There is no way around it – the anniversary year is everywhere you turn in Finland. It is only late January as I write this, and this is the second Sibelius article I have written this year. Even the composition I am working on should include an allusion to Sibelius, as specified in the commission for a chamber orchestra work that I received from the British Isles. But what kind of allusion? I cannot touch the symphonies; I shall have to choose something less close to my heart, less personally relevant. Besides, an allusion does not need to be a quote, and it does not even have to be clearly identifiable. Fortunately.
I say fortunately because Sibelius’s symphonies are quite sincerely important for me. I admire their solidity of material and the incredible economy with which it is processed. And this is not a distant professional kind of admiration: the music actually speaks to me directly. It crystallises something essential of the human condition and comes across as pure spirit and emotion. It stops you and pierces you.
Sibelius’s orchestration is strikingly original with its low woodwind textures, yet it is so austere as to be breezy and light. I strive for a similar sense of space and translucency in my orchestral music, even if Sibelius is not my only influence in this respect.
Of course, this is also due to the tradition in which I grew up. I have scraped away at the Andante festivo since I was a kid and listened to the symphonies methodically, starting with a scratchy cassette player in my teens. Later I even played some of them in a student orchestra (which, by coincidence, was conducted at the time by some of today’s A-list conductors).
It is also not insignificant that one of the most powerful shapers of our national identity was a composer. In Finland, classical music has always enjoyed an undisputed status with a solid infrastructure. Having said that, I acknowledge that times are difficult and that high culture is in a state of mental and financial transition. However, we still have a lot of orchestras per capita, we have a high standard of musical education and excellent musicians. The concert scene is very lively, at least in my home city of Helsinki. Concerts have their audiences, and in these audiences are the potential listeners to my music. After all, I write music for people to listen to, not for my desk drawer.
Also, Finnish music has not (at least not yet) diverged too much into, say, Classical-Romantic and contemporary camps. The same musicians may, without missing a beat, perform standard core repertoire at municipal institutions and experimental avant-garde with freelance ensembles (or, indeed, the other way around), which I consider is only good.
I became an orchestral composer mostly for the simple reason that I have been fortunate to have had several occasions to write orchestral music. I have also heard repeat performances of my works, all of them to a high standard. This is the only way to learn and to discover one’s own idiom. Acoustic music definitely seems like my thing, and there is nothing like the magic of a live concert. It is a quite unique experience to be in an audience, together yet alone. And the unbroken silence immediately before and after the music is most eloquent.
I also count myself fortunate to have been able to create a career and make a living as a composer. I have received and continue to receive support from both public funds and private foundations, which is wonderful. My music is played regularly, which is excellent. On a personal note – yet curiously a political one – I should note that I, like most other Finnish women composers, have children. And affordable, high-quality municipal day care is something that we should never ever take for granted.
Composing requires diligence, hard work and a calm working environment; the circumstances in Finland are quite favourable, or at least they have been for me. On the other hand, the number of composers is increasing all the time, and the available financial resources or public funding are certainly not growing – and this is a fact of life for both creative and performing artists, for both institutions and freelancers. The future is always uncertain in a field as volatile as ours, especially in the current economic and political situation.
I have mixed feelings about Finland’s bubbling faith in technology. The hype around the latest thing is often less than credible, and naïve to boot, when innovations that have to do with form are automatically assumed to produce innovations in content.
I also believe – or perhaps this is a wish stemming from my personal tastes – that the magic of acoustic music that I referred to above will persist even amid the oceans of digital sound that overwhelm us. Live concerts, with their magical silences, will possibly become an even more valuable everyday luxury in the future. One can only hope that they will remain low-threshold events, as they are now, even in the Finland of the future.
Yet technology also makes possible some really important things, like the fact that in this northerly, sparsely populated country classical music can reach people who live basically in the middle of nowhere.
And what of the legacy of Sibelius? He was clearly somewhat too big a fish for this small pond. The strength of his personality established a paradigm in Finland, mythologising the profession of a (dead) composer to the point of occultism.
Strangely, when people talk about music in Finland, they often do so through the lens of nationality and identity – not aesthetics or cultural policy, etc. So it is that Sibelius’s melancholic and pathos-laden relationship to nature and the fact that his career coincided with Finland’s birth as an independent nation are even now, in 2015, considered something legendary and worth reliving.
How fresh and how utterly vital it would be, just once, to forget about the cranes, the swans and the lakeland scenery and to focus on the content of Sibelius’s works! Let’s focus on the sound of his music. And its soundness.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra as they perform the world premiere of Lotta Wennäkoski’s Flounce and Sibelius's Finlandia at the Last Night of the Proms on September 9, 2017.