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As the canon turns – reflections on the centenary of Joonas Kokkonen

by Pekka Hako

Joonas Kokkonen began his life in a small town in the 1920s and went on to become one of Finland’s most celebrated and internationally most successful composers. Today, his music is rarely performed in concert.

What, metaphorically speaking, are the forces that place a composer on a pedestal but then abandon him there to gather dust and cobwebs?

Every era creates a canon of its own. Composers considered highly authoritative in their day and compositions once regarded as distinguished and important may in a few decades fade completely away – perhaps to re-emerge into public view at some later date.

The canon, understood as a sort of unwritten prescriptive list of valued works and their authors, is a fascinating concept in that it presents subjective (even if collective) valuations as if they were immutable facts. In the musical world, the music itself is always paralleled by a narrative generated by the language used and the documents produced about the music and about the people who create it.

With composer Joonas Kokkonen, this parallel narrative was one of an all-powerful opinion leader on the music scene. He became the embodiment of principal institutions and decision-making mechanisms in Finnish music. So towering was his authority that he was dubbed “Sibelius no. 2” or, by his home town, the “Wise Man of Järvenpää”. His weighty statements were seen as reflecting the collective thoughts of Finnish musicians, and he had the ability to assign meanings that shaped the collective self-image of Finns as a nation of music. In modern terms, he was an influencer.

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Joonas Kokkonen and the 25th anniversary of his death. Although his musical output includes numerous excellent works, he has been largely absent from concert programmes in the 2000s. Perhaps one reason for this is that his output is rather limited in volume.

High flyer

From the late 1940s onwards, Kokkonen wrote concert reviews for newspapers and tabloids alongside pursuing a career as a composer. Even as a young man, he expressed strong yet constructive views on matters of music policy, and later, in the 1960s, he elaborated on these ideas in lectures and public statements.

Kokkonen was appointed Professor of Composition at the Sibelius Academy in 1959. The appointment was a controversial one, since he had scarcely any merits as a composer of extensive works. However, his strength was in his versatility, being known as a writer, a lecturer, an administrator, an ideas person, an organiser, an educator, a discussion leader in music policy and, of course, a musician and a composer. All this laid a solid groundwork of credibility that was later to raise him to high-profile elected positions, while also strengthening his status as a composer.

In 1963, Kokkonen was appointed to the Academy of Finland. Academicians are the crème de la crème in Finnish arts and sciences; their number is limited to 12, and they are appointed for life. At the age of only 41, this raised him to the most exalted of circles in Finnish society.

At the time, Academicians not only received a generous salary but also enjoyed the benefits of being provided with a private secretary and having their travel expenses largely reimbursed by the government. Whenever Kokkonen’s works were performed abroad, he managed to attach lectures or negotiations to promote Finnish music to the occasion, and it was thus legitimate for the government to cover the costs. The timing of his appointment was also fortuitous, as an advisory board had just been established to prepare for the centenary of the birth of Jean Sibelius in 1965, and a detailed plan for promoting Finnish music in general and Sibelius’s music in particular, mainly in Europe and the USA, had been drawn up.

Could there be a better opportunity for a composer to network and rub shoulders with key players on the music scene worldwide – conductors, festival directors, musicians and music journalists?

At the core of power

Here at home, a cabal of Ministry of Education officials, music organisations, private culture foundations and decision-makers in the music sector began to drift into, or latch onto, Kokkonen’s orbit. As an Academician, Kokkonen was an obvious choice to elect as chairman for this, that and the other. Some were resentful of his appointment, being of the opinion that it simply buttressed the body of opinion that wanted to build up a new, post-Sibelius national institution. With hindsight, we may acknowledge that these critics were right. Kokkonen gravitated to the epicentre of Finnish music, and for nearly three decades all the power and influence on the Finnish music scene came to be vested in one man. The positive aspect of this was that he was able to build a solid foundation for Finnish music and to improve it vastly, to a level that later generations tend to take for granted, whether in music education or in the provision of permanent government grants to symphony orchestras. Kokkonen was tireless in making the rounds at various government agencies and in buttonholing high-ranking ministry officials.

It seemed like everyone needed Kokkonen’s help for something. His pronouncements were viewed with the gravitas usually reserved for divine prophecies carved into stone. He was, unwittingly, made into an oracle to whom everyone listened whether he had something to say or not.

Everyone knew about Joonas Kokkonen. But how many knew his music? It was not until the huge success of his opera Viimeiset kiusaukset [The Last Temptations] in the mid-1970s that his music came to the awareness of the public at large, but it did so impressively.

The question is, how can such an accomplished and influential person be almost completely forgotten within a couple of decades of his death? Perhaps the ageing and dying away of his network of supporters and opinion leaders by the 2000s had something to do with it? After all, that network was not built around his music per se.

Then what?

Ah yes, his music. My personal favourites among Joonas Kokkonen’s musical legacy are The Last Temptations, Symphony no. 4, Music for strings, “...durch einen Spiegel” (metamorphoses for 12 strings and harpsichord) and Five Bagatelles for piano.

Perhaps now would be the time for younger generations of musicians to dust off this museum exhibit and have a look at the music that he wrote. Joonas Kokkonen is an illustrative case study in how the canon changes and moves on, sometimes completely reversing itself. Kokkonen was a product of his era, and the world today is quite different. Yet Kokkonen’s music is just as excellent now as it was decades ago.

Pekka Hako Lic.Phil. M.Ed. has written a biography of Joonas Kokkonen (in Finnish), Voiko varjo olla kirkas? Joonas Kokkosen elämä [Can a shadow be bright? The life of Joonas Kokkonen]. Ajatus Kirjat, 2001.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Erkki Voutilainen / Museovirasto: Joonas Kokkonen in 1963

Joonas Kokkonen centenary at Fennica Gehrman's page.

Jyväskylä Opera performs Kokkonen's Viimeiset kiusaukset [The Last Temptations] from December 31, 2021 to February 19, 2022.