in From the Archives

French colouring in a Bothnian landscape – Comments on the orchestral works of Leevi Madetoja (1887–1947)

by Jouni Kaipainen

"In a small culture like Finland's, the presence of a sovereign master of his field like Sibelius is bound to have a very deep significance. At least two generations of Finnish composers completed their life's work in his enormous shadow," wrote composer Jouni Kaipainen in his article about Leevi Madetoja, published in FMQ in 1985.

Leevi Madetoja is generally ranked among the most important of those Finnish composers whose careers spanned the first few decades of this century, during a time which was marked in society by unstable political conditions and the struggle to achieve and maintain national independence, and in music circles by the towering figure of Jean Sibelius. Madetoja’s works can be approached from several directions. On the one hand, he is known as a composer of operas, and on the other as the writer of smaller-scale vocal music and songs. His opera The Ostrobothnians, with its powerful local colour, took on a musical shape that clearly appealed to Finnish audiences, and the opera was soon regarded as the country's long-sought "national opera". Madetoja's second opera, Juha, met with rather less goodwill, and the questionable success of the venture presaged a decline in Madetoja's composing career. Nevertheless, Madetoja created some of his best achievements in the realm of vocal music. At bottom he was a lyrist, and he could handle both solo voice and chorus equally well.

In this article we shall be looking at a different Leevi Madetoja – that of the orchestral composer and symphonist. Although his output in this direction was not particularly prolific, and certain of the works involved now appear relatively rarely on concert programmes, there is every reason to regard this branch of Madetoja's art as important on the national level, as well as in terms of his overall career. The symphonies have also aroused a certain amount of interest on the international front.

Leevi Madetoja was born in 1887 in the city of Oulu, capital of the province of Northem Ostrobothnia. As with so many other artists springing from this part of the world, Madetoja's Bothnian background was of central importance to him. This part of Finland, facing Sweden across the northern part of the Gulf of Bothnia, is farming country, with a landscape of never-ending plains stretching in all directions. The flatness derives from the fact that much of this area is made up of the former sea-bed, which has been turned into dry land by thousands of years of slow geological uplifting.

Like the great majority of residents of predominantly agrarian districts, the importance of land ownership has given the Bothnian character a highly-defined sense of independence. This is coupled with the parallel phenomena of on the one hand a limitless longing for freedom, and on the other a tendency towards intensely puritanical living habits, something which derives naturally from the all-powerful desire to make one's house and land successful and of good repute. The search for social respect, carried on as it is here almost without exception throughout an entire large community, leads naturally to puritanical ways and to an ever-tightening spiral of morality and discipline, which finds its clearest expression in the religious life of the society. Bothnia is well-known in Finland as a stronghold for several narrow-minded and even downright bigoted religious sects. The most significant of these sects are the Pietist revivalist movement and the so-called Laestadians. Leevi Madetoja has points of contact with both these groupings. His mother was either a member of the Laestadius sect, or was at least highly sympathetic towards their teachings, since she named her son after the movement's founder, one Lars Levi Laestadius (Madetoja's father was a seaman who died on the Mississippi without ever seeing his son). Then again, in his opera The Ostrobothnians Madetoja creates an impressive picture of the Pietists, to whom one of the two main female characters has turned to alleviate her sorrows.

The most obvious reflection of his Bothnian background to be found in Madetoja's music is his prolific use of folk melodies. Both secular songs and hymns have an important role, as do the spirituals of the followers of Laestadius, which the composer heard in abundance as a child, and to which "Madetoja himself has attributed crucial significance in the formation of his own melodic line" (Olavi Pesonen). Madetoja often used Bothnian folkmelodies as such, but throughout his works we can also find plenty of examples of tunes which are quite the composer's own, though drawing on local folk music patterns. For all this, Madetoja did not succeed in Bartokian fashion in absorbing inwardly all the popular vernacular influences, with a view ultimately to breaking down cultural barriers, and nor was this ever really his aim.

Formal composition studies were not one of Leevi Madetoja's strong suits. From 1906 he studied at the Helsinki Institute of Music, with Armas Järnefelt and Erik Furuhjelm among his teachers, and he was also briefly a private pupil of Sibelius's. It was under Jean Sibelius's direction that Madetoja wrote his diploma-work, the large-scale Piano Trio, Op.1, which was the main item in the first concert devoted to his own works, held in September 1910. Immediately after the concert Madetoja made his first overseas trip, to Paris. The idea was to study under Vincent d'Indy, but the plan rather collapsed when d'Indy fell ill almost at once. Similarly, the next year's studies in Vienna under Robert Fuchs barely got off the ground. To a great extent, Leevi Madetoja was self-taught. He himself once said that he had only begun to study harmony seriously after he had started composing.

Leevi Madetoja By The Piano In 1937 Photo By Pietinen Museovirasto
Leevi Madetoja by the piano in 1937
Photo: Pietinen / Museovirasto

The French connection

Madetoja was by no means the only Finnish composer of his day to set off for Paris in search of a little something extra. At practically the same time Toivo Kuula, another Bothnian, made his way to France. It may well have been a result of Kuula's more melancholic outlook on life and his generally more negative attitude towards new ideas, that of the two it was Madetoja whose music was most lastingly affected by the French influence. In any event it is known that Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande made a great impression on both of them. The same work also subsequentely became important for Aarre Merikanto, six years Madetoja's junior, with whom Madetoja later found himself in competition, when they both composed operas based on the same source, the novel Juha by Juhani Aho.

At the time of Kuula and Madetoja's first visit to Paris, Finnish music had two basic bonds or commitments. The first was, of course, Sibelius, and the second the impact of German culture, the import into Finland of which was very much the responsibility of Sibelius and his mentor Martin Wegelius. French music was regarded as rather strange, and not altogether "the right stuff". Actually not much was known about it, but there was a feeling that its richness of colour was a sure sign of superficiality and lack of any real content. This negative approach was later fuelled by the attitude of Sibelius and the staunchest of his supporters, and it is partly for this reason (and partly because the country's history has been oriented more towards Germany than France) that today one still encounters it occasionally in Finnish musical discussions.

Given this climate, both Madetoja and Kuula could very easily have taken on the mantle of freedom-fighters on behalf of Gallic music. However, neither wished to get heavily polemical about the subject, so that the first steps of "impressionist" music in Finland were rather furtive, "smuggled in" as it were, in the form of tonal and harmonic influences, mainly in Madetoja's compositions.

Madetoja's French connection shows up in his work largely in his orchestrations. His orchestra plays airily and with refinement, a feature which is further emphasised by the almost complete absence of the great pathos associated with the Germanic style. Madetoja cannot be seen as a seeker after new special effects, but rather a composer with a firm control of resources already at our disposal. His orchestral forces follow without exception the norms of the time; only in his pantomime ballet Okon Fuoko does he give the percussion a more extensive role, and this after all takes place at the end of the 1920's already years after Stravinsky's orgies of rhythm.

The French atmosphere in Madetoja's orchestral compositions is further brought out by the structural arrangements he favours. For example, he rather often constructs a kaleidoscopic accompanying figure, in a constant state of slight movement, with hazy harmony, wavering between two keys, and on the top of this shifting platform he allows individual members of the woodwinds to deliver in leisurely fashion their songs, compiled from several short motifs. Debussy's La Mer and Nocturnes are the clear forerunners of the images so created. Similarly, the agile central movements of both these works, or perhaps one of Maurice Ravel's scores, could well be the godfather to any one of the typical ticking background motifs to be found in Madetoja's fast movements. On the whole, Madetoja had an exceptionally soft touch as an orchestrator. His pianissimos are always slender and airy, and the fortissimos play imposingly without being in any way overweight.

Other Gallic traits are not so easy to pick out. In his harmonisations Madetoja perhaps used soft dissonances to a greater degree than did Sibelius, and now and then he runs chords superimposed on each other in the style of Debussy. Tonality remains unchallenged, however, and in this respect, too, Madetoja shows ultimately a "play safe" mentality as opposed to the experimentalist ideas of the French Impressionists. One particular feature in his tonal thinking - and at the same time a new characteristic in Finnish music – is his habit in his multi-movement works of using keys in a very carefree fashion. From time to time, without the slightest ado, he will also wind up a single movement in a different key from that in which it began.

One could also look to the French influence to explain Madetoja's fondness for freely floating rhythms, although on the other hand the roots of this could just as easily lie in his knowledge of Finnish folk music, for instance shepherds' songs and calls. In particular in the later works Madetoja's actual thematic and structural work seems often to be taking a back seat at the expense of lyrical elements. To take an example, many of the individual symphony movements are "beautiful" rather than "tensioned", which says little for the impact on Madetoja of the German symphonic tradition. 

Leevi Madetoja In 1947 Photo C Sibeliusmuseum Archives
Leevi Madetoja in 1947
Photo: Sibelius Museum archives

In the shadow of the giant

In a small culture like Finland's, the presence of a sovereign master of his field like Sibelius is bound to have a very deep significance. At least two generations of Finnish composers completed their life's work in his enormous shadow. In the case of many composers, this state of affairs also had its own impact on the emphasis placed on different types of composition among the composer's output. In one sense Sibelius did of course serve as a stimulating force by showing that it was possible for Finnish music to arouse international interest. On the other hand, however, his impact was inhibiting: if one glances through the works of the composers who followed Sibelius, one can't help noticing the unreasonably large share of all kinds of small pieces at the expense of more substantial works.

What is more interesting, however, is another quite understandable legacy of Jean Sibelius. Those composers working during Sibelius's active career or in the period immediately thereafter tend to have trained their heaviest creative guns on precisely those areas where the maestro had not shown much interest. For example, the trio of Aarre Merikanto, Armas Launis, and Leevi Madetoja found in opera the Finnish musical equivalent of virgin soil. Or we could cite the case of Selim Palmgren, who was doubtless delighted that piano music was never one of Sibelius's strong points, and in particular that Sibelius never composed a piano concerto. Palmgren duly made amends by writing five.

Sibelius's most individual area, the symphony, remained conspicuously untouched for a long period. In fact it was not until Einar Englund in the late 1940's that someone was able to create a Finnish symphony independent from the Sibelian line. Between Sibelius and Englund we can find only two composers who could justifiably be regarded as symphonists. Of these two, Erkki Melartin's series of symphonies suffers from patchiness and the lack of any real personal message. Hence for many years it was Leevi Madetoja who carried the label (and potential millstone) of "the most important Finnish symphonist since Sibelius", although the public at large naturally knew him much better as the creator of The Ostrobothnians, which had fast become the unofficial national Finnish opera.

First steps in orchestral composition

Although Madetoja's musical ideals and temperament were essentially different from those of Sibelius, the great man could not but leave a mark on his younger colleague's music, and particularly his orchestral works. In his first orchestral compositions Madetoja reveals himself as an admirer of Sibelius's First Symphony. He seems to have been attracted by the work's dark, fateful resolutions, an atmosphere which was noticeably missing from the later Madetoja, and which thus shows itself to be a rather unoriginal element. Naturally Tchaikovsky is also lurking in the background, but then his influence had been clear with the young Sibelius, too. Nevertheless, where Sibelius had somehow managed to convert his Tchaikovsky-isms into credible, apparently inevitable gestures, Madetoja appears rather to have grabbed a few useful-looking bits and stuck them on the end of his score without any very good reason.

Thus both Tanssinäky, Op. 11 (Dance Spectacle) from 1911–1912 and the symphonic poem Kullervo, Op. 15 from 1913 are no more than ambitious attempts at saying something weighty. The first-mentioned work combines Viennese rhythms with more sombre tones in a way that automatically brings Tchaikovsky to mind. The choice of the Kullervo story from the Kalevala as a topic for a symphonic composition was, of course, a pretty bold gamble in those days, given that Sibelius had only twenty years earlier made his memorable orchestral debut with just this subject. Naturally enough, Madetoja was not so rash as to aim at a choral symphony on the grand scale, but contented himself with a normal-sized symphonic poem. The piece's biggest fault is its lack of a decent, forward-looking development. As a result a great part of it seems just to slip through one's fingers. Kullervo turned out to be Madetoja's last investigation of the symphonic poem. Thereafter he managed to exorcise his obligatory Kalevala demons in his cantatas Sammon ryöstö (The Abduction of the Sampo), Op. 24 (1915), Väinämöisen kylvö (Väinämöinen Sows the Wilderness), Op. 46 (1919), and Väinämöisen soitto (Väinämöinen's Music), Op. 76 (1935). It must be said, too, that these do not represent the best Madetoja has to offer, nor the best of Finnish composition around the themes of the Kalevala

The first symphony

Leevi Madetoja's Symphony No. I in F, Op. 29 was completed in 1914–1915, and was given its first performance in February 1916, played by the Helsinki Philharmonic under the direction of the composer himself Compared with his Kullervo from some years earlier, the symphony shows Madetoja not only in full control of his resources but he also appears as a rather original handler of the orchestra. The most immediate Sibelian echoes come from the numerous light figures in the woodwind, moving in parallel thirds, and in fact the entire main thematic material of the opening movement, Allegro, with its ringing horn calls and runs, could have been lifted from the world of Sibelius's Third Symphony. But there the similarity ends, for the way in which the main and subsidiary themes are set up against one another is suggestive not of Sibelius but of the influence of French composers. The development is not dynamic, as the best German symphonic traditions would have it be, but when put alongside the corresponding points in the composer's two subsequent symphonies, it is at least energetic and vivid. One original touch is the way in which in the recapitulation the second theme is repeated in E major (having first appeared "correctly" in D flat major), which is perhaps to be interpreted as on advance hint of the entire symphony's tonally surprising close. The Allegro as if dies away, slowing and fading as it goes. The final cadence is rather strange: between the third and first degree chords there is sandwiched a rather surprising dominant seventh on the dominant.

The atmosphere of the slow movement, Lento misterioso, is a combination of French-hued orchestration and folk song· inspired, modal melodies. The accompaniment is tonally drowsy, as if hovering between sleep and the waking state, and the main theme itself seems to find it hard to get moving. Instead it spins out slowly two shortish motifs. Some broad playing in the strings takes the movement towards its first climax, which is characterised by the echoes in the brass of the seconds motif from the main theme. The second section grows from the simple oboe and clarinet fourths motif into a folk song theme; the accompaniment is the jazz-infused "walking bass" of the strings. The recapitulation no longer succeeds in establishing the main key, D major, but in the closing passages, slowed in the extreme, the tonality shifts around to B minor, and not even there do we reach the final tonic triad.

The finale begins in 6/ 4 time with the horn call from the first movement. In other respects, too, the material of this Allegro vivace movement is greatly reminiscent of that of the opening of the work. In the middle, Madetoja has slotted in a minor passage in the woodwinds, with quadruplet accompaniment. The work ends with a slackening pesante, which quite without warning shifts into A major and booms out a triad outside of the original key in the characteristic rhythm of the finale. 

The second symphony

Symphony No. 2, Op. 35 has enjoyed considerable popularity in Finland, one reason for which is almost certainly its familiar northern undercurrent of melancholy. This atmosphere, which stamps a great part of the Finnish music written during the first four decades of this century, does not necessarily strike the same responsive chords in today's listener. As a result, quite a number of once-popular, "important" works that mirrored the national feelings of the day have later found themselves out of favour or even out of mind altogether. In the case of this work, there is every reason to agree with Kai Maasalo's assertion that this "pastoral-elegaic-pathetic" symphony is stamped with "a certain monotonous quality". Maasalo is referring to the first two movements, but the same could just as easily be said of what follows. This does not, of course, actually prevent the symphony from containing some impressive moments.

The Second Symphony appeared in 1918, immediately after the Finnish Civil War. Madetoja's brother had been among those killed in the fighting. The work is dedicated to the memory of the composer's mother. The impact of these events on the symphony's sorrowful, resigned tone is quite clear.

In terms of its form, the Second Symphony is quite original in one or two respects. In the first place, the key in which a given movement starts is not the same as that in which it ends. Further, the proportioning of the separate movements within the work does not conform to the standard practice: the first and second movements are played without a break, and given the relative lack of action in the music the whole so formed puts a strain on all but the most long-suffering of listeners. The third movement is a disjointed combination of scherzo and finale, and the fourth a completely insubstantial slow-tempoed epilogue, rather more a coda linked to the previous movement than a separate unit of its own.

The orchestration is in all respects stylish, and stresses in the right fashion the features peculiar to the work. One speciality is two instruments placed off stage, a third oboe and a fifth horn, whose rubato calls in the various stages of the slow movement bring about echoes of pastoral romance.

In terms of its thematic material Madetoja's Second Symphony falls far short of offering anything very interesting. The stage is held by an accented main subject, energetically circling around the tonal centre, and the majority of the work's other themes are mere variations on this. Madetoja has, however, left his variation-work incomplete: the different variants bear too great a resemblance to the original starting-point, and as a result the symphony takes on an annoyingly mono-thematic character.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, is written in E flat major, but on this occasion the key contains not a trace of the heroism Beethoven brought to it. Everything is presented as if through a glass darkly, carefully, as though afraid that something might break. The music is unexpectedly elegaic in tone, at least when one remembers that this is an opening allegro. An extraordinarily long exposition of the main subject provides advance notice that we should not expect too much by way of drama. The development is quite modest, and thereafter an attractive-sounding F sharp cadence leads peacefully into the recapitulation. The movement does not end in E flat, but closes on a seventh chord on C flat.

The slow movement, Andante, begins in F minor with a distant shepherd's call on the extra off-stage oboe. It is repeated several times and finds a response in the strings, who deliver a variant on the symphony's circular main theme. In the second section the violins present an intense song, rhythmically accompanied by the woodwinds; in the recapitulation the roles are reversed. In terms of its dynamics the movement is classically orthodox, with its two climaxes. The pastoral atmosphere conjured up by the distant shepherd's horn changes periodically for something romantic and forest-like in the shape of a French horn. The close is once again in a different key, on this occasion G minor.

The finale begins, predictably enough, with an energetic recalling of the principal theme. The movement's actual material is made up on the one hand of a strange banal waltz-like jingle, and on the other hand we have reflections from the war in the form of a laboured, rather static march. This concoction does not really gel into a single whole, and the symphony's "solution" is left to the Andantino epilogue, where the key hovers in the no-man's-land between E minor, A minor and C, practically without any chromatic alterations - the modal feel is quite strong. After a long period, free of all taint of anything which could be described as eventful, the symphony closes on E. 

The third symphony

At the time he was composing his Symphony No. 3 in A, Op. 55 Leevi Madetoja was already a fully-fledged composer, in complete control of his art. A glowing optimism suffuses the work, which is without doubt his most successful venture in the symphonic field. It was born out of one of Madetoja's long visits to France, in the winter of 1925–1926, and given its first performance at a concert of his works in April 1926. The symphony could be characterised as a gentle counterpoint of unclouded thoughts. The role of rhythm is more important than in the two previous symphonies, and one comes up against a surprising association: the work seems analogous to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, also in A major. Before we take this too far, however, it should be remembered that Beethoven was a German, a fierce titan, and Madetoja a Finnish lyricist.

The Third Symphony is orchestrated for classical orchestra, and even for Madetoja, its overall sound is exceptionally airy. At the level of microforms, it is dominated by the composer's persistent tendency to repeat everything he has said without any qualms, a feature which has sometimes been put down to the way in which the national epic, The Kalevala, is written, but which is nevertheless not so characteristic of other Finnish composers. The overall shape is outlined easily, and true to the nature of the work, is free of conflicts. The Finnish composer Paavo Heininen has pointed out one characteristic feature of the overall form: if the second and third movements are understood as a single whole, all the movements conform to a common pattern – they contain a peaceful opening section in common time, and a more lively triple time continuation. In this symphony, too, the weighting given to individual movements differs from classical precedent: the first two movements are rather brief compared to the latter two.

The first movement begins with an introduction, Andantino, which presents a charming, pastoral melody, given different guises during the course of the movement. The Allegretto which follows is built on a rhythmically amusing, lilting theme, which appears among other things in canon with itself. The development is more or less non-existent, and after a simple recapitulation the movement fades into silence.

The Adagio proceeds in D minor, and is governed by a theme reminiscent of folk song. In the second section the cellos play a broad singing melody, which the violins take up and imitate. There is a sting in the tail: the brass bring in a fragment of the main subject with staggering power, after which the scene calms down equally abruptly in the space of a few bars.

If the opening two movements are unnaturally short, then the Allegro (non troppo) scherzo is equally remarkable for its great length and eventfulness. Centre stage is held on the one hand by the staccato-chord motif in the brass, and on the other by a triplet ticking from the other instruments which runs throughout. This is one of Madetoja's most common mannerisms, but nonetheless on this occasion it appears fresh and stimulating.

The finale begins with a rather clumsy pesante introduction, which turns out to be something of a red herring. The real action is to be found in a spirited and jolly contest between triple time and common time material, which in all its playful harmlessness is far from the dialectic struggle of strict symphonic tradition; still, it has a capriciousness and personal quality that wins over the last doubting listeners to the side of the symphony. The close is another surpise, since Madetoja decides at the last moment to fade the work to silence, just when the audience have prepared themselves for some energetic closing gestures.

The same atmosphere as pervades the Third Symphony can also be found in the Comedy Overture, Op. 53, written a couple of years earlier. Originally this was to have been the overture to an opera based on the play Nummisuutarit (The Cobblers on the Heath) by Finland's national author, Aleksis Kivi, but nothing came of the idea. The piece is a small hors d'oeuvre in Viennese style, which is not greatly burdened by the Richard Strauss reminiscenses noted by Kai Maasalo among others. 

Okon Fuoko

The most unusual, and in terms of its orchestration the most effective of Madetoja's orchestral compositions is the suite from the pantomime ballet Okon Fuoko, Op. 58, from 1927–1930. The original pantomime drama was written by the Danish playwright Poul Knudsen, and the play was constructed half upon dialogue and half upon mimed expression. Maasalo notes that this heterogenous mixture was found to be "dramatically unsatisfactory" on its first staging in February 1930.

Madetoja's plan was to compile from the Okon Fuoko music three suites, but of these only the first ever saw the light of day. Still, within the framework of the one he did complete, Madetoja succeeds in showing his strength as a master of orchestral colour. With extremely small gestures he conjures up an impressive atmosphere, one which must certainly match closely the fairy-tale, symbolic tone of Knudsen's play.

In the first number, Okon Fuoko, the Dream Wizard, Madetoja paints a portrait of the story's main character, who is a dollmaker. One of his creations comes to life. The music shows Okon Fuoko as a secretive, distant figure. The harmony is in places bitonal, and a soft, deep boom from the tarn-tarn generates a weird atmosphere of mystery. Splashes of colour in the orchestration are provided by castanets, and by Madetoja's delightfully sparing use of the celeste - the fact that the same technique has been tried and tested in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker in no way detracts from the effect.

The second movement, The Guests Arrive, seems to take a back seat in terms of the suite as a whole, and it is also rather brief. The rhythmically quixotic Dance of the Dolls, in quintuple time, starts with what must at the time· have been a very long and pronounced percussion duet (side drum and claves). The upward staccato arpeggio develops in the course of the dance into a rich flight of fancy.

The final movement is a combination of three different numbers: The Man's Dance, the Women's Dance, and the Grotesque Dance. The main weight is placed on the last of these, which is an exciting blend of 7/8 and 3/4 time – the first of which Madetoja has for some reason best known to himself marked as "three and a half over four time". The model could well be the Danse générale finale of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, since Madetoja's grotesqueness is largely based upon a doggedly repeated woodwind phrase. Madetoja does not perhaps generate out of his orchestra quite such a wild closing climax, but by the norms of this suite the close is certainly highly effective.  


Translation William Moore

The author of this article, Jouni Kaipainen [1956–2015], can lay claim to a certain kinship with his subject, since he, too spend much of his childhood in Oulu, and he has recently made several longish visits to Paris for a breath of Gallic air. Kaipainen is one of the most highly-regarded representatives of the younger generation of Finnish composers; he was a prize-winner in an UNESCO international composing competition in 1981, and in the following year he took the “Spurs of Criticism” award, made annually by the Union of Finnish Critics. The concert of Kaipainen’s works given in Helsinki in 1984 was a great success with both puplic and press alike.

This article was first published in FMQ 3–4/1985 and is now (April 2022) republished with the kind permission of the author’s family.