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Tauno Marttinen - Composer of intuition and inspiration

by Juha Torvinen

"Tauno Marttinen's (1912-2008) image as a composer is a colourful one. His work has relied on instinct and inspiration and is rooted in mysticism. For the 'shaman of Hämeenlinna', as he has become known, music and composition are a form of meditation, a key to the mysteries of the universe," writes Juha Torvinen in his article from 2003.

The Finnish composer and professor of music, Tauno Marttinen, who just recently reached the age of 90, is the creator of an enormous and fascinating output of musical works, composed mainly away from the musical life that centres on Helsinki. Marttinen's image as a composer is a colourful one. His work has relied on instinct and inspiration and is rooted in mysticism. For the “shaman of Hämeenlinna”, as he has become known, music and composition are a form of meditation, a key to the mysteries of the universe.

Tauno Marttinen was born in Helsinki on 27.9.1912. As a young man he studied piano under Ilmari Hannikainen (1892–1955) and Eino Lindholm (1890–1941), and composition under Peter Akimov (1885–1941) and Selim Palmgren (1878–1951).

Hard struggle

It was at an early age that Marttinen first felt he would make art music his main purpose in life. But his choice of career was fraught with difficulty. It led to a break with his father, who would have liked his son to follow in his footsteps as a professional barber. Furthermore, Marttinen’s work as a performer of light music meant he had less time to concentrate on “serious” music. During the 30s he conducted the Finnish (Light) Orchestra that accompanied Olavi Virta, who was to become one of Finland's all-time greatest singers of popular music. Marttinen even wrote a few songs for Virta to perform.

“My father was probably one of the first to encourage Virta in his career as a singer,” says the composer’s son, Rauno Marttinen, who is an Assistant Director at the Finnish National Opera. Concerts of Marttinen’s compositions given in Helsinki in 1945 met with a reception that put the strength of his calling to the test. The reviews in the capital’s biggest newspapers were scathing by Finnish standards. The Uusi Suomi critic, Olavi Pesonen, said of the works – “best not to call them compositions” (as he put it) – that it was “hard to find anything good about them, try as one might.” Tauno Karila, in Helsingin Sanomat, said that Marttinen’s choral works “had nothing to do with music in any serious sense.”

Marttinen’s compositions in these concert programmes were mainly in the Late Romantic style. He suspected that the music had encountered such harsh criticism as a result of an overly intuitive approach to composition. Nevertheless it was “intuition” that was later to become the cornerstone of his compositional art.

A new start

In the early 50s Marttinen relocated, over a period of time, to Hämeenlinna – Sibelius’s birthplace – where he became conductor of the city orchestra and principal of a music college. Hämeenlinna, a city located approximately one hundred kilometres north of Helsinki, was not only a new place for him to live and work in but also somewhere he could devote himself to the composition of serious music. Marttinen has related how in 1952 he had a dream in which he was dead. In the dream a voice said that he would remain dead unless he gave up working as a light music performer.

The next day he resigned as leader of the light music orchestra that played in the Aulanko Hotel. His move to Hämeenlinna not only meant a change of outward circumstances, then: there was also change from inside.

In the early 50s Marttinen realised that the twelve-tone technique, which by then had also reached Finland, was an excellent way of imposing control on his intuitive way of working. Marttinen became one of the Finnish pioneers of the technique, although he never employed it strictly. He merely wished to adopt the main principles of the system and not the system as a whole with all its rigour. Marttinen acquainted himself with dodecaphonic techniques aided by the literary critic and music editor for Helsingin Sanomat, Martti Vuorenjuuri. Like Erik Bergman, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Usko Meriläinen, he also studied serialism under Wladimir Vogel (1896–1984) in Switzerland.


At the end of the 50s Marttinen achieved a breakthrough with Kokko, ilman lintu [Eagle, Bird of the Air]. Written for mezzosoprano and orchestra, the piece was a success with both the public and the critics. It also won a prize in a competition organised by the Finnish Cultural Foundation.

That section of Marttinen’s career that extends from the 50s into the early 60s might well be called his dodecaphonic period. As well as Eagle, Bird of the Air, the works composed at this time include the violin concerto of 1957 (revised version 1962). This is one of Marttinen’s most highly praised works. According to Martti Vuorenjuuri, it was the first Finnish violin concerto, after that by Sibelius, which was “good enough to be taken out into the world.” The first three symphonies also date from this period, and were written in 1958, 1959 and 1962.

Having discovered a new musical language and achieved success, in 1959 Marttinen decided to reject all his earlier output. Eagle, Bird of the Air was renumbered as his opus 1.

“Marttineism” comes into its own

The dodecaphonic method nevertheless proved too constricting for a visionary such as Marttinen. The fatalistic, intuitive style he had adopted earlier on was, despite everything, one that was closer to his own individual way of working. From the start of the 60s Marttinen embraced a musical idiom that was something like a free-tonal synthesis of serial, aleatoric and tonal elements, all of which coexisted to serve the composer’s expressive needs. From then on too the mysteries of nature, something of great importance for Marttinen, began to play an ever larger role as a source of inspiration in his creative work.

By this stage it had become difficult to classify Marttinen’s music in terms of isms and styles. The outspoken critic, Seppo Heikinheimo, said in 1962 that Marttinen’s music needed to be described using its very own ism: “Marttineism.”

The 60s was a successful period. An important new field in particular was TV opera, and Marttinen was one of the first in Finland to explore this medium. There were also avant-garde works, however, including Alfa, for flute and seven cymbals, from 1963, and the recently discovered Teos vahtimestarille, kahdeksalle ping pong-pelaajalle ja naurukuorolle [Work for doorman, eight ping-pong players and laughing chorus], from 1968.

In 1967 Marttinen’s Fourth Symphony won London’s Camden Festival composition competition, tying with a symphony by Paavo Heininen, the future professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy. But no one thought of inviting Marttinen along. It was not until a couple of years later that the Finnish Foreign Ministry was asked where the composer’s prize money should be sent.

The 50s and 60s saw Marttinen established as one of the major names in Finnish music. In 1972 he received an honorary professorship in recognition of his artistic achievements.

Operas the cornerstone of Marttinen’s output

Marttinen’s twenty operas are central to his huge output. In terms of the number of works for the stage that he wrote he is Finland’s most prolific opera composer.

His first opera was Päällysviitta [The Cloak, 1962–1963], composed for television and based on the story by Nikolai Gogol. In 1968 he wrote another TV opera, Poltettu oranssi [The Burnt Orange, 1971], based on a play by Eeva-Liisa Manner, which became one of his most successful works. The opera tells the tale of the mentally ill Marina, her psychiatrist and her parents. Marttinen employs various means to portray Marina’s chaotic world, including projected images, light effects, pantomime and two stages. The music stops at nothing to connect fully with the flow and twists of the drama, featuring, as it does, a speech choir, atonality, stylised tonality and speech itself. The opera was ahead of its time both for its choice of subject matter and its style of presentation. Later on, Marttinen was once again to delve into the mysteries of the human mind in his chamber operas Psykiatri [The Psychiatrist, 1974–1975] and Meedio [The Medium, 1975–1976].

Marttinen has almost always edited his operatic texts himself, but the libretti are often based on literary classics in the style of Gogol and Manner. The operas Kihlaus [The Engagement, 1964], Lea [1967], Seitsemän veljestä [Seven Brothers, 1987] and Veljesten myöhemmät vaiheet [The Brothers: Later on in Life, 1989] are based on works by Aleksis Kivi. The chamber opera Häät [The Wedding, 1984] is based on the short story by Anton Chekhov.

Other operatic works include Hilda Husso, a monodrama based on a story by Maria Jotuni and written in 1979, and an example of Marttinen's humorous image as a composer. Of his comic operas worthy of mention is Mestari Patelin [Maitre Patelin, 1970–1974], which is based on a French story from the Middle Ages. In the opera Laestadiuksen saarna [Laestadius's Sermon, 1974–1976], Marttinen explored the tension between Christianity and shamanism.

Most of Marttinen's operas were given their first performances in provincial opera houses away from Helsinki. Not one has been recorded up till now. The recently released Vox Angelica recording featuring some of Marttinen's vocal music does, however, include some operatic scenes, which could make the listener wonder why there is so little on disc.

Composer of a thousand works

Marttinen’s output up to the present day is astonishing in terms of its size even by international standards. There are nearly 400 pieces with opus numbers. If the early works rejected by him in the 50s, the unnumbered pieces and the popular pieces of the 30s are added to this the total might well be over a thousand.

Apart from the operas Marttinen’s ten symphonies can be counted among his most important works. He also wrote concertos, symphonic poems, a good deal of music for films and a huge number of chamber works and pieces for solo instruments, as well as music for educational purposes.

Poor eyesight has made composition and writing music difficult but he has not stopped completely as yet. Some while ago he wrote a theme for an eleventh symphony. With his advanced years the professor has become more taciturn although he is still keen to discuss his music.

“There is still music in me,” he says when asked whether he intends to continue composing. It may well be, then, that his long list of works will grow even longer.

When asked what his favourite works are or what the high points of his career have been, the professor gives an absolutely categorical response: “I cannot answer questions like that,” he says.

“The primordial spirit is the strongest”

When asked which is more important for him in composing, intuition or reason, Marttinen is confidently brief in his reply: “Intuition. Absolutely.”

Some have seen an over-reliance on intuition and inspiration as a cause of structural weaknesses in Marttinen’s music. On the other hand, they have been a guarantee of the music’s unique and distinctive character, revealing a measure of spontaneous creativity and a wealth of ideas that deserve only praise.

Marttinen's compositional technique springs directly from inspiration. This he aspires to through a sort of meditation. To receive what is new he first has to make his mind a complete blank, because any premature pigeonholing of music is unsuited to Marttinen’s ideas about creating something fresh. “The primordial spirit is the strongest,” said Marttinen back in 1985: a typical remark for him to make.

The total concentration that meditation and the creative process require inevitably had its effect on his other family members. “Father could compose for weeks on end and in the middle of the night too. Mother tried to put a stop to it, saying the children were asleep. But it did not do any good,” says Rauno Marttinen.

Mysticism has always between close to Marttinen’s heart, as with his music he has searched for life’s origin and innermost meaning. He believes that every composition should contain a sense of the divine and the eternal. His fascination with this subject has earned him the nickname “the shaman of Hämeenlinna”. With old age, however, mysticism has had less of a part to play. “Mysticism is no longer able to manifest itself, because it has become difficult for him to compose,” says Rauno Marttinen, analysing his father’s creative work.

Increased interest in Marttinen

Tauno Marttinen’s music has begun to arouse fresh interest among artists and music scholars. More of his music is being recorded and performed, more particularly in Finland, but also abroad. The sparkle of interest caused by Marttinen’s music in Holland and the attention it continues to receive there deserve special mention. The Dutch society “Ter ere van Tauno Marttinen - In Honour of Tauno Marttinen” has been responsible for a large number of concerts and recordings of the composer’s works.

Marttinen has also been rated in scholarly circles. The musicologist Petri Tuovinen is writing Marttinen’s biography, which will be ready at some point during the next few years [the book was published in 2004]. A musicologist’s seminar focusing on Marttinen and his music was also organised in September 2002 in connection with the composer’s ninetieth birthday celebrations.

Marttinen derived great pleasure from the renaissance his music experienced when he was preparing for the festival with his wife, the dance teacher, Ilmi Marttinen. “It feels good to see my music is making something of a comeback,” he says.


Translation: Spencer Allman
Featured photo by unknown photographer ( Tauno Marttinen

This article was first published in FMQ 2/2003 and is now re-published with the kind permission of the author.