in From the Archives

P.H. Nordgren: Being a composer in Finland - An Ostrobothnian perspective

by Pehr Henrik Nordgren

”Being a composer in Finland" means above all capturing the intellectual mood, and this also involves an understanding of the country's own traditions.

Some time ago I got involved in a dispute in a local restaurant about the conditions of human existence. To my surprise, I found myself the butt of sneers and criticism: “You, a parasite on society!” cried one of the speakers. The surprising thing was that of the eight people seated round the table, as many as eight were unemployed.

In actual fact, the fellow probably was, without realising it, right. Since 1970 I have, apart from the one year I spent as Provincial Artist, been in receipt of an artist’s grant from the state. The grant is not very big (about FIM 5,600/GBP 800 a month), but it does provide me with a basic subsistence. I must therefore be grateful that society is looking after me…

In Finland the powers-that-be are not – luckily – concerned about the contents of art. It simply lays the foundations and thereby ensures the artist freedom to express his art and his outlook on life. This is something we take for granted, but we do not always remember just how privileged we are. For not so long ago, art was being suppressed on ideological grounds only just across the border from us.

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Being a “full-time” composer (thanks to my grant and all it implies), I have had a steady stream of commissions. Maybe I have been lucky, but I do not believe I am a rare exception in Finland, since various institutions and even individual musicians are constantly commissioning new music from us composers. This vast enthusiasm is perhaps due to the youth of our musical culture: we have an unconscious desire to be the initiators of musical deeds and to fill in gaps that do not exist in the ancient civilised countries. The composer undoubtedly feels a genuine need.

The commissioner is indeed able to influence the composition in many ways, but the most important external attribute is, to my mind, the artistic standard of the performer(s).

In this sense the Finnish composer is very fortunate. The standard of performing art has in the course of the past decades risen enormously. And although Helsinki is, of course, the country’s musical centre, with its Opera and all, the mere mention of, say, Lahti and Kokkola is sufficient to remind people that the provinces are equally capable of fine musical achievcments.

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I was born in the island province of Åland but we moved to Helsinki when I was only a few years old. This is where I went to school and university, and I look upon myself as a true Helsinki-ite. As a student, I could never have imagined that I might one day move to the country and, furthermore, support myself and my family as a composer. Compared with Central Europe, for example, the wild northerly regions were at that time “provincial” in every sense of the word. But things have changed, and many artists are nowadays seeking to escape from the metropolitan region. I myself have spent the past 20 years or more in Kaustinen, a little community of 4,500 inhabitants 450 km from Helsinki and 45 km from the nearest town, Kokkola. And from time to time I congratulate myself.

Kaustinen is famous for its summer folk music festival, and it was folk music that attracted me here. I had already felt that genuine Finnish folk music provided a healthy counterbalance to avant-gardism, which had in my view reached a dead end. In some of my compositions – such as the Violin Concerto no. 1, the Four Pictures of Death for chamber ensemble, and the Clarinet Concerto – I tried to infiltrate elements of folk music into the cluster technique I was applying. In my Portraits of Country Fiddlers for string orchestra, written during my first few years in Kaustinen, I borrowed from folk music direct and produced some free imitations of old fiddle pieces. This marked the beginning of my alliance with the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra.

At that time the orchestra was performing a lot of music that was either based on folk music or was otherwise ”easy to understand”, and my compositions suited this policy. But little by little the orchestra extended its repertoire, and although one can never be quite sure of the causes and consequences, I gradually began to look askance at the use of folk music and in the years to come composed a number of works for the orchestra that have nothing whatever to do with folk music.

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It is a great asset for a composer to be surrounded by musicians who inspire him to write for them specifically, and whose interpretations coincide completely with the composer’s views. Juha Kangas and his distinguished orchestra have, in performing my music, also been creative and succeeded in bringing out shades of feeling I failed to capture in the score. The very number of works is sufficient to prove the fertility of our alliance.

We Finnish composers are also extremely lucky in that our world-famous conductors – Paavo Berglund, Leif Segerstam, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Osmo Vänska and co. – are all eager to conduct Finnish music. Jorma Panula, who has in the course of his long career done perhaps most of all to promote new music, has acquired a legendary reputation as a teacher of conducting. I am quite sure that Finland will in the future continue to produce good conductors who value the work of Finnish composers.

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In 1971, while I was studying in Japan, I sent an article describing my impressions to a music magazine at home. I compared the position of composers in Japan and Finland and boldly announced, presumably under the spell of all I had experienced, “My mind becomes gloomy when I think of the present state of Finnish music. How limited and impoverished is our scope! Our traditions contain little from which to draw… In Finland composers are still grappling with their themes. They have no time for timbre thinking, to say nothing of evocative rhythmic structures. Their orchestral inventiveness is narrow. They are bogged down in conservatory counterpoint. Their emotional lives are as dry as a pine forest. They are standing in a swamp, trying to create something new. And then they are glorified as great composers, though their music is no more than provincial…”

The words of an angry young man! Maybe the intellectual climate in Finland was different in those days, but this attitude would nowadays seem most unfounded.

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”Being a composer in Finland” means above all capturing the intellectual mood, and this also involves an understanding of the country’s own traditions. In Japan I was greatly impressed by the attempts by many young composers to utilise tradition by, for example, introducing traditional Japanese instruments into their music. I myself wrote a few pieces of this kind – an Autumnal Concerto for Japanese instruments and symphony orchestra, and two quartets for Japanese instruments alone – and back in Finland I began to grow interested in the use of Finnish folk instruments in the same spirit. Equivocations, which was premiered at the Helsinki Biennale in 1981, is scored for kantele and string trio, and a few years later I wrote a concerto for kantele and small orchestra. I do not use any folk music in these works, and even the kantele is tuned according to a completely free system of my own devising.

“Being a composer in Finland” means exploiting vast opportunities. Although Finland is a small country, we still have a lot of resources to tap. Our unique folk tradition is an endless treasure trove, but at the same time our doors are nevertheless open in every direction.

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In 1958 the Sibelius Prize was awarded to Dmitri Shostakovich. I went down to Helsinki Railway Station to see the maestro, of whom I was already a great admirer, arrive. Shostakovich donated the prize money to the Finnish-Soviet Society where my mother was working. At that time the Society did not receive any government support, and they were so short of money that my mother, for example, had not been paid for many months. But that day she was hardly inside the door before she called out, “You can have some shoes from Shostakovich!”

Those were difficult times, politically and otherwise. Finland today is beset by an economic recession, but we have our freedom of thought. In our art we can express ourselves as we wish, with no external force to fetter our imagination.


Photo: Fimic / Maarit Kytöharju


This article was first published in FMQ 2/1995 and is now republished with the kind permission of the author’s family.