Sakari Heikinheimo,  Aarno Rousi jne. Kurssien armoitettuna tulkkina oli Dmitri Hinze, maeston seuralainen ja hauska kääntäjä. Kerran he myöhästyivät miltei tunnin ja vihdoin saapuessa kurssille Hinze pahoitteli, kun ’maestro ja minä syödä yksi munuaiset’.  Joka tapauksessa soitin Brahmsin d-mollicapriccion ja a-molli-intermezzon.  Bashkirov  oli kiltti ja sanoi, että se soi kauniisti weil sie musikalisch sind, mutta ranteiden pitäisi olla korkeammalla. Tämä vika sitten korjaantui kun pääsin Pariisiin Jules Gentilen oppilaaksi vuotta myöhemmin. Mutta Bashkirov tunnetaan myös hurjasta temperamentistaan ja kiihkeän päälletunkevasta pedagogiastaan. Aikaa on kulunut, mutta  voi sanoa, että opettaessa hän oli sama, joskaan ei luultavasti enää uskalla noudattaa venäläistä pedagogiaa läntisessä maailmassa. Venäjällähän idea on se, että oppilasta haukutaan niin hirveästi,  että hän alkaa pelätä, jonka jälkeen lavalle meneminen ei tunnu  enää miltään itse pianotuntiin verrattuna.

Aluksi kuultiin Chopinin g-molliballadia nuoren pianistin soittamana, jonka nimi oli muistaakseni Gylling. Bashkirov  neuvoi soittamaan nuo bel canto -koruilut aluksi a tempo ja sitten nopeammin. Kuviot on ikään kuin piirrettävä pehmeällä kädellä. Kvartti-intervalli ennen sivuteeman ajateltava kuin orkestroiduksi puhaltimillle. Laskettava kahteen, ei kolmeen. Aivan alun arpeggio-kuviossa napolilaisella soinnulla, ei jokainen nuotti painokkaasra,  kuin sanan tavuja pai-not-ta-en. ”Meillä on ensiksi korvat eli keho … sitten meillä on  sielu. .. ja viimeiseksi  sormet”.  Ennen huipennusta kahdesti (ensiksi mentäessä  A-duuriin ja sitten g- molliin ollaan urkupisteen ja synkopoidun rytmin vankeina, ne ovat eräänlainen ’memento mori’-

Toisena kurssin numerona Väinö Jalkanen soitti preludeja. Bashkirov sanoi: 1. preludi on kehys koko sarjalle. Se on soitettava heti  hengästyneessä agitatossa. Ylä-äänen soitava lopuissa, käsi  ikään kuin hengittää väärin: paino ja kevennys. G-duuri: iloinen episodi suoran e-mollin sairaan tunnelman jälkeen. Koko sarja on tällä tavalla narrativisotava varustettava juonella,  A-duuri preludin,  joka  fraasi päättyy puolinuottiin joka on pidettävä tarpeeksi pitkään. E-duuri: avoin forte. Gis-mollni  kuvio äärimäisellä karaktäärillä,  mutta EI äärimmäisellä voimalla. Vasen käsi:  ei staccato.  pikemmin kuin orkesterin kontrabassojen pizzicatott. B-molli: onko teema murtosointua  vai melodiaa? Siirtymä e-mollista A-duuriin. Unakorda ei ole ambulanssi.

Mutta loppujen lopuksi  kun musiikissa kaksi minuutta, ’Moi’ ta käyvät dialogia, säveltäjän ja pianistin, niin väliin tulee kolmas ’Moi’  opettaja, Missä määrin on hyvä,  että opettaja puuttuu kaikkeen? Bashkirov kyllä lopulta korosti että hänen  puheensa  ovat vain ehdotuksia, jotka oppilas joko hyväksyy tai hylkää.

Bashkirovin oma pianoilta oli odotettu. Mutta klassismi ei nyt niinkään vakuuttanut. Beethovenin Pastoraalisonaatti toi mieleen, että muodon koossapysyminen vaatii eräänlaista muototahtoa, tahdon prinsiippiä,  joka filosofi Jaspersin mukaan on  Dauer als Kontinuität des Sinnes, kestoa merkityksen jatkuvuutena. On siis kyettävä ylläpitämään merkityksen jatkuvuutta,  harvinaisen hyvin sanottu ja pätee musiikiin. Mutta kaikki romanttinen musiikki oli erinomaista, loistavaa, kuin tuulahdus suurta 1800-luvun perinnettä.  Bashkirovin estetiikka perustuu yllätykseen, hän luo koko ajan jotain yllättävää intonaatiota  jota ei arvaisi. Myös Debussy oli erinomaista, L’isle joyeuse, joskin sen prosessi ei ole teleologista vaan  suorastaan orientaalisen  staattista nopeasta temposta huolimatta;  Debnussy oli jo kuullut gamelania!


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.