in From the Archives

Kalevi Aho: a composer of moods

by Kimmo Korhonen

"Art should be able to stir us, to wake us from our dreaming and our torpor, so that we should be forced to take a stand on the work and explain to ourselves what it means. If a composition is capable of this, then it has at the same time been able to activate the listener both emotionally and intellectually."

Few composers can have managed to establish a place for themselves in Finnish music as quickly as did Kalevi Aho (b. 1949) during the early 1970s. He made his name right at the beginning of the decade with two large works: Symphony No. 1 (1969) and String Quartet No. 2 (1970). In these early compositions Aho leant stylistically on clearly traditionalist ideals, which certainly did not hinder the cementing of his position as a composer popular with concert-goers. Before very long he was being seen as the mantle-bearer of the older generation of Finnish composers, in particular Joonas Kokkonen (b. 1921) and Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935), as a tradition-conscious writer of large works.

But already by the mid-70s there were signs that Aho's aims were moving towards a new set of stylistic ideals. The neoclassical/post-Romantic world of the early compositions began to crumble, and in a few works it developed into a modernism which in the 1980s was followed by a kind of synthesis of broadly differing stylistic blends. With Aho, however, these stylistic dimensions do not always follow one another in clear chronological order, often appearing instead in parallel or superimposed strands. The fact that Aho often combines differing styles even within the same work would seem to point towards a postmodernist stance. The placing of a character like Kalevi Aho in the stylistic field of the music of our time ­– though perhaps "stylistic battlefield" would be a more apt expression – is thus not without its pitfalls.

There are nevertheless more or less permanent features to be found. One such is the tendency – shown right from his First Symphony – towards irony, sometimes concealed, sometimes so blatant as to be approaching parody, on some occasions nostalgic, on others tragic. Aho's music is also shot through with opposing emotional states – for example the sublime and the grotesque, the pathetic and the everyday – a sharp and conscious contrasting and shattering of explicit moods which suggests a spiritual affinity with Mahler. Other signposts in the direction of Gustav Mahler are Aho's use of stylistic borrowings and allusions and his attraction towards imitations of waltzes, marches, and fanfares. All in all we are dealing here with a fertile multiplicity of expression.

The use of this sort of heterogeneous material as the building blocks of an individual work gives rise to murmurs of a composer guilty of an "impure aesthetic", to whom composing seems more directly than for most a means of setting out and shaping a world, perhaps even altering it. Aho himself has observed: "Music, at least great music, is for me one manifestation of feelings and movements of the spirit. In music I can hear one person speaking to another, I can hear his joys, his sorrows, his happiness, his desperation. And in the composition as a whole I hear his attitude to life, his outlook, his vision of the world – in a nutshell his message." Looked at in this light at least, Aho the composer is concerned at least as much with the "ethical" as the "aesthetic" side of things.

Aho is a spontaneous type of composer, for whom all things of a structural mien are alien; neither dodecaphony, serialism, nor for instance the use of statistical methods have aroused his interest – at least not as a basis for his own writing. For Aho compositions are akin to a spiritual process. He brings this out by referring to "the abstract plot" in the background to the form of his works. A narrative logic is typical of Aho's approach to form, in which the most clear-cut fixed points are climaxes prolonged into monumental-chaotic events, taking on the nature of decisive battles in which we approach close to the ultimate questions.

Second-generation neoclassicist

Aho's compositions studies under Einojuhani Rautavaara at the Sibelius Academy ran from 1968–71, and he undertook further work at the Staatliches Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in West Berlin with Boris Blacher from 1971–72. Thus both Aho's debut compositions – Symphony No.1 (1969) and String Quartet No. 2 (1970) are student works, providing evidence of a natural and precocious control of large forms. This well-received opening salvo pointed the way forward, at least in the sense that the symphony and large-scale chamber music were to dominate Aho's output during the 70s.

Aho's stylistic point of departure was that of a kind of second-generation neoclassicism. In other words, he did not do his stylizing with classical exemplars called up from the 18th century, but took as his model neoclassicism as a ready-packaged stylistic concept. In the works from this period Aho is particularly engrossed on contrapuntal writing, something accentuated further by the appearance of fugatos and fugues in several works. In their responses to the early works commentators were eager to pick up traces of the influence of Shostakovich, which strained and blurred the profile for the man still long after traces of the Russian master had disappeared from Aho's music. Perhaps the many stretched climaxes, a certain massiveness about the expression, and a powerful emotional pathos are the longest-surviving features of Aho's music which hint at the figure of Shostakovich.

In the First Symphony the polyphonically structures and serious outer movements frame two movements marked by an odd humorous touch. The first of these is a waltz, the main theme of which is delivered by solo violin and is a variant of the fugue theme encountered in the opening movement. When the same theme returns in inverted form a third time in the finale, it is possible to speak of a clear thematic invention. The irony contained in the waltz, which veers towards the tragic at the close, is continued in the third movement, where the baroque-shaded main theme is again given to the solo violin. With its unobtrusive irony Aho's 1st Symphony manages to rise above its rather simple raw materials; what is important is not what ingredients are being used but how they are employed, such that the whole is in some essential fashion greater than the sum of its parts.

Although the three-movement 2nd String Quartet does not conjure up such an extensive world of associations as does the symphony, it brings a new feature to Aho's music: the virtuoso pace of the headlong central movement. The key changes, coming thick and fast in places, the coarseness of the sound, and the dense chords all led the listener's thoughts in the direction of Bartók.

The most grandiose manifestation of the contrapuntal approach that dominates Aho's early works is the single-movement Symphony No. 2 (1970), which takes the form of a vast triple fugue. The three different fugue themes generate three different kinds of music: the chromatic first theme a heavy and anguished "slow movement", the long Iines of the second theme a lyrical and comforting "intermezzo", and the striking and brisk third theme a virtuoso "scherzo". At the climax Aho – clearly knowing his fugue technique and not afraid to show it – has all three running side by side. As an epilogue, the Symphony offers a Mahler-like funeral march, in which the lines from the woodwinds break up the otherwise unambiguous atmosphere.

At least on the level of expression the overall form of the First Symphony and the 2nd String Quartet can be described as symmetrical. In his String Quartet No. 3 (1971) Aho takes this principle considerably further, although he claims to have arrived at his choice of form more by accident than anything else. The work is built up of eight short movements played without a break. The fourth and fifth movements form the central axis about which the work hinges to return towards its beginning. By the close, however, the initial material has been warped into a caricature of itself, in which parallel seconds score into the texture. The quartet is at its most modern in the complex and dissonant polyphony of the fourth movement.

During the 1970s symphonies were the leading edge of Aho's stylistic development. Hence Symphonies No. 3 & 4 from 1973 already represent a new phase. By contrast, the Oboe Quintet which followed them in the same year can more easily be slotted into Aho's "neoclassical period" than tied to any new departures. It is more lively, natural and "performer-friendly" than its predecessors on the chamber music side, and not so much room has been left for contemplation.

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Kalevi Aho by Maarit Kytöharju / Fimic.

Towards stylistic change

Aho's Third (1971–73) and Fourth Symphony (1972–73) were written in part side-by-side; in fact the 4th was completed slightly earlier. This contiguous process of writing has meant that there are connections between motifs in the two works. More important, however, is the fact that both symphonies represent a new musical world-picture; we could speak here of a "decaying neoclassical" period. The musical material becomes increasingly heterogeneous, the emotional content more complex, the opposites more dramatic, and the surface of the works more ruffled and broken. At this point, too, the share of traditional counterpoint falls off noticeably.

The Third Symphony is something of an exception among Aho's symphonies in that it contains an extensive solo violin part. The cadenza-like outer movements, written for a small group of players, frame two full-blooded orchestral movements. The first of these – the dramaturgical fulcrum of the work – is a frenzied combat between soloist and orchestra, and the second an elegy scored only for the orchestra; which might be taken as a few well-chosen words in memory of the poor soloist crushed in the struggle that has gone before.

The three-movement Fourth Symphony opens in the fashion of Aho's early works with a fugato, the theme of which provides the core of the material for the first movement. The motif also makes a fleeting appearance in the two following movements, and could thus be dubbed the main theme of the symphony. Both this thematic approach and the influence of Shostakovich thereafter disappear from Aho's music. The most important stylistic departure comes in the second section of the final movement, in the arrhythmic wind texture which forms itself into a boiling, bubbling surface devoid of anything to hang on to.

At around the time he was putting the finishing touches to the two symphonies Aho was also working on his first solo instrumental piece, the 22' Sonata for Violin, his own instrument. He begins this technically demanding sonata with a free chaconne, and climaxes it with a fugue on the familiar B-A-C-H motif, which is elsewhere well to the fore in the piece; both gestures are evidence of Aho's links with tradition. Even more virtuoso demands are made on the performer in Aho's other work for solo violin: Solo 1 (Tumultos), from 1975.

The most important shift in Aho's output comes with the Fifth Symphony, the work that dominates the composer's music in the mid-1970s. And yet a couple of the three large chamber compositions which followed the 5th Symphony side themselves more with the earlier stylistic phase, or at best take up a position in the middle ground on the way to the modernism contained in the symphony. Here again we encounter the idea of the symphonies as the leading-edge of Aho's development.

Of these three chamber pieces, the Quintet for Bassoon and String Quartet (1977) comes closest to the pre-change Aho. The composer makes use of a broad spectrum of styles, all the way to parodies of the classical opera overture and the familiar accompanying figure from Schubert's Ständchen. As the work progressed so the parody and humour make way for an increasingly disillusioned expression. With the close comes subjection and the break-up of the music into fragmentary emptiness.

The Chamber Symphony was written in 1976 for a 20-piece string orchestra, and belongs more to the world of the string quartets than that of the symphonies. ln a great climax its otherwise rather rectangular rhythm splinters into several overlapping planes, with extremely dense and complex harmonies for good measure. To sign off, Aho repeats the music of the opening powerfully in a new guise, as if seen from a new perspective. In the closing pages, the music decays into fragments picked out over a quiet duster, much as in the Bassoon Quintet. The Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Viola, and Cello (1977) begins with stabbing clusters, and thereafter the cluster technique takes tums with a more traditional expression, distantly reminiscent of the early neoclassical Aho.

The turning-point: two modern symphonies

Symphony No. 5 (1975–76) is the key work in Aho's stylistic turnabout, and one of the cornerstones of his output as a whole. It is both the synthesis of the multiple styles and moods of his earlier works and yet at the same time its modernism opens up the gate to a new era. It is a shocking work, a great boulder of music in a single movement, and in its strength and weight undoubtedly his ultimate achievement.

There is a non-musical spur in the background, which the composer has noted as follows: "My Fifth Symphony starts from the thought that hardly anything in life is perfectly complete and unambiguous. The world itself is chaotic and full of conflicts... Even in our greatest emotional experiences there is often something disturbing or contrasting – sadness can impinge on joy, and grief can be jangled by the trivial and the comic."

In the earlier Aho works these feelings have been contrasted as consecutive events. Here they are concurrent. Thus the musical texture disintegrates into two or more independent "component musics" or "musical planes". The polyphony of melody has become a polyphony of musics, which makes the overall texture exceedingly complicated. In the largest of the climaxes there are pages and pages where it is impossible to shape anything out of the score but a tumult of dozens of melody-lines ricocheting off in differing directions. The style of the various component musics involved ranges from late Romanticism and a Hindemithian neoclassicism right up to cluster techniques and the aleatory.

The Sixth Symphony (1979–80) takes to its logical conclusion Aho's 1970s development as a composer constantly modernizing his stance and adopting the resources of the time. Here he has abandoned the use of concurrent musical planes found in the previous symphony. The chromatic lines feature bold use of intervals and are counterbalanced by massive, dissonant clumps of sound or a texture remotely reminiscent of Ligeti's webs. What is new is the second movement's delicate and aphoristic expression; in sound if not in structure it can be compared to Webern. Another new departure is the use of microtone harmonies here and in the last movement, where they build into a static pianissimo field. Of the four movements, the first and third are precipitous and massive, the second and last soft and unassuming. The main weight is placed unusually on the opening movement, which corners for itself half of the entire symphony.

The short orchestral work Hiljaisuus (Silence) from 1982 continues the field techniques of the Sixth Symphony.

ln 1980 Aho wrote: "Modern music should stem from modern sources. Just as the world cannot hope to go back to an earlier era, the composer of today cannot resort solely to a style whose time has passed and gone. The composer who does so only shows himself to be living through an unreal, specious daydream." Aho would hardly have been the man to have written this ten years earlier, at around the time of his first two symphonies.

The Key

Although in one interview Aho has observed that literature may have influenced his artistic outlook more than music, vocal music does not play much of a part in his output. The latter half of the 1970s saw three short works for choir and Kolme laulua elämästä (Three Songs about Life) for tenor and piano.

The vocal medium is, however, exploited most fully in a genre that made its first appearance in the late 1970s, the chamber opera Avain (The Key, 1978–79; libretto by Juha Mannerkorpi), "a dramatic monologue for baritone and chamber orchestra". Amidst the veritable flood of 70s Finnish operas deriving their material and feel from the country's history, folk traditions, and national classics, The Key was exceptional in both its theme and the composer's approach to the task. ln Aho's work the sole character, a lonely translator named Johannes Ponto celebrates his 50th birthday. ln the course of the drama his articulation shifts from normal speech through a series of intermediate stages to aria-like expression at the same time as the character himself slides in waves from complete awareness towards a world of fantasy and the subconscious. 

The chamber orchestra score often takes itself off from the soloist, in places remaining simply as a suggestive backdrop, elsewhere containing details hinting at musique concrete, by means of which Aho paints a landscape of the soul and the surroundings of a distressed and solitary urban being.

Chamber music and solo works from the 1980s

In the 1980s – after the arrival of the Sixth Symphony – there is no dominant genre in Aho's output in the way that the symphony held sway over the 1970s, and the pace has also slackened somewhat. The modernity of the Sixth Symphony shows up only as one aspect of the stylistic spectrum, and not as some governing ideal.

The Piano Sonata from 1980 was Aho's first work for the instrument. Before composing the sonata Aho steeped himself in the piano works of Liszt, Chopin, Debussy, Bartók, and Messiaen in order to be able to create a virtuoso piece employing the pianistic lexicon created by these elders. And quite a virtuoso number he made out of it, too. The work culminates in long chains of trills, rather in the manner of late Beethoven. A similar tendency towards instrumental brilliance lingers on his second piano piece Solo II, from 1985, though he takes things to their logical limit in the Accordion Sonata (1984), which is full of breath-taking runs and virtuoso parallel progressions. In fact Aho could be said to have gone a shade too far here, since as yet no one has come forward to perform the piece.

The Quartet for Flute, Alto Saxophone, Guitar and Percussion – an odd combination by any standards – was written in 1982 for the Finnish Cluster Ensemble, as indeed are all works for this line-up composed in Finland. Here Aho has explored the potential for communication between instruments of strikingly different character. In places the instruments come close to one another in sound and texture, something which often calls for unconventional playing methods, while in places they resort to their own distinct instrumental idiom.

"Modernism" and "traditionalism" are set alongside one another in positively programmatic fashion in the Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1985). The newer world is represented in the oboe parts, which draw colour from microtones and multiphonic sounds, sharing the stage with episodes sometimes neoclassical in tone, sometimes incandescently romantic. This tension between the "distorted" and the "normal" world is the chief landmark of the work.

Two concertos

The pluralistic state into which Aho had drifted after the Sixth Symphony is well demonstrated by a comparison of his two concertos, the Violin Concerto (1981) and the Cello Concerto from 1983–84, a pair which at the time of writing are about to be joined by a new Piano Concerto. The violin and cello works differ from each other abruptly both in style and expression.

The Violin Concerto opens in an Alban Bergian atmosphere, with the soloist's lush melody to the fore. Subsequently its expressive dimensions go through aphoristically fragile, romantic, and scherzo-like passages all the way to its climax in a magnificent discordant waltz, absolutely the last word in what is a frequently-used type in Aho's works. The concerto ends in a surreal-cum-nostalgic lullaby, containing a dash of overwhelming sadness, a touch of sweet-sour aching, and even a measure of comfort. According to Aho, the motto for the lullaby could be Salvadore Quasimodo's words: “And suddenly it is evening." The evening of a life, perhaps?

The Cello Concerto wells up out of quite different feelings, containing not a trace of the dim glitter of nostalgia to be picked out of the violin work. The Cello Concerto is a much more modern, ragged, and pessimistic beast. The expressive scale is again imposingly broad, embracing nonmaterial soundfields, a Sacre-style rhythmic episode, complex textures, aleatory chaos, and a fragile presto leggierissimo. Alongside the soloist and the orchestra which drowns him beneath it, the work has as a third instrumental level an "anti-orchestra" of accordion, mandolin, alto saxophone, tuba, and side drum. The climax to the second movement is a chaotic turmoil of truly apocalyptic dimensions, typical of the composer. Here Aho compounds the chaos with the most grotesque closing section, where for instance the woodwinds are played using only their mouthpieces; it is as if the devil himself were laughing at his handiwork. Finally the music disintegrates into an incorporeal and desolate emptiness – just as did the Chamber Symphony, Bassoon Quintet, and Sixth Symphony before it.

And what life can there be on the planet after this sort of musical megadeath? Why, insects, of course!

The world of insects

Aho's largest work from the 1980s is the opera Hyönteiselämää (Insect Life, 1985–87), composed for a competition arranged by the opera festival stronghold of Savonlinna. Aho himself worked up the libretto based on the satirical play by Karel and Josef Capek. From the relatively independent orchestral part to the opera Aho then put together his Symphony No. 7 (1988), which carries the subtitle "Insect Symphony" in deference to its origins.

Aho has characterized his opera as "a comic opera with a tragic ending about narcissism, the selfish pursuit of pleasure, and self-interest". In this satirical look at the present-day, the various species of insect observed by a drunken tramp are given to represent different character types or aspects of human nature. These are portrayed by music covering a very wide range of styles. Aho has himself noted that "the Insect Life music is lost and straying nearly all the time, because the work describes our lost and straying culture."

Aho's opera – like the play from which it comes – is clearly a work of social criticism. In this way the composer carries out in his text as well as in the music the task he set for art back in 1980: “Art should be able to stir us, to wake us from our dreaming and our torpor, so that we should be forced to take a stand on the work and explain to ourselves what it means. If a composition is capable of this, then it has at the same time been able to activate the listener both emotionally and intellectually."

This is not a property limited only to the opera, however, but one shared by all of Aho's best music.

This article was first published in FMQ 1/1989 and has been republished in November 2019 with the kind permission of the author.

Translation: William Moore
Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju