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Einar Englund – A Controversial Legacy

by Christian Holmqvist

Einar Englund is one of the most controversial composers in post-war Finland. Though regarded by some as a Classicist, he also acquired a reputation as a renegade Modernist. His musical legacy therefore merits reassessment in the permissive musical climate of the 21st century.

The premiere of Einar Englund’s (1916–1999) first symphony in 1947 was nothing short of sensational. “From now onwards we will all be Englundians,” raved Joonas Kokkonen. But he was wrong. When Englund died 52 years later, his once revolutionary style of composition had gradually been pushed to the margins. The only comments still made about him and his music were simplifying generalisations. The obituaries described him as a Neo-Classicist who failed to update his style.  

But was this really true?

Englund’s early period (the 1940s–50s) is generally regarded as Neo-Classical, guided by such composers as Bartók, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. His idiom thus differed radically from that of the National Romantic school then dominant in Finland. Hence he was classed as a Modernist.  

Looking back, it is nevertheless easy to see that he also drew on Finnish tradition. Hovering in the background of his first two symphonies and his Epinikia Overture are the ghosts of Uuno Klami (humour and satire) and Erkki Melartin (counterpoint). His works of that period also bear traces of Sibelian organ-point technique.  

When international Modernism really did reach Finland, Englund did not embrace it. Combining the style of Webern with his epic symphonic approach was, he felt, Impossible. The most experimental avant-garde of the 1960s prompted him to write some reviews that rank among the most vicious ever published in the Finnish music press. Of one concrete tape work he wrote: “It was as if one had stuck one's head in a padded cell occupied by a dozen pathologically bellowing madmen.”  

He then stopped composing for a while. This was generally attributed to the fury and frustration aroused in him by the young generation's mockery of the sacred traditions, but there were other reasons, too: the death of his first wife and his decision to concentrate on his career as a teacher and pianist.


Englund returned to the public eye in the late 1960s. The “mindless time when young composers sawed the legs off grand pianos” was over. His “second period” began. During this period his position in the vanguard of contemporary Finnish music began to be undermined.  

A critique of Englund by Paavo Heininen published in the journal Musiikki in 1976 was to prove particularly influential. For it left the reader in no doubt that the latest Englund works were not on a par with his earlier ones. According to Heininen, Englund could have become a great Modernist had he not retrogressed; the progressiveness of his post-war output had been replaced by regression and recourse to facile solutions.  

But in his works of the 60s Englund had, in fact, abandoned his unequivocally Neo-Classical idiom. This now became more chromatic, while at the same time – paradoxically – giving greater prominence to diatonicism. He no longer kept to sonata form and rondos: his movements and overall constructions are dictated by purely dramatic and psychological considerations. The one-movement fifth symphony (1977), for example, is an unusual take on sonata form, and the sixth (1984) observes both its own motif-technical logic and the inner scheme of its texts, Heraclitean aphorisms.  

Englund also began to favour imaginative and unusual orchestrations not featuring as such in the Neo-Classical lexicon. He introduced cluster textures charged with both colouristic and structural importance, as in the finale of the third symphony (1969–71) and in many sections of the concerto for 12 cellos (1980–81). Beginning with Notturno (1967) for piano, he included 12-tone rows in some of his works, though admittedly adapted to the classical handling of melody and not according to strict dodecaphony.


Viewed retrospectively, Englund’s whole output represented a continuum on which new elements were constantly being added to a Neo-Classical base. This interesting stylistic solution, often yielding some very distinctive sounds, did not meet with the approval of post-1960s Finland. For the attitude at that time was that in order to be recognised as a great master, a composer had to write either ascetic, deadly serious symphonic music à la Joonas Kokkonen or vocal and orchestral textures with non-functional harmonies à la Erik Bergman. There was no room for the third way proposed by Englund.  

Nowadays his reputation is paradoxical. Officially he ranks as a Classicist, but unofficially as a renegade Modernist who, after a promising start, degenerated into a comfort-loving conservative. And he is popular only, so it is claimed, because there is always a demand for musicianly, Neo-Classical music.  

Contemporary Finnish musical culture is, however, more pluralistic than that of previous generations. More traditional styles coexist with Modernism; borders between genres are being crossed and composers can draw inspiration from any period in the history of music.  

The aesthetic field has now expanded sufficiently for Englund’s permissive synthesis of precision craftsmanship and subjective expression to be granted the status it merits. The third way proposed by Englund – Classicism enriched with dramatic irony, colourful scoring and a human message – could be the very way to create something truly new and fresh. Time will tell whether our young composers are capable of taking up the challenge thrown out by him.  

Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju / Music Finland

This article was first published in FMQ 1/2009 and is now (February 2022) republished with the kind permission of the author.

Einar Englund: RUMBA