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Guest column: Losing idealism in translation?

by Johan Tallgren

Johan Tallgren’s FMQ guest column on Sibelius’s birthday, the Day of Finnish Music 2015.

Sibelius lived at a time when idealism prevailed in Finland’s cultural community and a national repository of hopes and ideas was being created. Finland had a burning desire to grow into a civilisation state, and nation-wide funding appeals for the arts were organized. While Sibelius’s personal finances grew more stable, the composer himself grew silent. “The Silence of Ainola” became a concept of mythical proportions.

We forget that considering his lifestyle, Sibelius had a phenomenally long life, enjoying his cigars to the age of 91. Many of his compatriots had stopped composing middle-aged, many died in their sixties, Ernst Pingoud even by his own choice. The spirit of the time tended to consider composers either too radical or too conservative. After premieres of his new compositions, Aarre Merikanto was repeatedly reminded by colleagues how good a composer his father was, yet he did not live long enough to hear his own masterpiece, the opera Juha, being performed.

We can feel proud of our attention to Sibelius. But the way we have treated his contemporaries remains a disgrace.


When listening to certain Finnish works from the beginning of last century, it is obvious that they were composed very much to tailor that particular time. In modern vocabulary, they could be described as “community-minded, empowering works” – a category which, however, very rarely survives the test of time.

Today we have several well-known music institutions, many of which were built by composers – or specialists or consultants as modern language  describes them – as they had to find a way of making a living in addition to composing. We finally have the impressive Musiikkitalo of Helsinki where, in a true Finnish tradition, an unassuming exterior leads to truly original interior spaces. The fact that Musiikkitalo lacks an artistic director or coordination is a curiosity in itself from an international perspective, a bit like a civilisation state without a designated Minister for Culture. The acoustics of the main hall are a subject for endless debate in the music circles. I sometimes wonder whether the acoustics were intentionally designed to divide opinions so that we would have something to talk about during the intermission, and thus avoid discussing interpretations or Finnish cultural politics.

Finland has more conductors signed up with international agencies than any other Nordic country, sometimes making up as much as 10% of an agency’s entire roster of conductors. In cultural export terms, Finland has positioned itself in the field of international contemporary music exports within the classical community better than just about any other country in the world! Despite this, we can only see the strong repertoire by Saariaho, Salonen, Lindberg and Rautavaara joining the Sibelius staples in international concert programming.

It is self-evident that nationality alone makes no obligations for conductors to like the music composed by their compatriots. This observation, however, tells something about the link that was never created during their studies, about the way Finnish music is contextualized in season programming and festivals, and about commissioning choices.


Finland is the land of many orchestras and numerous music festivals. This year we have heard more Sibelius than ever before. However, the opportunities to curate something that is original and offers historical insights into Sibelius’s time were mainly missed. The music of Sibelius’s contemporaries is visibly absent, as well as reflective commissions. Despite many fine performances, the curatorial perspective has often been old-fashioned and pompous.

Our internationally best-known chamber music festival, the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, allocated 3-4% of their program content to Finnish music this year, and half of this quota was dedicated to Sibelius. Many smaller summer festivals did not present any Finnish music whatsoever. This pattern would not go unnoticed in any other Nordic country without polemic discussion. Why do we not know our own history?

One surprising development is that Finnish audiences’ attitudes towards contemporary music are now more positive than ever before, and musicians and orchestras are performing it better than ever. During my time curating the Musica nova Helsinki, and now the Time of Music Festival, I have always witnessed how excited international composers and conductors are about Finnish musicians’ performances. There is thus a real opportunity to build a more extensive awareness about new history in Finland and elsewhere. Even those Finnish works that were considered difficult when they were first performed are now easily mounted.

Today’s young composers have to wait to receive any attention in Finland (unless they are active Twitter users) until they are internationally recognised through winning a competition, or in other words received external validation. Absurdly, this is a reflection of a culture that is too scared to make its own critical decisions and instead relies on the opinions of others. Previously, new works would boldly be commissioned from young composers (who had no competition merits), hoping for the best. Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft represents a triumph from this era. A nod must be given to Veijo Varpio, the former Helsinki Festival director who passed away earlier this year, for displaying the right attitude!

It is great that today’s young composers are offered orchestral workshops where their works get recorded without a live audience. However, it is demeaning to assume that the audiences would not be interested in younger composers, or that those creators would not be interested in hearing the audience’s reactions. A violinist does not practice for the practice room’s benefit. Previously, audiences would listen to new works and talk about ivory towers during intermissions, but this is no longer the case. It suddenly seems like that the all important Audience Development Strategy has taken centre stage instead of new, daring and creative works. Hands up, audiences, if you would rather hear the above-mentioned strategy than a work by a fledgling composer.

I would understand and accept this patronising attitude if Finnish audiences were stupid and conservative, but this is definitely not the case. As a shy introvert myself, I know that we Finns are restrained, but often unusually open. We wish that someone would come and surprise us, something that does not often happen. At their best, Finnish audiences can have an intensity that is seldom present anywhere else.


The arts and music fields have recently been grappling with change. Digitisation and the related dramatic changes in demogracy as well as neo-liberalism have reshaped core values across most of Europe. The already small arts budgets have been brutally slashed. It is already clear that the consequences will be frightening.

Over the last decades, the arts community has accepted new terms into its vocabulary, such as accessible, edutainment, empowering, glocal, gravitas, impact, legacy, sustainability and transformational, to name a few. Many of these power words come from the world of business and the language of managerialism, where achievements and profits are evaluated in clearly measurable ways. It is desirable to achieve more with less, preferably even making a profit in the process.

The outspoken Sir John Tusa, the grand old man of Britain’s cultural politics and former managing director of the Barbican Centre, has for years been identifying strange pirouettes being performed around the above-mentioned words. His wise assessment is that when arts people defend their field, they should use words (or a whole arsenal) that relate directly to the values of the arts world instead of the business world. Perhaps it is important that we ourselves articulate clearly what we are good at and what we are not. A similar awareness in criticism and analysis is slowly establishing itself in Finland, due to sheer necessity. Has the music community already surrendered, as the king of all clichés, the “empowering concert experience”, is now regularly appearing on our cultural pages?

Frie Leysen, the Erasmus Prize recipient and Belgian star curator, crystallized her views about these modern challenges in her fine award acceptance speech last year in Amsterdam: “Have the arts gone too far in political, economic, diplomatic, flirtatious logic? Aren’t we trying too hard to serve political interests by attempting to solve problems that politicians have failed to solve, such as social deprivation, migration and racism? Problems that the arts will not, should not, and cannot solve.”

On Sibelius’s birthday, the Day of Finnish Music, it is good to remember that music is at its best when experienced as music, and art as art. When we believe this, the consequences are impressive.


Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham