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Reviewing the eighties – The rise of Finnish new music

by Kimmo Korhonen

“Finnish music in the 1980’s, as in any previous decade, has witnessed the arrival of yet another generation of composers. But this time, their debut has been particularly impressive and confident, and has contributed to fashioning a whole new image for Finnish music,” writes Kimmo Korhonen in his article, published in FMQ in 1991.

In a recent interview, composer Kalevi Aho (b. 1949) provided the following description of Finnish composers’ working conditions: “In theory, composers enjoy a good working environment; their foreign colleagues would say they are almost out of this world. The grant system guarantees all the best composers the chance to concentrate on composing. Even the largest works get performed, including orchestral pieces and operas ... In Finland new music has also found an audience, and public acceptance. The policy of publishers was a problem at one time, but this starts to be behind us. Getting music onto disc is no longer problematic.”

To some, Aho’s view may seem unreasonable optimistic. But Aho is not the only one to hold these views: the unusually favourable position enjoyed by Finnish composers is a fact recognised by nearly everyone, and advantageous working conditions have enabled Finnish composition to flourish, arguably more vigorously now than ever before.

In October 1989, in the Danish town of Odense, a four-day festival of Finnish music was held. In connection with this event, a local newspaper was bold enough to announce: “Finnish new music is a phenomenon. For a large number of musicians and music lovers ‘Finnish new music’ is synonymous with ‘that phase of development which serious music is going through at the present time’”. Even taking account of the slightly exaggerated tone, this statement can nevertheless be regarded as evidence that Finnish music is enjoying a boom period.

Finnish music in the 1980’s, as in any previous decade, has witnessed the arrival of yet another generation of composers. But this time, their debut has been particularly impressive and confident, and has contributed to fashioning a whole new image for Finnish music.

It was these young composers who were responsible for bringing modernistic tendencies particularly to the fore during the 1980’s, but coexisting with these, there have been a variety of other stylistic directions, among them neo-classicism, neo-romanticism and a blending of various styles in the spirit of post-modernism. It would not do to over-emphasise any tensions which may exist between generations of composers or between stylistic ideals. There is no doubt that they do exist, but they have not spoiled the good relations existing in Finland’s musical life; if anything their contribution has been a positive one. 

Young composers and modernism’s “third coming”

Even at the end of the 70’s it started to be apparent that the country experiencing a young generation of composers thinking along new lines, but it was not until the new decade arrived that they finally made themselves felt. These youngsters waved the flag of internationality, opening windows to Europe in a way we have come to associate with such waves of modernism.

No resume of Finnish music in the 80’s would be complete without a mention of the organisation Korvat auki (Ears open). Although its heyday turned out to be quite short, many of the best known young composers of the 1980’s are to be found in its core of founder members. Among the most internationally successful of these are Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) and Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958), both of whom have an important base for themselves in Paris. Other Ears Open composers include Eero Hämeenniemi (1951), Jouni Kaipainen (b. 1956), Olli Kortekangas (b. 1955), and Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958), though the dazzling success of the latter’s conducting career has more or less completely overshadowed his activity as a composer. Finding the limelight around the same time as the Ears Open composers, or very slightly later, were such names as Tapio Nevanlinna (b. 1954), Olli Koskelin (b. 1955), Harri Vuori (b. 1957), and Kimmo Hakola (b. 1958).

Even though the Ears Open composers are often referred to in the same breath, they represent in fact strikingly different inclinations in terms of style or wider aesthetic standpoint. It is to their credit that “modernism” – in its widely accepted sense – became the predominant stylistic ideal of the 1980’s, even to the point of talking about a third wave of modernism in Finnish music, in the manner of the earlier waves in the 1920’s and at the turn of the 60’s. At the same time, earlier Finnish modernists have come more to the fore – such names as Erik Bergman (b. 1911), Usko Meriläinen (b. 1930) and Paavo Heininen (b. 1938), not forgetting Jukka Tiensuu (b. 1948), the nearest precursor of the l 980’s modernists. One external sign of the rise of new music has been the plethora of contemporary music events which have made their appearance in the 1980’s, the best known being the Helsinki Biennale which has been held every second year since 1981.

A pointer to the professional standards being exhibited by young composers has been their success in various competitions and forums. In the UNESCO composers’ rostrum held annually in Paris for example, Finnish compositions have reached so-called “selected work” status no less than four times in the under-30’s category and twice in the open category. Another horn of plenty in terms of competitions has turned out to be the radiophonic category of the Prix Italia; the flowering of radiophony as a medium of composition in itself is something which can be credited to the younger composers. 

The blossoming of opera

The rise of Finnish opera is usually regarded as having started in the mid 1970’s, in particular with the operas of Joonas Kokkonen (b. 1921) and Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935). During the 1980’s, opera’s popularity has continued to grow. The merit of opera as a compositional genre has probably overtaken that of the symphony, a somewhat remarkable feat in the land of Sibelius. The new opera house and future home of the Finnish National Opera, due to be completed in the near future in Helsinki, will further contribute to the strengthening of this art form. Perhaps ballet too will achieve a higher profile as a result; one of the few new ballets to attract wider attention during the 1980’s was Eero Hämeenniemi’s Loviisa (1986).

Finnish opera’s image has been significantly enriched during the l 980’s. While opera as an national art form in the late 70’s was in a sense regenerated through a falling back onto themes of national or historical interest, opera in the 80’s has been more international and cultivated in its choice of subject matter. At the same time the range of musical styles within opera has widened and alternative perspectives on this major form have been sought after.

Of all Finnish operatic composers, the best known in international circles is Aulis Sallinen. One of his operas from the 1980’s, The King Goes Forth to France (1983), influenced partly by theatre of the absurd, was a joint commission of the Savonlinna Opera Festival and London's Covent Garden – a factor surely having a bearing on the “European” choice of subject matter. The second of Sallinen’s operas from the 80’s, Kullervo (1988) based on Finnish mythology, is to have its premiere at the Los Angeles opera house in 1992. Other new Finnish operas yet to receive their first performance include Kalevi Aho’s intentionally multi-stylistic and satirical Insect Life (1987) and Erik Bergman’s The Singing Tree (1989).

Two central figures among opera composers of the 1980’s have been Paavo Heininen and Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928), each of whom have written two works in the medium. Heininen’s The Damask Drum (1982) was based on a Japanese Noh-play. His other opera The Knife (1988), winner of an opera competition held in connection with Savonlinna’s 350th anniversary celebrations, was the first Finnish opera with drama taking place in a modem urban setting. Rautavaara’s Thomas (1985) was set in medieval Finland, but in addition to its historical aspect, the work contains a dimension pertaining to humanism and individual psychology. Rautavaara’s second opera is Vincent (1987), inspired by the personality and art of Vincent van Gogh.

Of all those works which might be regarded as searching for new altematives to grand opera, the most successful has been Olli Kortekangas’s intense and multi-interpretational TV opera, Grand Hotel (1985), which received an honorary mention in the Prix Italia in 1987 as well as the 1989 opera prize from the city of Salzburg. A number of other young composers in addition to Kortekangas have shown an interest in musical drama. 

Compositions along the Kalevala theme and other vocal works

1985 was the year in which Finland celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first literary edition of the Kalevala, its national epic poem. This gave rise to a number of commissions along the Kalevala theme, although – perhaps surprisingly – the Kalevala had already inspired a number of composers even before the anniversary’s added incentive, among them Ilkka Kuusisto 1933–) with his opera War from Light (1980) and Einojuhani Rautavaara with his choral opera The Theft of the Sampo (1981).

The most noteworthy of all the anniversary commissions was the large-scale dramatic work Lemminkäinen (1984) by Erik Bergman, the “grand old man” of modern Finnish choral music. This work was scored for narrator, baritone and mezzo-soprano soli and mixed chorus. Other vocal works from the anniversary year were MAA (1985) for children’s choir by Olli Kortekangas, already somewhat divorced from the Kalevala theme, and Taivaan valot (1985) by Pehr Henrik Nordgren (b. 1944) set for soloists, children’s choir, mixed choir, orchestra and folk instruments.

Among other Finnish choral works from the 1980’s, Joonas Kokkonen’s Requiem (1981), one of the most cheerful and optimistic examples of its genre, is worthy of special mention. Another somewhat different work is Tokko (1987) for male voice choir and computer-synthesised tape by Jukka Tiensuu; this piece represents a brave attempt at renewing a male voice tradition usually regarded as conservative.


Instrumental music

Within instrumental music, the main areas of emphasis have been orchestral music, concertos and chamber music. For some reason, there has been a dearth of significant works for solo instruments able to make any real impact on public awareness. Either that or the musical world has been less able to appreciate the importance of small-scale works.

The reverence displayed towards the symphonic form in this country since the time of Sibelius has showed no signs of waning. The best known of the Finnish symphonists are Einar Englund (b. 1916), Einojuhani Rautavaara – the zenith of his career as a symphonist undoubtedly to be found in the wide sweeps of his Fifh Symphony – Aulis Sallinen, Pehr Henrik Nordgren, composer-professor Mikko Heiniö (b. 1948), who has been the most important contributor to the Finnish discussions on post-modernism, and Kalevi Aho. It is an indication of the prospective continuation of symphonic composition that two of the Ears Open group have also come to the fore as symphonists: Eero Hämeenniemi and Jouni Kaipainen.

During the 60’s and 70’s, representatives of so-called “modernist” trends continued to stick their necks out far enough to compose symphonies, but ceased to do so many significant degree during the 80’s. The entire symphonic genre has been perceived as placing too strong a reliance on tradition. Magnus Lindberg for example, the most important of all Finnish orchestral composers of the 1980’s, has showed no interest at all in the medium. His best-known work, and the key work of Finnish modernism in the 80’s as a whole, is Kraft (1985) for large symphony orchestra and electronically amplified soloists.

Other notable orchestral works composed in the 1980’s, which fall outside the symphonic tradition as such, include Erik Bergman’s Ananke (1982), Kaija Saariaho’s Verblendungen (1984) for orchestra and tape, Venezia by Herman Rechberger (b. 1947), and the compositions of the well-known conductor Leif Segerstam (b. 1944), many of which are at the same time either single movement symphonies or may be combined to form symphonies.

Many of the composers who have made their name during the 80’s as symphonists, such as Einar Englund, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Pehr Henrik Nordgren, Mikko Heiniö and Kalevi Aho, have also proved to be able composers of concertos. Other composers in this medium, or of works close to the concerto idiom, include Erik Bergman and Paavo Heininen. Soloist works often owe their existence to the select group of especially talented musicians ready to meet the challenge offered by the music of our time.

Traditionally speaking, chamber music has been rather overshadowed by orchestral music when it comes to its share of the limelight. During the last decade the situation has changed to some extent, the primary reason for this being that several of Finland’s best composers have taken to writing chamber music in earnest, among them Erik Bergman, Einar Englund, Usko Meriläinen, Jarmo Sermilä (b. 1939), Erkki Jokinen (b. 1941), Pehr Henrik Nordgren, Harri Wessman (b. 1949) and Jouni Kaipainen. 

The future

What does the future hold for Finnish music in the 1990’s? Nothing seems to be imminently threatening the position of traditional musical institutions in the composers’ collective consciousness. The orchestra still holds sway, as indeed does opera, the latter seeming likely to strengthen its position. A new generation of composers will once again rise alongside the figures already established. Of the youngest of the bunch, a number have already made it into the public eye: Jyrki Linjama (b. 1962), Veli-Matti Puumala (b. 1965) and Jukka Koskinen (b. 1965); all these are names worth noting for the future.

There are some tell-tale signs to suggest that the wave of modernism which dominated the 1980’s is due to wane in the 90’s. Eero Hämeenniemi and Kalevi Aho, both of whom have taught at the Sibelius Academy, have each commented that a reactionary movement against 1980’s modernism is already observable. What is more, the “normalising” of modernism could mean that its sensationalist value will diminish, making it incapable of attracting attention in its own right and leaving room for more traditional approaches to compositional self-expression.

As to how strongly these young composers mentioned by Hämeenniemi and Aho will eventually succeed in breaking through during the 1990’s, this remains to be seen. It will not be an easy task to follow in the wake of their counterparts of the Ears Open generation, who proved themselves capable of significantly shaping the image of Finnish music in the 80’s. Whether the youngsters of the 90’s can do the same, only time will tell.


This article was first published in FMQ 1/1991 and is republished in November 2020, with the kind permission of the author.

Read also Pekka Hako's article (2020) Finland is a paradise for composers - Today there are multiple ways to make your mark.

Featured photo: Mikko Heiniö, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Usko Meriläinen and Einar Englund in 1995, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Society of Finnish Composers. 

Photo: The archives of the Society of Finnish Composers.