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Aulis Sallinen, strong and simple

by Martin Anderson

"You are born with a dramatic pulse, with dramatic thinking, and that's that. I've written now about two-thirds, so I call it a marathon," says composer Aulis Sallinen, whose new opera King Lear will be premiered at the Finnish National Opera on 15 September, 2000.
Exactly twenty years ago, when an international tour brought the Finnish National Opera to Sadler’s Wells, in London, the bill of fare consisted of two works not long off their composers’ workbenches, Joonas Kokkonen’s Viimeiset Kiusaukset (The Last Temptations) and Aulis Sallinen’s Punainen Viiva (The Red Line). Like most of the other people in the audience, I was hearing these works for the first time. And like all the rest of the audience, I was on my feet as soon as the curtain fell, bellowing my enthusiasm. The reputation of “contemporary” music outside its specialist circles is such that one can hardly imagine an ordinary audience responding with such immediate excitement to modern opera, but the sheer electricity those two works brought to that auditorium remains without parallel in my listening experience.

Soon after The Red Line made its initial impact, Sallinen’s earlier opera Ratsumies (The Horseman) appeared on a set of Finlandia LPs. Simultaneously, the Swedish recording company BIS was beginning to release Sallinen’s orchestral music – initially the Sinfonia (First Symphony), Third Symphony and Chorali, monumental works all three.

By now Sallinen’s reputation abroad was more or less established: he was a composer whose works revealed an uncompromising toughness of character – an image that probably comforted the western European image of the Finn with his jaw set against implacable nature. So when Sallinen’s third opera Kuningas lähtee Ranskaan (The King Goes Forth to France) was premiered in London and Savonlinna in 1984 (it was a joint commission from the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and the Savonlinna Opera Festival) and revealed that Sallinen also enjoyed a rich vein of whimsy and satire, it wrong-footed the critics who were expecting another tragedy hewn directly from rock. Irony, as far as they were aware, was not part of Sallinen’s vocabulary. But it’s not the first time the critics have been wrong: humour – good humour or trenchant satire – had been long been part of his compositional armoury.

His satirical masterpiece to date, his fifth opera Palatsi (The Palace), first performed in 1995, is a riotously funny send-up of bureaucracy and political self-importance.

The two aspects of Sallinen

I spoke to Aulis Sallinen, now 63, after a Finnish Christmas concert organised by the Finnish Embassy in London, in the eighteenth-century splendour of St John’s, Smith Square. Laura Mikkola, accompanied by the Orchestra of St John’s under John Lubbock, had just given the world premiere of the piano-and-string-orchestra version of Sallinen’s Introduction and Tango Overture, initially composed (in 1997) for piano quintet; the concert also included the UK premiere of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s First Piano Concerto (again with Laura Mikkola as an outstanding soloist), Sibelius’ Five Christmas Songs and Heikki Aaltoila’s “Wedding Waltz” (from the film Here Beneath the Northern Star). I first asked Sallinen what he thought of the standard critical division between the “tough” Sallinen and Sallinen the joker.

“I don’t think it goes that way at all. On the side of the operatic and symphonic compositions, I’ve always written music for children, for instance,” – he was, indeed, a teacher for two years – “and many, many different kinds of music. It has been said that there are two different ways to be a creative artist: work like Chagall, who actually painted the same painting all his life, or Picasso, who changed his style all his life. I would say that I would maybe be more Picasso than Chagall. Whatever you write, your style will be recognised and will be there. But I love to change my thinking. It depends mostly on the orchestra, chorus or whatever you write for. I’ve always written for performers. I’ve never written music for myself, never for the public, but always for performers – operatic scene, symphony orchestra, string quartet, children’s choir – and this, I think, is the reason why the music can sound very different: because of the purpose of the music.”

The impact of different kinds of music is also very different: The Red Line will always make more of an impression than, say, the Third String Quartet (which bears the intriguing title Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March) or his other chamber works, which took rather longer to leave Finland and get about the world. “Yes, that’s true – but isn’t that quite normal? The opera is a rather dangerous piece of art because it’s so visible. I’ve never understood myself why the world premiere of an opera is more important than a piece of ten minutes for string quartet, but it just happens to be so.” Well, for a start, there is a good deal more invested in an opera. “Yes, that’s very true, but as an artistic phenomenon. In this very concert I was very moved, I was almost crying. Here we are in the heart of London. I came here as a Finn who has lived thirteen winters in Provence, in France. Then I hear the Finnish Christmas songs that I used to hear when I was a little child; that was so moving, so moving.” Sallinen is not exaggerating: I was sitting near him in the concert and during the Sibelius a flash of light caught my attention – refracted in a tear inching its way down his cheek. “The three last Sibelius Christmas Songs – they are pearls. I think it should be sufficient for anybody to write just one piece like that. And then we heard this operetta piece by Aaltoila, my old friend, who died a long time ago. He was a music critic. He was a composer, but he was not really a composer: this melody comes from a film. It’s enormously popular in Finland: it’s the only piece he created and maybe it’s the only one that was necessary for him to create, because everybody knows it. So much for the ‘importance’ of music.”

“I love this pulse”

Sallinen has now embarked on his sixth opera, a setting of Shakespeare’s King Lear. It is clear that opera, despite the massive drains that the genre must make on a composer’s resources, has a particular fascination for him – why? “I have written so much orchestral music. And I like theatre. When you’re a composer and you write for symphony orchestra, you do your job very much alone. But I love this many-faceted world that is included in the lyrical scene and the opera. I may be a man of the theatre. I love this pulse. It is something that you must be born with. There are things you can never learn, you can never teach to anybody. You are born with a dramatic pulse, with dramatic thinking, and that’s that. I’ve written now about two-thirds, so I call it a marathon.” Is it sketched out or already in full score? “No, no, in full score, and my publisher already has the first act.” That I knew was true: I had just seen the top of the score disappearing into a reception, sticking out of the backpack of Wiebke Busch, who works for Novello, Sallinen’s publishers for the past two decades.

A technical detail first, since he raised the point: does Sallinen always write in full score? “Yes, always. No particell. I do for myself, for practical reasons, a sort of sketch just because it’s more practical to write the full score afterwards, but it is not understandable to anybody else other than to me – and not to me either after a few months: I don’t understand it.”

Shakespeare has attracted a host of composers, of course, but most of them have shied away from his greatest tragedy, King Lear. What pulled Sallinen to it where others feared to tread? “I love this work. It’s very difficult. It took some enormous thinking to recreate the dramaturgy of the piece, because it’s very difficult as such. If you compose it as such, the opera will take six hours, so you must shorten a lot of things and delete people from the cast and so on. What my conscious thinking has been thus far is that I try to eliminate as much as possible the narrative elements of the story; I just concentrate myself on the very strong poetical scenes – and big singing: this play needs big singing.” Lear is probably the blackest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, even wilfully so: there is, for example, no dramatic reason for Lear’s discovery of the death of Cordelia at the end of the play – it seems that Shakespeare includes it solely to rain a last blow on this broken old man. “You are right; that is one of the reasons why I was sad to delete the Duke of Kent, who is one of the very few good men in the story. But there is still Cordelia, there is still the old Gloucester. One of the most moving things, one of the most touching things in the whole story is the meeting of these two old men: Lear half-fool and Gloucester blind. But luckily I had a double inspiration to write this opera, because from the very beginning I knew the cast. I knew about Matti Salminen. It’s very funny: Matti is now 53 or 54, and this is the first role written for him. He’s a fantastic artist. He has become more and more deep in his expression and interpretation. Then I have Jorma Hynninen as Gloucester. These two fellows on stage – can you imagine such charisma? Then I have Jorma Silvasti as Edmund. And so on, so it’s very inspirational.”

Black stories

Kullervo, Sallinen’s fourth opera, is almost unremittingly dark, a tale of destruction and slaughter arising from the near-complete breakdown of human relationships. King Lear offers a composer similar opportunities for relentless gloom; will Sallinen’s music be as black as the play? “I hope not. I think that if there is something very bad in the world, with all these black scenes, the music need not be black: it can be full of poesy and beauty in spite of the content of the text. It must be, by the way. I hope that I’m able to write some light into that music, too. I don’t know if you know Kullervo, but that is a very black story – it’s the most Shakespearean story ever to exist in Finland ? and there I also tried to get some light into the music.” My own feeling is that the only two overtly “jolly” episodes in Kullervo – a drinking scene that may have been inherited from Madetoja’s Pohjalaisia (The Ostrobothnians), and a scene with a blind singer – sit rather uneasily with the stark power of the rest of the music. Sallinen sees I have misunderstood him. “That may be just a bagatelle in the whole score. What I mean by light is the love of the mother, and the love of Kimmo, too. These are the warm points, the warm surfaces in that music.”

Sallinen had mentioned that he was stripping away the superfluous element from the plot. So how long does he expect his opera to last? “Two-and-a-half hours – as long as Kullervo; and the orchestra is about the same. The main problem at the very beginning was the chorus, because there are actually no texts for chorus in King Lear.” So how has he found his way around this obstacle? “Well, I have different solutions. I have three male trios – the messengers who find Lear at night, and then I have a chorus of knights, and then I use the backstage chorus as well as colour.” Singing wordlessly? “Both. But there are really no great scenes for chorus in that piece.”

Does Sallinen have some large project waiting to be embarked upon once he has finished King Lear? “No, no. I will try to concentrate on smaller pieces – songs, song-cycles, perhaps some chamber music – because writing opera is physically very hard. And, by the way, in two years I will be officially retired! I’m a professor of arts for the state, as you maybe know: 9 April 2000.” Well, with the distraction of mere employment out of the way, he’ll have no excuse not to add to his worklist even more rapidly. “No, I’m joking of course. In this job you die with your boots on!”

“No sun, no start”

As Sallinen mentioned, he has been living in France for some years now – but why France? “France is very important because I need light and sun. I don’t mind so much if it is warm or not, but in our country in November, December and January, and sometimes even in October, it’s very dark. I feel that my batteries need recharged. I’m like a Japanese calculator: no sun, no start. And there are other aspects, of course. For instance, I’ve never been so patriotic as I am now, when you see your own country from outside. I’ve been in France for thirteen, fourteen winters and I have a lot of friends, of course – not so much musical ones, since I’m not so much involved in the musical life in France, but I don’t mind. It’s on the Mediterranean, in a little village between Marseilles and Toulon: it’s not touristy; it’s very French. I wouldn’t like to be in Nice, you know, where people are everywhere. I love this sort of life, and of course it’s a great advantage to have a profession where I can write wherever I will. And the summers I spend in Finland, mainly on the archipelago, as I have done since 1972. So I really feel privileged that I am able to do what I want.”

Sallinen is now in the fortunate position of being able to choose the commissions that suit what he actively wants to compose. He talked about wanting to concentrate on music on a smaller scale; does he nonetheless have some large commissions waiting in the wings, until he is ready to tackle them? “No, I have really kept a very low profile thus far. I haven’t taken any important big commissions. I will see. I’ve been like a racehorse during forty years. I’ve written only commissions, commissions, commissions. When I’ve been working on a big piece like this Lear, I’ve always had something else waiting – and I’m getting older! I’m not young any more, and you can feel it. What it means practically is that you slow down a bit, maybe you have a bit shorter working days.”

Another change that has become noticeable over the years is a lightening in his musical language – it’s less insistent, less dense. “In a way, yes. What is quite clear that I’ve been struggling for is thinner, clearer orchestration, and that brings automatically a lighter language, that’s very true. What is the essential problem of the composers of today is that they write too heavily. Great masses of sound. They speak of colour in music, OK, but there are not so many as talented, for instance, as Magnus Lindberg, who writes really colourful music, intelligent, light, transparent music. Unfortunately, the major part of the composers are having a bath in these sound masses; that is not something that’s of use to me.” One heartening trend in modern music is the rediscovery of a sense of harmonic purpose in the younger generation of composers: George Benjamin in the UK and Esa-Pekka Salonen in Finland, to take just two examples, are now writing music that has a very clear sense of direction; and Lindberg is now composing scores that involve the audience no less than the good ol’ tonal scores of yore – a Lindberg piece leaves you with a very physical form of excitement. “That’s right: it’s very narrative music. I love his music very much, and there are many, many others. Fortunately we have these exceptions.”

But that journey from colourful modernism to purposeful harmonic structures is one that, in his own way, Sallinen has also made: both he and Joonas Kokkonen went through a serial phase before their predominantly tonal styles became established. “I think my career has been for thirty years very clear: not a revolution but an evolution. Two words, a rather simple expression: I invite people who are able to be strong and simple. You can find it in literature and in painting. I think this is something you should really struggle for, because nothing is easier than to write big masses of sound for symphony orchestra.”

A Sallinen Discography

Orchestral Music

  • Sinfonia (First Symphony), Op. 24: Third Symphony, Op. 35; Chorali, Op. 22 (& Cadenze per violino solo, Op. 13; Elegy for Sebastian Knight, Op. 10; String Quartet No. 3 (Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March), Op. 19 – Finnish Radio SO c. Okko Kamu; Helsinki PO c. Paavo Berglund (Paavo Pohjola, violin/Frans Helmerson, cello/Voces Intimae String Quartet)


  • Symphonies Nos. 2 (“Symphonic Dialogue”) and 6 (“From a New Zealand Diary”), Opp. 29 and 63; Sunrise Serenade, Op. 63 – Malmö SO c. Okko Kamu –


  • Symphony No. 4, Op. 49; Cello Concerto, Op. 44; Shadows (Prelude for Orchestra), Op. 52 – Arto Noras, cello, Helsinki PO c. Okko Kamu

    Finlandia FACD 346

  • Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (‘Washington Mosaics’), Op. 57; Shadows – Malmö SO c. James DePreist


  • Symphony No. 5; Chamber Music III (‘The Nocturnal Dances of Don Juanquixote”), Op. 58 (& Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 26) – Helsinki PO c. Okko Kamu; Arto Noras, cello, Finlandia Sinfonietta, c. Kamu

    Finlandia FACD 370

  • Variations for Orchestra, Op. 8; Violin Concerto, Op. 18; Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March; Chamber Music III – Eeva Koskinen, violin, Torleif Thedéen, cello, Tapiola Sinfonietta c. Osmo Vänskä


  • Mauermusik, Op. 7; Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March; Chamber Music I, Op. 38, and III – Finnish Radio SO c. Paavo Berglund/Finlandia Sinfonietta c. Okko Kamu

    Finlandia FACD 026

  • Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March; Chamber Music I, II, Op. 41, and III; Sunrise Serenade – Finnish Chamber O c. Okko Kamu

    Naxos 8.553747F

Chamber Music

  • String Quartets Nos. 1–5, Opp. 14, 4, 19, 25 and 54 – Jean Sibelius Quartet

    Ondine ODE 831-2

Choral Music

  • Songs of Life and Death, Op. 69 (& The Iron Age Suite) – Jorma Hynninen (bar), Opera Festival Chorus, Helsinki PO c. Okko Kamu

    Ondine ODE 844-2


  • The Horseman, Op. 32 – Matti Salminen, bass, Taru Valjakka, soprano, etc., Savonlinna Opera Festival Chorus and O c. Ulf Söderblom

  • The Red Line, Op. 46 – Jorma Hynninen, baritone, Taru Valjakka, soprano, Finnish National Opera Chorus and O c. Okko Kamu

    Finlandia 1576-51102-2

  • Kullervo, Op. 61 – Jorma Hynninen, Eeva-Liisa Saarinen, soprano, Matti Salminen, bass, Jorma Silvasti, tenor, Finnish National Opera Chorus and O c. Ulf Söderblom

    Ondine ODE 780-3T

  • The Palace, Op. 68 – Veijo Varpio, tenor, Jaana Mäntynen, soprano, Savonlinna Opera Festival Choir and O c. Okko Kamu

    Koch Classics 3-6465-2 Y8


  • “Meet the Composer”: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5; Shadows; Sunrise Serenade; Cello Concerto; Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March; Chamber Musics I and III – various artists

    Finlandia 4509-99966-2 (2 CDs)

  • Chamber Music I and II; Quattro per Quattro, Op. 12; Chaconne, Op. 23, for organ; Vintern var hård, Sakura and Simple Simme and Homeless Hamme, Opp. 20, 50 and 40; Four Dream Songs, Op. 30 – various artists


Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju