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On my music and beyond: About the anatomy of an artwork

by Aulis Sallinen

"Art of time requires dramaturgical precision from its creator, and because of this a key tool for the creator is a stopwatch. If a particular section of a composition is too short, it is unable to effectively convey its narrative; if it is too long, it will bore the listener. The aim is always to get the texture to breathe at the appropriate pace, to give it natural motion and clarity," writes composer Aulis Sallinen. This column is part of the series where composers and musicians write about their music.

“In the beginning was the Word. No – in the beginning was wordlessness, quietness, peace. Wilderness, boundlessness.”

These are the opening words of Lassi Nummi’s epic poem about Olavinlinna Castle in the town of Savonlinna in eastern Finland. A magical image of the wilderness as it once was, a long time ago. But in 1475 something happened: “In the beginning WAS the Word. And the Word became stone. My Word, this Castle.” The speaker here is Erik Axelsson Tott, a Danish nobleman.

I shall limit myself to writing something about the genesis of my setting of Nummi’s Linna vedessä [Castle in the water], about its construction, about its poetic domain. Not about its music. I do not know how. If someone is interested to know that this piece of music represents a year and a half of labour, then perhaps they will be interested to know that even today, after writing literally thousands of pages of musical score over the years, I still do not know how to talk about the music contained therein.

In 1975, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of Olavinlinna Castle. Many things were commissioned for the occasion, including my opera Ratsumies [The Horseman] and the aforementioned extensive poem by Lassi Nummi. He first wrote a short version that was read out at the main event of the celebrations at the Castle itself. Later, he expanded it into an entire book, and this is what ended up in my bookcase, having been mailed to me by the poet himself. And there it lay for some four decades, only to resurface when the Savonlinna Opera Festival asked me to write something to be performed at Olavinlinna Castle on the occasion of the centenary of Finland’s independence in 2017. As I opened the book, I realised that the text began to demand music. It only took a sniff by a seasoned opera composer to sense that such a demand might be not just justifiable but indeed fruitful.


If anyone were to ask what the point is in combining words and music, I would leave the room. This is because the inevitable follow-up is to ask why a good text read silently or out loud and good music performed should not be enough in themselves. I shall leave this for everyone to deliberate for themselves and merely cite a newspaper review from more than 40 years ago, which I had never seen until after the work now under discussion was performed. Pekka Tarkka, writing in Helsingin Sanomat on 14 December 1975, gave a positive review of Lassi Nummi’s Linna vedessä and went on to write:

“I feel that one of the starting points for Nummi must have been music. He has stated that the poem was inspired while in the presence of singing and music, gazing upon the walls of the castle. It was also shaped according to the structures of music. Perhaps these words coloured by music and history will one day be translated back into the language of music. Indeed, with some editing and condensing, Linna vedessä may well lend itself to being set by a composer as a modern cantata.”

Clearly, the prophetic notion voiced by Pekka Tarkka once upon a time took wing but spent nearly half a century under way before landing on a composer’s desk. Having decided to work with this text, I undertook a task that initially was reminiscent of the hacking and slashing that I was used to being obliged to do for the libretti of my operas. It is always harsh: first with an axe, then with a knife, and lastly with a razor blade. Yet the remaining poems – or aggregates of poems – had to retain all the essential narrative of the history of this stone giant, of the life lived within its walls and of its impact on politics and power. The task at hand was to devise a framework that married a textual content – with which the composer by now was thoroughly familiar – with a musical architecture.

It’s a demanding word, architecture. In music, understanding architecture requires memory. If we look at a painting or a sculpture, we can grasp the entirety of the work at one glance. If we read a poem or a novel, we can easily go back and reread. Music is an art of time, and understanding it requires remembering it: we must be able to connect what we hear now with what we heard earlier. Only then can we understand the music as a whole and comprehend its architecture. Art of time requires dramaturgical precision from its creator, and because of this a key tool for the creator is a stopwatch. If a particular section of a composition is too short, it is unable to effectively convey its narrative; if it is too long, it will bore the listener. The aim is always to get the texture to breathe at the appropriate pace, to give it natural motion and clarity.

Art of time requires dramaturgical precision from its creator, and because of this a key tool for the creator is a stopwatch.

My relationship with Olavinlinna Castle is extensive, rich and many-faceted. The first encounter was just a glance. On one of many evacuation journeys during the war, a lorry stopped on the bridge over the straits of Kyrönsalmi for just long enough for a nine-year-old boy sitting in the back to catch a glimpse of the stone giant standing amidst the black, flowing waters. How could that uprooted, fascinated Karelian lad have suspected that far in the future he would write several operas that would be performed within its massive walls?

Even so, writing a work specifically dedicated to this “old man perched on a rock”, as Nummi writes, was a task of particular significance, a challenge to measure up to the colourful story of those sturdy ramparts and the history they represent. This was a journey where the clarity, richness and poesy of the text provided a solid support. Given that the author’s chronicle broadened the perspective from the Castle itself to the world around it on a 360-degree basis, it seemed only natural to spread the music out into the space as well, with the aid of a surround sound system. Besides, like many other composers I have always been enamoured of how music functions in a space, how sound behaves with unusual acoustic setups.


So, what is the connection between the centenary of the Republic of Finland and Olavinlinna Castle? Once its three towers had been erected, the significance of its location changed. It was no longer a location that was just here. It now also existed hundreds of kilometres away, on maps, in negotiations, in the political deliberations of the powers that be. This is how Lassi Nummi defines the political significance of Olavinlinna Castle when it was built. As an important link in the chain of fortifications defending Finland’s territory, it contributed to making and maintaining our land as we know it today, more than half a millennium after its first stones were laid.

But who built the Castle? The roster of names of those who constructed and administered it over the years is dominated by foreign names: Danish, Swedish, Russian, what have you. Where were the Finns? The libretto for my work says of the Castle: “It was the Dane who designed you but it was the Finn who built you, shifted the stones, paid for it all, it was the Finn who defended you, paid the price, bought you out, to the very last stone. It was the Finn who left here with hands severed, peasant, messenger, leaving two red trails in the wilderness snow. When the Finn had grown new hands, he returned. Not in armour with flowing crest; he came wearing grey serge and leant against the castle wall like a stone.”

This image of Finns, tough as juniper, fighting wars over centuries of history, underlies the independence of the Finland that is now more than 100 years old. It is a tale of tenacity that can equally well be applied to the wild forest reindeer, a species endemic to Finland which was thought extinct but which returned from the dead to turn up at Elimyssalo.

These are the anchor points of Linna vedessä that are important to me: the silence and tranquillity of the wilderness at the opening and the wild forest reindeer that appears at the end, with a reflection of Finland’s forests in its eyes, free as the wings of thought. It is a message from the natural environment to us humans.

This article forms part of a book scheduled for publication in spring 2022 (Fuga).

Aulis Sallinen on Music Finland's Composers & Repertoire

More columns by Finnish composers and music makers: On my music and beyond.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju / Music Finland