in From the Archives

Aarre Merikanto - a battered genius

by Harri Suilamo

With the works he wrote in the 1920s Aarre Merikanto (1893-1958) together with Ernest Pingoud and Väinö Raitio, planted the seed of modernism in Finnish music. The seed germinated in spite of adverse cultural conditions at the time, but only later generations were to reap the harvest.
Pingoud, Raitio and Merikanto shared similar fates as composers. After the questing years of their youth, each responded to international trends in modern music and did pioneering work which in many cases fell on stony ground. Aarre Merikanto’s fate was most poignant and least enviable of all: the finest and most promising period of his career was followed by a retrenchment – partly the result of the many reverses and disappointments he suffered, partly perhaps of changes in his musical thinking – and a return from stylistic radicalism to a neo-classisism flavoured with elements from folk-music and to National Romanticism.

Belated recognition of the importance of Merikanto’s work and the special place it occupies in Finnish music and the contemporary music of its time came initially from a small band of admirers at Finnish Radio. Now Merikanto’s circle of friends is steadily growing. His music is undergoing a renaissance that had been long-awaited and was inevitable if one of the major figures of 20th Century Finnish music was to be accorded his rightful place. The following article is no more than a preliminary sounding of Merikanto’s life and work which will perhaps help in its own way to stimulate closer acquaintance with the music of the founder of musical modernism in Finland.

Early youth and Leipzig years

In his childhood home Merikanto could not avoid coming into contact with his father Oskar’s work as a composer. As he grew up, his father gave him piano lessons and taught him theory.

By his mid-teens Merikanto’s mind was already full of ideas for operas. After trying his hand at various wordless operatic scenas on chivalric subjects, he completed his first full-length opera Helena to a libretto of Jalmari Finne in 1912. It was first performed in the presence of Sibelius himself at the Grand Draw organised by students from Savo at Helsinki University. The later fate of the opera is unfortunately all too typical of Merikanto – the composer appears to have destroyed the score of his youthful work. But from contemporary evidence it is possible to conclude that the music of Helena constituted the first radical phase in its composer’s development. Its harmonic and intervallic daring, its rich chromaticism and its use of the whole tone scale convinced his audience of the young Merikanto’s originality and innate tendency towards a contemporary idiom, regardless of the prevailing cultural climate.


Max Reger

By 1912 Merikanto had finally decided to make his career as a composer. He left school before finishing his studies and enrolled at the Helsinki Music Institute as a pupil of its principal Erkki Melartin. But his first term was to be his last for in the autumn his father transferred him to the Leipzig Conservatoire. There Merikanto studied a variety of subjects under Stephan Krehl and Julius Klengel but it was Max Reger who, having grasped the reins, was to assume prime responsibility for Merikanto’s future development.

Classes began one by one in the autumn of 1912. The time spent in Reger’s own master-classes passed swiftly and Merikanto worked intensively, encouraged by his early success and confident of his talents.

During the beginning of the autumn term he wrote a piano sonata, material from which was to find its way into the First Symphony, and Lemminkäinen, a tone poem, which was later to undergo many revisions and from which Merikanto again transposed motives into the First Symphony. This interaction of motives between different works was to become a characteristic of all his mature music.

Merikanto also set to work with enthusiasm on his First Symphony – a project that was always looming at the back of his mind – and before Christmas embarked on another major work, a First Piano Concerto. In the New Year Merikanto continued work on the symphony and piano concerto after which, presumably at Reger’s suggestion, he transferred his attention to chamber music.

Merikanto spent the summer of 1913 at home in Finland writing fugues and struggling with Lemminkäinen. On his return to Leipzig he wrote a Prelude and Fugue for organ, dedicated to his father’s organ pupil Onni Pakarinen. Later that winter he finished a piano trio and a string quartet of which the latter, before its disappearance, was performed at a student concert the following spring together with the Prelude and Fugue. In January 1914 Merikanto wrote one of the finest works of this period, the Serenade for cello and string orchestra, in a National Romantic idiom which he dedicated to his mother. This shared pride of place with the First Symphony and the First Piano Concerto in the programme of the first concert devoted entirely to his own music given on his return to Helsinki.


Radicalism retreats

The two years spent in Leipzig made an indelible impression on Merikanto in his search for his own voice. One of the main consequences of the period was the shaking off of the intuitive radicalism that had burned with such fervour in his early opera Helena.

But Merikanto’s eagerness to experiment – a temperament quite contrary to his father’s – had manifested itself in Helena before he had the necessary technical skills at his command. The teaching in Leipzig concentrated specifically on perfecting technical competence within a totally traditional framework. Max Reger directed the activities of his students above all to the problems of harmony and counterpoint. While at the start of his studies Merikanto had reported with undisguised satisfaction having heard in some music by Auber the same harmonies based on the whole tone scale as he had himself used in Helena, his opinions had already changed decisively by the following year. Not only was the whole tone scale condemned but also Sibelius’ and Debussy’s fifths and especially Debussy’s unresolved parallel sevenths. In the same context Merikanto reports unfavourably on his first acquaintance with the music of Schönberg. Helena was rubbish and there could be no return to it.

The fact that Reger clipped the wings of Merikanto’s early radicalism was not necessarily a disadvantage: in place of the free flight of fantasy he gained the weapons of technical and formal command which later enabled him to realise his expressive requirements with greater richness and facility than before.

On 5 November 1914 the Helsinki public had a chance to sample what Merikanto had achieved during his years in Leipzig and to hear what changes had taken place since Helena. Merikanto’s musical language was National Romantic in a traditional way and thus found its way to the hearts of the public. lt was therefore no surprise that, to the accompaniment of critical plaudits, the concert was repeated five days later.

Reger and Sibelius

During the year and a half he spent in Finland after returning from Leipzig, Merikanto composed an orchestral song Savannah-la-Mar; to Bertel Gripenberg’s text, and a Theme, Five Variations and Fugue for orchestra. The latter originally included nine variations and constitutes a synthesis of the changes that Merikanto’s music underwent during the Leipzig years. In this massive work Merikanto provides a demonstration of his skills in counterpoint and in formal construction. The work is a homage to two composers whom Merikanto greatly admired: Reger and Sibelius. The former provided a stylistic and technical model with his Hiller Variations, the latter was the dedicatee of the work.


Russian influences

At the end of 1915 Merikanto travelled to Moscow to continue his studies with Sergei Vasilenko. For the most part this short visit was occupied with the completion of works in progress and the revision of pieces already completed. But of more importance for Merikanto’s future development than the steadily mounting opus numbers was the change that took place in his musical thought processes.

ln these Russian surroundings Merikanto subjected the thick orchestration characteristic of his Leipzig period to a complete re-examination. The concrete result was a thinning out of the orchestration of several works including Lemminkäinen. The second and third movements of the Symphony already underwent considerable rewriting, partly as regards their orchestration and partly in order to reduce the symphony’s inordinate length. As his powers of self-criticism developed so Merikanto devoted more attention to the relation between quality and quantity – from the Variations, as we have seen, he cut four out of nine. And besides sound musical construction, as new value asserted itself as a result of Vasilenko and the Russian atmosphere: transparency of texture which enabled his orchestral sound to liberate itself from Germanic pathos. Scriabin’s possible influence on Merikanto’s feeling for colour and on his musical language in general has often been discussed in this connection. From Merikanto’s letters home it becomes apparent that he only came to terms with Scriabin’s musical world gradually during his time in Moscow. His attitude to the composer of the Poem of Ecstasy changed from horror to fascination. But Merikanto’s direct contacts with Scriabin’s music were restricted to a couple of concerts and study of his scores. Of more significance for Merikanto’s treatment of the orchestra must surely have been the exchange of ideas with Vasilenko and his introduction thereby to the Russian ideals of orchestral sound.


The years of national ferment

After returning home in April 1916 Merikanto concentrated on preparing for a second concert of his own works. It took place in early 1917 and consisted of the revised version of the First Symphony, the First Violin Concerto, the orchestral tone poem Uni (Dream), now lost, and the final version of Lemminkäinen. The critical reception of the concert, which the composer conducted himself, was almost entirely hostile whether openly or tacitly. While intrinsically well-wrought, Merikanto’s large-scale forms were still accused of suffering from a lack of concentration.

The latter part of the year Merikanto devoted to chamber music. However his work was interrupted by the outbreak of the civil war which sucked him in. His disturbing experiences, which included a short period as a prisoner-of-war, were reflected in his patriotic 2nd Symphony, completed in 1918, to which Merikanto gave the programmatic subtitle War Symphony. It was premiered as part of the third concert of his own music the same November, Other new works on the programme included the first version of the symphonic poem Pan and the First Cello Concerto.

This third concert received almost unanimous critical condemnation, the most uncharitable critics finding the new symphony pompous, ponderous and chaotic. Even the symphony’s clearly recognisable mood of tragedy and its programmatic depiction of chaos did little to assist comprehension.

The critics reserved their greatest scorn for the highly chromatic third movement. But in spite of these reverses, Merikanto was now firmly set on the path that was to lead him in the following decade to artistic achievements of a new order.


The modernist’s lonely road

The twenties saw the climax of Merikanto’s life’s work – the missing link between the European stylistic trends of his time and much of what is being composed in Finland today. Merikanto sought new channels for his artistic aspirations and, reading between the Iines, it is easy to see that he found his way, whether consciously or not, on to precisely those paths over which the shadow had not fallen of Jean Sibelius, who internationalised the Finnish symphonic tradition and was unrivalled in popular esteem. It is not far-fetched to assume that Merikanto’s decision to change the title of what he intended as his Third Symphony to Fantasia was one indication of the existence of this light and shadow and his recognition of how things stood.



Merikanto spent the first two years of the decade working on Juha. He made two separate versions of the opera and submitted the second to the Finnish Opera for performance. The board of the Opera, conservative-minded and plagued by internal dissension, repeatedly postponed making a decision with the result that the composer withdrew his score, no doubt interpreting correctly their temporising and requests for a simplification of the orchestral texture as tacit rejection. Juha thereby vanished for 35 years, an irreparable loss to opera in Finland.

The rejection of the opera was obviously a tragedy for Merikanto himself- though at least the score remained in existence, biding its time for future generations to discover. But the saddest thing about the whole affair was that the board of the Opera had thus banged the first and last nail into the coffin of Merikanto’s opera composition.

If Juha had received the relevant appreciation at the time – or even the bare minimum of a public performance – it would surely not have remained its composer’s last opera. From an early age Merikanto had shown a strong interest in the difficult medium of opera. Nor should the loss of the reflex effect that Juha would undoubtedly have had as a model for younger composers be underestimated.

The cliché great art is the product of human suffering gains some credibility from the way the early part of the century treated Merikanto. Already embittered by Juha’s fate, in 1922 Merikanto lost the greatest part of his wife’s fortune on which the family depended when the bank collapsed. Two years later he lost his father Oskar, whose support of his son had been untiring. The end of the decade was overshadowed partly by the invariably courteous but depressingly negative correspondence with Schott & Söhne in Mainz; partly by his increasing dependence on morphine, which he had initially taken to relieve gallstone pains. Against this background, the musical richness and concentration of all his works of the twenties is a cause for wonder.

After finishing Juha, Merikanto wrote two orchestral songs to poems of V. A. Koskenniemi. Both Ekho and Autumn Sonnet inhabit a new world in comparison with Merikanto’s earlier music. They exhibit a pregnant, almost Wagnerian use of continuous melody, a highly expressive approach to harmony and dynamics, and their orchestra is satiated with the colours of Franco-Russian impressionism. Conventional concepts of form have given way to an intuitive structural thinking that closely follows the shades and nuances of the poem. In many respects, not least thematic, Merikanto has moved one orbit nearer the core – details have become structurally significant.

The orchestral songs were followed by the Fantasia and the third and final version of Pan. In the Fantasia Merikanto placed at the service of his musical aspirations an orchestra of massive dimensions. That the Fantasia too should have waited so long for a premiere is hardly surprising in view of the size of the orchestra required. Merikanto’s attempts to expand the range of power and colour available from his orchestra is most apparent in the area of low notes and dark tones. The orchestra and its instrumental components realise in the Fantasia an impressive firework display. All this takes place within what is basically a Romantic environment which recalls the mythological world of Lemminkäinen – while at other times we seem to be moving through the roar of Juha’s fateful rapids.

After the Fantasia Merikanto wrote the tone-poem Pan, named after the woodland god of antiquity. For this work, which underwent numerous revisions before finally satisfying the composer, Merikanto reduced the strength of his orchestra but exploits the expressive possibilities of its instruments even more effectively than before. Harmonically Pan is further along the tonality/atonality axle than its predecessors. Individual intervallic characters play an important structural role – as in the orchestral songs which paved the way for Pan. Pan also established the stylistic framework for Merikanto’s subsequent concertos. It was followed a year later by the 2nd Violin Concerto and a year after that by the Konzertstück for cello and chamber orchestra. Both continue the ethereal, impressionistic line that was signalled by Pan.


Schott concerto

In mid-decade Merikanto returned to chamber music and his Concerto for violin, clarinet, horn and string sextet shared first prize in a competition organised by the German publishing house Schott & Söhne. This victory ensured the work not only a place amongst Merikanto’s most important compositions but also a premiere abroad at the Donaueschingen Music Festival in July 1925 – no small matter for a composer who had received so many blows to his self-esteem. The charm of the so-called Schott Concerto lies in its lightness of touch and deftness of construction and, conscious of taking part in Schott’s competition, Merikanto has situated his concerto slightly closer to the German-speaking world. But in the second movement Merikanto introduces an alien element: a short episode flavoured with folk melody. In the finale Merikanto caps the harmonic complexity with a twelve-tone chord (whether by intention or intuition) which is most eloquent in its polytonal context even if it remained a unique phenomenon in Merikanto’s harmonic practice.

In 1925-26, perhaps inspired by the success of the Schott Concerto, Merikanto wrote a Nonet for flute, cor anglais, clarinet, piano and string quintet. ln it he knotted together threads that had been separately present from his earliest works. The composer juxtaposes thematic textures with either purely linear writing or a fragmentation into motivic microtextures. ln places neo-classicism rears its head. The Nonet remained unperformed. Neither Schott’s nor the Finnish music public were interested. The latter finally heard the work in 1960 but the composer never. Perhaps resigned to its fate, Merikanto scribbled on the score the words: “Unpeformed and may itremain so. The devil’s own music!”

The world of Merikanto’s chamber music is linked to the Symphonic Study of 1928, the most radical work of the period and as such the climax and terminus of his continuing line of development. In it Merikanto has freed himself from the referential framework of the Fantasia and Pan and boldly stepped into a region where it is possible to approach the problems of intervallic language and formal construction from a completely new viewpoint. The piece is in six continuous movements and a symphonic demonstrations of mastery whose movements are densely related motivically to each other. The title of the work tellingly completes Merikanto’s twenties portrait – almost as if Merikanto thought he could justify writing ultra-radical music in Finland by calling it an “exercise”!

The Symphonic Study first reveals Merikanto’s fanatical tendency to destroy works which had received little attention or appreciation. Convinced that it could never cross the threshold of performance and blaze a trail into becoming a living part of Finnish culture, Merikanto tore out 18 pages from the more than 100-page score. Paavo Heininen, who had realized the work’s importance and its central place in Merikanto’s own work and Finnish orchestral music in general, later seamlessly completed the gaps that had seemed beyond repair. The Symphonic Study was premiered in 1982 under the baton of another Merikanto enthusiast Ulf Söderblom.


A time of searching

Merikanto’s stylistic development in the twenties reveals a tireless search for his artistic ego. He tacks through the powerful cross-swell of his surroundings from one musical solution to another. German Romanticism, expressionism and Franco-Russian impressionism receive different emphases in different works. And here and there, in spite of the general radicalism of the period, touches of neo-classicism and folklore can be observed, a foretaste of what was to come. ln solving problems of formal construction and technical realisation Merikanto rejects the conventionality that would have won him the appreciation and support of the audience of his time.

Towards the end of the decade, conscious of his goals, Merikanto knocked on the door that would have led him to a distillation of his own style, but remained outside it. To attempt to apportion responsibility for this turn of events is futile. There has been much speculation as to Merikanto’s own share in what happened and as to what extent he remained himself behind his words and deeds in the years that followed. Above all, in the delicate network of cause and effect, it is only the collective responsibility of the Finnish cultural climate that cannot be denied.


Decades of stylistic retreat

ln the early thirties Merikanto, still in financial straits, concentrated largely on providing Gebrauchmusik for the newly-established orchestra of Finnish Radio. At the same time he made various arrangements of his father’s musical effects. A weightier challenge was, however, presented by his recomposition of the Partita he had written at the end of the twenties from the surviving orchestral parts. Its second movement, the Largo misterioso was subsequently extracted from its original context and became one of Merikanto’s best-loved tonepoems. In mid-decade Merikanto returned to his roots and to his hero Lemminkäinen with Kyllikin ryöstö (The Abduction of Kyllikki) which is generally considered to mark the beginning of his stylistic retreat. Significantly it became one of his most popular compositions together with the early Lemminkäinen and the Intrada in 1936. Kyllikin ryöstö introduces a new element into Merikanto’s work, of particular importance for his later development: he had become unashamedly attached to the rhythmic and melodic motives of the dance music of country fiddlers. The virtually straightforward use of folk material continued in the orchestral pieces Scherzo and Ten Ugrian Folk Melodies.

The balance in Merikanto’s artistic account was also modest in respect of chamber music: the Partita for harp and wind sextet and the A minor String Quartet are both without real interest. Bright spots of the decade were the pioneering work of Eero Kosonen, a conductor from Tampere, in promoting Merikanto’s music, and Merikanto’s success in winning first prize in a competition for a fanfare for the projected Olympic Games in Helsinki. This latter brought him considerable fame and celebrity in Finland.

During his last two decades Merikanto concentrated on vocal music and competition pieces. 1945 was an important year as he finally succeeded in breaking his addiction to heroin as a result of intensive treatment, at this stage a prerequisite for continuing to compose with faculties unimpaired. With effect from the same year Merikanto began to win one competition after another including those for the Helsinki Games and for the joint celebration of the City of Helsinki’s 400th anniversary and the 70th anniversary of the publishers Werner Söderström. His run of success continued in 1954 when the Finnish Cultural Foundation awarded him first prize for his 4th Violin Concerto and in 1956 when the same foundation awarded him first prize both for his cantata Genesis for soprano, mixed chorus and orchestra and his cantata Tuhma (Simpleton) for male chorus and orchestra.

When it is remembered that Merikanto also collected second and third prizes as well as special mentions in other competitions, his achievements in this particular field cannot be questioned. These competition victories also resulted in the steady growth of his circle of admirers and the respect in which he was held. Setting aside the motives that led the composer to enter so many competitions, it must be said that the music of his later years did not require anything like the same lack of prejudice on the part of his listeners as had his music of the twenties. Merikanto’s  return to simplicity and to a national musical language firmly anchored in tonality was a fact.

The most vital works of his last two decades were the 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos, the 2nd Cello Concerto, the 4th Violin Concerto, Ihalempi for male chorus and orchestra, Genesis and Tuhma. The two latter, together with the organ piece Andante, were Merikanto’s last opuses for after 1956 he wrote no further works.


Prof. A. Merikanto

Aarre Merikanto also did important work as a composition teacher and in 1951 became professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy. His appointment to this post no doubt had a welcome effect on his self-esteem as well as on his financial position, but for his composition itself such external help came too late. The contemporary Finnish composers Einojuhani Rautavaara, Aulis Sallinen, Usko Meriläinen and Paavo Heininen all enjoyed his paternal guidance, the hallmark of which was his respect for each student’s own character and inclinations. When Merikanto died on 28 Septernber 1958 after a difficult illness, a life and career ended that would require years to be justly assessed. But signs of the gradual brightening of the Finnish cultural climate and the awakening from sleep of its institutions could be observed almost immediately – Juha was given a studio broadcast the December after he died. Although much valuable work has been done on behalf of Aarre Merikanto’s priceless legacy, not least in recent years, much still remains to be done.


Translation: Jeremy Parsons