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Erkki Melartin - a symphonic composer of international stature?

by Osmo Tapio Räihälä

It is finally time for Erkki Melartin to emerge from “the shadow of Sibelius”, nearly 63 years after his death. Is Melartin a symphonic composer of international stature or merely one of those “harlots and their pimps”, as Gustav Mahler termed the “national geniuses” in music?
The shadow of Sibelius is an utterly fascinating phenomenon. In the normal course of things, the Björn Borg phenomenon is the rule: one supremely talented figure attracts potential talent that is not only noticed but actively searched for. What happened in Finnish music in the wake of Sibelius was the exact opposite.

Sibelius was creating a fantastic international career before the First World War and attained a permanent standing in concert repertoires throughout the Western world – so much so that he is widely regarded as the most significant 19th-century composer of the 20th century. Regardless of this, it was difficult for other Finnish composers, however talented, to gain any kind of international recognition after him. Any ground won was soon lost. It was not until the past two decades or so that some few Finnish composers have achieved genuine international recognition, such as Sallinen, Rautavaara or Lindberg.

Why was this? Since the music of Sibelius cannot be decisively ranked as “better” on any unambiguous scale than the music of Leevi Madetoja, Aarre Merikanto or Erkki Melartin, for instance, must we be content with the explanation that Sibelius just had better timing, or perhaps even just better luck?

It is true that the music of Sibelius was championed by influential music writers and vociferous conductors, and the Violin Concerto was a real hit. Still, Erkki Melartin had a composition concert in Berlin in November 1923, with the composer himself conducting the Berlin Philharmonic – an achievement as fantastic for a Finnish composer then as it would be now.

Melartin was well known in Scandinavia and in Central and Western Europe too, at least in professional circles. He had no lack of good contacts. He spoke numerous languages, and thus did not even qualify as a typical backwoods Finn who is unable to market himself.

Symphonies without proponents

Melartin considered himself primarily a symphonic composer, and he had no difficulties in getting his works performed. It is thus astonishing that Melartin’s symphonies have not been published. Only the last one, the Sixth, has appeared in print, and even this was due to his Danish friends Nanni and Frits Jarl, who donated the printing to Melartin for his 60th birthday and to whom the symphony is also dedicated. Is this an explanation for why, after Melartin’s death in 1937, his symphonies have been seldom performed in Finland and abroad scarcely ever – Melartin’s symphonies had no proponents? The symphonies were revived in the 1990s in a series of recordings made by the Tampere City Orchestra under Leonid Grin for the Ondine label. The Violin Concerto has now been recorded too, also by the Tampere City Orchestra, which has shown an admirable amount of interest in supposedly obscure Finnish composers. The orchestra’s symphonic repertoire has included names like Erkki Aaltonen and Truvor Svento, who are nowhere near as significant as Melartin.

It is utterly amazing that publishers have not been interested in Melartin’s symphonies. One would have imagined that even before his composition concert in Berlin it would have crossed the minds of Central European publishers that there must be other cash cows in Scandinavia besides Sibelius – after all, the music business was a grim struggle in those days too.

Prof. Erkki Salmenhaara wrote in Suomen musiikin historia (History of Finnish music) that the symphonies of Melartin are well up to international standards. Proving this has been another thing altogether, since the scores exist only as scruffy photocopies of Melartin’s ancient scrawls and of manuscript copies made by heaven knows who. Significant symphonies, indeed!

The Björn Borg phenomenon did manifest itself once when Sibelius refused a chair at Rochester University. Selim Palmgren was eventually appointed instead. Never mind which composer, as long as he is Finnish


The healing effect of work

Erkki Melartin was born in the rural parish of Käkisalmi in Karelia in 1875. In the Second World War, the area was ceded to the Soviet Union. Although Melartin moved to Helsinki to study at an early age and stayed there permanently apart from a few years in Viipuri, he remained a fundamentally Karelian composer. He emphasized this by using Karelian motifs in his works. His output was extensive; although it has only 189 opus numbers, these represent a total of nearly 1,000 compositions. This is a lot, especially considering Melartin’s weak health. It seems that sanatoriums did him little good – the composer evidently felt better only when he was working at full tilt.

Apart from the six symphonies, Melartin wrote a post-Wagnerian opera, Aino (1909), countless choral and solo songs, incidental music and chamber music and the magnificent Violin Concerto recently resurrected by violinist and conductor John Storgårds. Apparently it was Melartin’s dream to reach the magic total of nine symphonies, but he never completed more than a few sketches for the Seventh and the Eighth, and the Ninth existed only as an entry in his composition plan at the moment of his death.

Melartin’s prolific and multi-faceted output was also a liab ility: he has often been dismissed as a salon composer, perhaps because of his light-hearted miniatures. This is a gross injustice to him, since all of his work displays a solid command of technique, regardless of form or expression.

Melartin was a tireless seeker who gathered influences from hither and yon: his music betrays the influence of Bruckner and Mahler as well as the turbulent Impressionism of Debussy. The Modernism of the 1920s also left its mark on Melartin: his later works contain Expressionist features, questioning the late Romantic tonal environment of his earlier works. However, classical counterpoint and folk music remained essential features of his work throughout his career.

Apart from his composing, Melartin held the post of director at the Helsinki Conservatory – later the Sibelius Academy – for 25 years and taught nearly all emerging Finnish composers of any significance in the 1920s and ’30s. Melartin was also an amateur painter and even held two solo exhibitions.


Symphony no. 1 in C minor op. 30/1

Duration: 25 minutes

Adagio – Allegro molto moderato ed energico
Scherzo (Allegro vivace)
Finale (Allegro vivace)

The influence of Gustav Mahler is particularly evident in Melartin’s symphonies, and no wonder: Melartin studied in Vienna at the turn of the century, at the same time as Mahler was at the peak of his conducting career. Some years later, Melartin himself conducted the first performance of Mahler in Scandinavia. Although Melartin could be considered one of the “national geniuses” which Mahler, somewhat unjustifiably, held in contempt, his symphonies too contain grand effects, late Romantic pathos and folk-like motifs that border on the banal. Like Mahler, Melartin managed to turn banality to his advantage through pure sincerity.

The First Symphony was completed in 1902, and Melartin was careful – consciously or unconsciously – of treading in the footsteps of Sibelius, who had made his debut as a symphonic composer only a few years earlier. The premiere of the symphony in the following year attracted much interest, since at the time symphonic composition had only been seriously practised in Finland (apart from a few curiosities) by Sibelius and Ernst Mielck, who died of tuberculosis at the early age of 21 in 1899. Although the symphony was well received, Melartin refashioned the work in 1905.

The opening movement is in sonata form; it is a dramatic outreach towards the Mahlerian sound ideal. The fifths and octaves of the main theme hark back to Bruckner. As the final third of the movement begins and the music turns into a major key, the orchestra abruptly stops playing and a stroke on the gong is heard – an excellent dramatic moment. The main theme recurs like a leitmotif in the later movements. The Adagio, which is in E major, begins with a broad string theme that becomes more passionate and is repeated on horns and trumpets. The snare drum and bass drum pitch the music into a more feverish drive, but the movement concludes in a slower, lyrical mood.

The Scherzo became a popular concert piece in its own right in its day. The main reason for this was probably the folk song incorporated into it, Ol’ kaunis kesäilta (It was a fair summer evening), since when the symphony was written, Finland was being oppressed by the Russian government, and any reference to a Finnish subject constituted a political gesture and aroused national feeling. The quote is particularly delicious in that the duple-time melody is grafted onto a triple-time accompaniment.

In the finale, the most conspicuous theme is the one that later appeared fully developed in Melartin’s best known incidental piece, the Juhlamarssi (Festive march) to the music for Prinsessa Ruusunen (Sleeping Beauty). The concluding movement is a good example of Melartin’s penchant for counterpoint to bind together several motifs.


Symphony no. 2 in E minor op. 30/2

Duration: 28 minutes

Andante tranquillo
Scherzo (Allegro vivace)
Finale (Vivace)

The Second Symphony differs most conspicuously from its predecessor in that it is ostensibly in a single movement. Although it can be easily analyzed into a traditional four-movement symphony, Melartin did not make the boundaries between the movements clear – otherwise, he might as well have numbered the movements as usual and indicated that they were to be played attacca. The actual form brings out the single-movement structure better, enabling Melartin to use themes across the section boundaries.

The premiere of the Second Symphony was almost as eagerly expected as that of the First. It took place at Melartin’s composition concert in Helsinki on February 1, 1905; the Symphony was in fact completed in the previous year. Melartin was clearly determined to establish himself as a symphonic composer, since around this period he wrote three symphonies within a short space of time.

Melartin himself presented an exhaustive thematic analysis of his new symphony in issue 2/1905 of the periodical Finsk Musikrevy. The themes are, if not programmatic, clearly defined in their moods and described by the composer as, for instance, the “threatening fifth motif,” the “battle motif,” the “cry-for-help motif,” the “lonely autumn melody” and the “bellicose theme.”

The bellicose theme is the main subject of the first section, and it is referred to several times later. The second subject, appearing in the Andante section, is strikingly similar – even harmonically – to the second subject of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony, written 20 years later. The Scherzo section in E minor is in a brisk tempo, slowing down in the major-key Trio. The ominous theme of the opening returns at the end of the Scherzo.

As in the First Symphony, the proportion of counterpoint in the texture increases as the finale begins, a hallmark of Melartin’s. In the main theme of the finale, the composer identified a “Karelian national” tone.


Symphony no. 3 in F major op. 40

Duration: 35 minutes

Allegro moderato
Scherzo (Vivacissimo)

Melartin’s Third Symphony was his first in a major key. Here, he returned to the four-movement format and an idiom closer to the world of the First Symphony. The atmosphere is dual: bright moments are juxtaposed with more sombre motifs.

The Third Symphony was premiered at Melartin’s next composition concert in 1907. He refashioned the work in the following year. He sidestepped direct comparisons with Sibelius by sticking to his chosen mode of expression in which a symphony was to contain, if not “the whole world,” at least “the whole of Finland,” albeit there are no actual folk song quotes in this symphony.

The Brucknerian main subject of the first movement appears in every movement of the symphony. The Allegro moderato is many-faceted: ethereal string tremolos and quiet moments are set against more dramatic turns where the main subject appears in both major and minor keys. The first movement contains a lot of powerful brass.

The sombre Andante opens with a harmonic continuum for winds. According to Salmenhaara, this was the first Finnish application of Schönberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie principle. Melartin was not acquainted with Schönberg’s theories, though. The funeral march after the main culmination of the movement associates immediately with Mahler’s mournful processions. The main subject of the symphony arches magnificently over the march.

The Scherzo, contrary to usual practice, is not a light-hearted intermezzo but the most weighty movement of the entire work. It contains catchy themes and a Trio featuring a trombone section against which Melartin wrote “Todes Koral” in the score. The Trio is written contrapuntally throughout.

The finale of the symphony is also Mahlerian, being a slow Largo that nevertheless is a far cry from Mahler’s gargantuan symphonic finales in several respects – it is fairly short, to begin with. Despite its slow tempo, the finale brings the threads of the symphony together and features the main subjects of all preceding movements.


Symphony no. 4 in E major op. 80 ‘summer’

Duration: 42 minutes

Allegro moderato
Scherzo (Vivace)

The Fourth Symphony was premiered in 1913, two years later than Sibelius’s similarly numbered symphony that had provoked deep confusion. No wonder then that Melartin’s symphony was received much better, being in a lucid vein as its sub-title shows. It even contained nationalistic stylistic allusions and a direct quote from the well-known “Summer Hymn”. However, Melartin was not just trying to score cheap points; his Fourth Symphony is generally regarded as one of his most masterful works, and it is without doubt the most popular of the six symphonies. It is also the most extensive. The first version must have lasted close to an hour, but the composer later revised the work on various occasions.

The opening Allegro moderato is sunny, with an airy and rhythmic main subject. The music is not all bliss, though; the second subject progresses unexpectedly into a passionate and dramatic march that breaks off at its high point into an impressive general pause, after which silent string chords conclude the movement.

The Scherzo, being here the second movement, is brisk. The Trio brings the traditional pool of tranquillity into this playfulness, which is augmented by the xylophone and solo timpani. The theme of the Trio is a counterpoint exercise: an inversion of the main subject of the first movement in triple time.

The most striking feature of the Andante movement is the trio of female singers and the folk song they sing. The solo violin plays a grand glowing Romantic theme. The meditative motif of the soprano is based on the “Birch aria” from the opera Aino, which Melartin had completed three years earlier. The second song presented by the trio is an enchanting stylized folk song.

The finale is a robust rondo. The timpani and strings lead into a new version of the symphony’s main theme. The finale too is lucid and goes through several themes before launching into the “Summer Hymn” as a solemn chorale. While the melody is of Swedish origin, it is well known to all Finns and carries National Romantic overtones.


Symphony no. 5 in A minor op. 90 ‘sinfonia brevis’

Duration: 32 minutes

Intermezzo (Allegro moderato)
Finale (Largo – Allegro moderato)

The Fifth Symphony, premiered in January 1916, is sub-titled Sinfonia brevis, which cannot refer to the proportions of the work: it has four movements and lasts over half an hour and is thus a full-sized symphony.

The Fifth is also the most clearly characterized of Melartin’s symphonies: the quiet, low, sombre tones are so powerful in the first three movements that the brightening finale only partly lifts the dark mood. The music is not melancholy, however; even at the quietest moments it is meditative. It does contain passionate outbursts too.

The first two and last two movements are played without a break, but the boundaries are clear. The airy main subject and fragmentary second subjects recur in later movements. The first movement contains an allusion to a hymn theme that takes centre stage in the finale. The Moderato movement ends with a quiet pizzicato coda for cello and double bass, leading into the Andante, where Melartin skilfully blurs the sense of key with woodwind figurations. The third movement is a meditative Intermezzo instead of the usual Scherzo. Its most notable feature is the folk song theme played by muted violins.

The finale is a battle between a fugue with four subjects and the hymn theme referred to in passing in the first movement. Starting in a slow tempo, the music moves towards a grand climax, after which the hymn theme and the fugue (proceeding in stretta canons) alternate until the constantly modulating hymn theme triumphs and concludes the symphony majestically. The finale of the Fifth Symphony is Melartin’s most dextrous display of counterpoint.


Symphony no. 6 op. 100

Duration: 35 minutes

Andante – Allegro moderato

Finale (Allegro con fuoco – Allegro moderato)

The Sixth Symphony was the crowning achievement of Melartin’s symphonic output. It was completed in 1924 and premiered at the composer’s 50th anniversary concert in the following year. The impact of the fiery Modernist trends of the 1920s can be discerned in Melartin’s music: for instance, the Sixth Symphony has no key signatures, there is significantly less counterpoint and there are large harmonic clusters, particularly in the first movement. However, his idiom remained largely melodic, although there are no folk song motifs in the Sixth Symphony.

Originally, the work bore the sub-title Elementtisinfonia (Symphony of the Elements), since it compared well with the four elements of Antiquity: earth, water, air and fire. Melartin ultimately rejected this interpretation and emphasized that the music was absolute in nature.

The first movement emerges from primordial darkness in a quiet double-bass ostinato that grows into a six-note whole-tone chord. The main subject, presented by the horns, and the second subject that crosses it are reminiscent of Mahler. The chromatic other second subject is passionate and defies tonal identification. The tritone is an important harmonic component in the first movement.

The second movement has often been described as lacking in thematic profile, but in my view its function is to detach the listener from the demonstrative first movement. The vaguely Japanese motif in parallel fourths remains a surprisingly sketchy gesture that is never developed further. The pentatonic theme of the Scherzo is also never re-introduced. The tritone motif of the opening movement does appear in the Scherzo, but the main subject of the symphony does not.

The finale starts off like fire, and the original main subject here occupies centre stage. Melodic richness is the key element, above all in the graceful cantabile second subject played in the cello’s high register. The symphony concludes with pompous declamation and ends Melartin’s cycle of symphonies with bravado.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 1/2000

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