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Composers and kids

by Jyrki Linjama

In a book entitled Mielen maisemat ja musiikki (Landscapes of the Mind and Music) Kari Kurkela addresses the problems encountered by the child in learning to play a musical instrument in the light of psychoanalysis and mythology. Lively interaction between training in sensitivity and the constructive channelling of aggression is, he claims, important: so important in fact that without these elements of creativity the child's playing will be reduced to little more than "potty training".

How have composers risen to the challenge inherent in children? By providing them with a potty or with fruitful syntheses of artistic creativity and pedagogical wisdom? By setting themselves up as children’s composers or by recognising the fact that children are ultimately the most unyielding challenge the composer is ever likely to come across (as Einojuhani Rautavaara never tires of pointing out)?

Now the Hungarians, kindred cousins to the Finns, have in the course of this century produced some simply magnificent music for teaching purposes – the names of Bartók, Kodály, Kurtág and Durkó immediately spring to mind. So what about the Finns?

When I was studying composition at the Sibelius Academy, I had virtually no contact with the entire field. So later, when I was composing my first work for children’s choir, the distinguished conductor of a certain distinguished choir soon had to call the rehearsal to a halt “because otherwise there would soon be no choir left”. Luckily I have since acquired more than a nodding acquaintance with children, both as a composer and as a father.

One of the challenges facing the composer is that of gaining a sufficiently profound insight into the psycho-motor skills of the child and of allowing for them without compromising over his artistic integrity. The other side of the coin is the necessity of summoning up courage, of trusting in the child. When the Tapiola Choir sings Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, the chilling cruelty and refusal to compromise give the conventional images of mummy’s little darlings just the shake-up they need. Of the Finnish composers writing for children’s choir, among those who have ventured to take bolder steps are Olli Kortekangas, Rautavaara, and Erik Bergman (in Dreams): mystery, ritual, even shamanism may be far more rewarding for the child than the run-of-the-mill idyllic or playful little song.

Another important question is the emotional content of the music: is it genuinely interesting, or does it bludgeon the child into being naively good and well-trained? Many composers seem to associate children’s instrumental music with well-behaved, stereotyped, at most slightly naive pranks. Luckily there are some exceptions to the rule.


The newest of the new

The two most important commissioners of music for children in Finland have in the past few years been the Espoo music institute Juvenalia (and its chamber music competition) and the Association of Finnish Music Schools, which have together enlarged the repertoire by several dozen works. Let us take a brief look at a few of the most recent ones.

Juhani Nuorvala’s Three Pieces for oboe, trumpet and percussion are absolutely in keeping with the times, adding to the serious music domain a breath of youth culture that must surely appeal to the young student. One would imagine that boys, in particular, who have had enough of the normal sonatina diet fed them by the piano ladies would just love the dry yet saucy rhythms and sounds of these pieces. And surely it is wise to offer the budding musician opposed to all form of authority this side of neoclassicism in such a carefully updated version!

Tapio Tuomela’s Lamento for cello, clarinet and bassoon flouts preconceived ideas in a different way, by modernist means. How unusual and how laudable to provide an outlet for whinging and negative emotions! The grating, extreme sounds are musical through and through and integrate with the whole.

In joining in the everlasting censure of “academic modernism”, it is easy to overlook another aspect of the issue important from the pedagogical point of view. The richness of nuance and layer in the music may teach the young player to be on the alert in a way he never was before. Instead of just meekly ploughing through the sterile page of notes, he is forced to react to the other players, to listen to the sound he is making as part of a rich and living entity. Tuomela is so sensitive to the expressive potential of the many timbres that can be called forth from each instrument that he teaches the student a lot he never knew before about his playing.

Another work by Tapio Tuomela is the Scherzo for piano for four hands and string orchestra. The listener is astounded both by the tension and richness of the fun and games in the work and by the way in which the young players on the record released of it succeed in rising to the challenge.

Erkki Jokinen’s Rise 2 is a classic example of a shift away from conventional writing for the instruments to an intoxicating alchemy of sound: the percussion, clarinet and flute together constitute a rich super-instrument. Technically the work is rather simple and may therefore serve as an excellent introduction to a situation in which the child is no longer either the dominant soloist or the self-effacing accompanist but part of a team creating a series of breath-taking sound events. Music such as this could be an excellent means of educating people for peace, affording the child a genuine experience that difference is not a threat to be combated by making it clear who is the boss. On the contrary: different percussion and wind instruments may together create something more than the sum of their parts; the very encounter may engender new, unheard-of potential. And this is just what is needed: the textural innovations of Debussy placed within reach of the child.

Then again, Harri Suilamo’s Prelim for two guitars (also available as Anfangs… in a solo guitar version published by Ricordi) is an introduction to the full harmonic richness of new music. The luxuriance of the harmony and the unreservedly elevated style are quite a challenge for the young guitarist and we could do with plenty more pieces like these if we are not to degenerate into cave men again (as Rautavaara ironically suggests in a recent essay).

By a funny coincidence the two J. Linjamas – the undersigned and his uncle, Jouko Linjama – contributing to a series of commissions both came up with a set of variations on well-known melodies. My The Sky above is Blue and White for violin and piano is a set of nocturnes and scherzos combining a Finnish folk song with my own dodecaphony-based harmonies and four European composer-godfathers. My practical experiences of rehearsing the work have fortunately been more positive than those of the choral piece I mentioned at the beginning, but even so the work is more difficult than I originally intended. The music acts as an aesthetic signpost pointing towards really difficult violin works along the lines of the Prokofiev and Bartók sonatas, and in composing it I did not in any way try to avoid mystery, cruelty or irony. For teaching an instrument so often seems to mean keeping children well and truly coddled, and the whole serious music culture serves merely to maintain a host of pleasant illusions (as the film The Truman Show so brilliantly points out). The modern composer who goes along with this is not, therefore, on ethically sustainable ground.

Jouko Linjama’s Ten Minivariations on a Well-known Tune for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano (the well-known tune being Happy Birthday To You) combines the most conventional of melodies with sophisticated composing techniques. The result is a touch of anarchy that is absolutely delightful: the uninhibited joy of the child meets the clear, mature wisdom of the professional. This juxtaposition may teach the young player to be critical of, for example, the one-dimensional emotional outpouring that has passed its best-before date.

From what I have just said, the reader may wrongly assume that I don’t like Harri Wessman’s Small Forms for saxophone, oboe and clarinet. But I do! The textures are conventional, the forms could be taken from an elementary textbook on musical theory, and the harmonies and melodies are tame “modernism in moderation”. The composer of Small Forms is, however, an old hand at the game. He demonstrates that a canonised solution has been canonised for the simple reason that on the whole it works. The formal schemes and terms the child has come across in his theory lessons with illustrations from music written maybe centuries ago at last come alive in the pieces his teacher gives him to play, adapted in a way that is rich in nuance and invention. Whereas Jokinen, Tuomela and others may be seen as opening up fascinating new worlds for pupils, Wessman points out clever, inventive ways of travelling the familiar paths. (Wessman takes a critical look at musical stereotypes in his new children’s opera about creepy-crawlies, in the recorder playing of the ant slaves.) This is obviously the work of an experienced teacher with an understanding of children! Wessman has in fact composed a wide variety of music for teaching purposes, starting with the piano. His Khiasmos for violin, cello and string orchestra is pleasantly economical, having a middle section in the nature of a chorale framed by a more scherzo-like mood. The sul ponticello tones give the texture a refreshing tang.

Whereas Wessman’s forte is his cultivated taste, the appeal of Jukka Linkola lies in his spontaneous musicianship. Linkola’s Circles for two pianos (or two pianos and string orchestra) coaxes both striking rhythms and unexpected accents out of the instruments, matching them with translucent, delicately beautiful shades. Linkola has a happy knack of combining the immediacy of light music with the deeper richness of more ‘serious’ art.


Grizzly beards (and downy cheeks)

I have already mentioned the admirable attitude to children and music of Einojuhani Rautavaara. Many of his works have become much-loved classics among Finland’s young singers and players even though the composer never really set out to produce “teaching material”. Technically, the neoclassical Partita and some movements of Fiddlers are probably the easiest of the piano pieces, but the more advanced pupil will revel in such works as Icons and Etudes. Today’s youngsters are so proficient on their instruments that Rautavaara’s first string quartet can well be recommended for youth ensembles, to say nothing of the Banqueting Music for Duke Johan scored for four recorders. And Rautavaara’s Hommage à Zoltán Kodály was originally composed for the Helsinki Junior Strings.

Rautavaara once told the students in his composition class that working with children, and especially the Tapiola Choir conducted by Erkki Pohjola, had taught him so many practical things. While struggling to learn what was to them a very modern work, the children might, for example, develop an urge to sing a particular bar twice over. The very idea might be enough to appal some up-and-coming modern composers, but critical analysis might nevertheless teach the composer something more profound about the way the music naturally breathes, about its inherent time perspective, so that in the end he might well decide to revise his work at that point. If only more composers could bring themselves to engage in similar dialogue with children (as Wessman, too, has pointed out). If a child feels the music does not work, he will not hesitate to say so. But when it does work, he will not be sparing with his praise.

Among the permanent favourites of my own children are some records released by the East Helsinki Music Institute. These are a mixture of exciting stories with the rudiments of solfège and children’s songs arranged by Ilkka Kuusisto and the Hungarian composer Laszlo Rossa, lustily performed by the Helsinki Junior Strings conducted by Géza and Csaba Szilvay. At no point is there ever any compromise over quality, and it is the ‘total experience’ that appeals most of all to children. Watching my 3-year-old son listening enthralled for the umpteenth time to the familiar children’s song in an arrangement full of vitality by Ilkka Kuusisto, I am filled with gratitude: here is someone who really cares for children and who has taken the trouble to produce an artistically ambitious record for a very young audience.

The neoclassically-oriented composer-pianist Einar Englund has written some children’s piano pieces combining inventive structures with piano writing that is natural in the extreme. There is some teaching material among the piano pieces by Tauno Marttinen, such as the impressionistic Glittering, which contains features of aleatory and improvisation to activate the pupil brought up in the conventional notation tradition. Erkki Salmenhaara’s 17 Small Pieces for Piano is likewise popular elementary repertoire.

Usko Meriläinen’s sensitive Tre Notturni is basic repertoire for more advanced pupils. His Riviravi composed in the early 1960s is a collection of little pieces derived from one 12-note row. In style they fall somewhere on the border between neoclassicism and dodecaphony and combine clear, fresh rhythms (At the Clockmaker’s) with harmonies rich in content (Echo). Verging on minimalism is Mikko Heiniö’s Three Repetitive Dreams for piano written in the early 1980s (for more advanced pupils). This, too, develops the pupil’s sense of juxtaposition and nuance as the traditional pairs of opposites undergo strange transformations, merging dream-like with one another (cheerful/sad, superficial/profound, entertaining/threatening). A representative example of minimalism is Olli Mustonen’s static, meditative On All Fours for two pianos, while Pekka Jalkanen’s Bucina for flute, oboe and piano is a soft, gentle application of minimalism.

The early works of Magnus Lindberg include Three Little Pieces for young pianists. While technically a major challenge for children, the most rewarding thing about them in the pedagogical sense is their potential for manipulating time.

The humane attitude to music of Aulis Sallinen makes him considerate of children in his many popular pieces for children’s choir. The violin lessons I was honoured to enjoy at the conservatory were infinitely conservative in terms of repertoire and the first “modern” piece I was allowed to try was Sallinen’s Cadenze for solo violin. As such it was perfect: the music is firmly rooted in the established violin tradition and its tuning in fifths but it nevertheless manages to weave in chromaticism, metres that openly breathe and an organic growth process that forges ahead unimpeded in a way that is quite irresistible. I personally got incurably bitten by the new music bug while practising Sallinen’s Cadenze at an impressionable, important period in my youth. And I fervently hope that as many people as possible may be bitten by the same bug, in one way or another, preferably sooner than later.


The writer is a composer, lecturer in musicology at the University of Turku and father of three children. In addition to the sources quoted, he also discussed the subject of repertoire with piano teacher Katarina Nummi.
Featured photo: Veikko Somerpuro