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The apostle of musical humanism: Communication between people is the core of Joonas Kokkonen’s music

by Mats Liljeroos

What does it take to be a great composer? What is characteristic of a vital tonal art that appeals to different kinds of people in different times? How do you define a unique musical voice that by virtue of its originality remains interesting even after the death of its author?

Obviously, these questions have several answers. One of them could be that the greatness of a composer and the vitality of the compositional art lies in the uniqueness of the music: an accent unlike that of anyone else; a tonal language that is fascinating in its individuality; a personal voice that – on no more than the briefest acquaintance – is instantly recognisable.

Judged by criteria such as these, Joonas Kokkonen (1921-1996), would appear to be a great composer whose music will not only live on, but will also touch people in the future. Kokkonen is one of those composers who have created a musical universe of their own and managed to make their voice heard through the crusted patina of centuries of western art music polyphony.

What are then the unique qualities of his music? Why can an initiated listener discern his musical fingerprints after only a few bars or, at the most, the first sheet of any of his scores.

For me, there are two kinds of reasons. First, we have Kokkonen’s ability to sift and sort out stimuli that have a unique character – a criterion of quality that is shared by almost all of the important names in musical history.

Second, we have his personality, which manifests itself in terms of a genuinely humanistic attitude to the surrounding world. For Kokkonen’s profound ambition to live up to a true artistic ideal and to walk his own narrow path regardless of other people’s expectations, is coupled with an earnest desire to communicate with these same people.

Humility and conviction

If we start by viewing the first criterion, the distinctive tonal language, it is, of course difficult – or even, perhaps, impossible within the scope of a short article – to define precisely where its uniqueness lies.

However, we may point to the characteristic harmonic shifts; or Kokkonen’s way of developing a melodic phrase or motif; or the means by which he builds up an architectonic whole. Similarly, we could pay attention to the pallet of sounds and timbres employed within his work, or his way of opposing musical voices to one another. In short, we could focus on the idiosyncratic musical syntax that Kokkonen is able to generate from his own personal vocabulary.

The second criterion, his personality, is much harder to define, and we have to content ourselves with the observation that those forces that have affected Kokkonen’s personality as a whole have also exerted a powerful influence on his music. Within such a context it would be worth pointing out that a clearly expressed antipathy to anything superficial and spectacular, allied to a quest for absolute honesty and integrity in all phases of artistic communication, are factors that characterise Kokkonen’s personality and music alike.

Indeed, it is hardly a coincidence that Kokkonen is one of the very few composers since Johann Sebastian Bach who have concluded his works with the inscription S.D.G. L.D. (Soli Deo Gloria, Laus Deo). For such humility simultaneously expresses the conviction that what is being done is both necessary and justified.

Variations on a theme

The artistic path that Kokkonen has walked down and which, in retrospect, seems so predestined and obvious, has not followed any self-evident course, but has primarily – as with so many other serious artists – been set by his constant self-examination, linked to a relentless quest for honest expression. What do I want to say by my art, and how do I best express it?

All the way from his early piano fantasies (influenced by Debussy and Palmgren), to the lucid chamber music and vocal works of his last productive years, Kokkonen’s production gives you the impression of an exceptionally uniform and consistently formed whole in which the different stylistic periods and expressional means emerge as variations or metamorphoses of the same theme.

Everything in Kokkonen’s work is inter-related, all separate works are dependent on each other – just like the ingredients of his symphonies – so that the listener is left with the sense that nothing would be possible in his universe without a connective integrity between those elements that have already manifested themselves and those that are yet to come into being. In the same way as we may discern some of the characteristics of the mature Sibelius in his early chamber music and the synthesis of the Seventh Symphony in Kullervo’s grand gestures; so, too, we may partly decipher the expressional code that would become a key to Kokkonen’s subsequent work in his early chamber music the Piano Trio and Piano Quintet.

Kokkonen’s three stylistic periods, i.e. the “neo-classical” (1948 to 1957), the “dodecaphonic” (1958 to 1966) and the “free tonal” period (1967 onward), have been described in earlier articles, and both his works and his technical development as a composer have been subject to careful and reliable analysis.

Consequently, I will choose to focus here on some “key works” that – as well as offering useful points of entry into the music – also, for various reasons, occupy a strategically important position in Kokkonen’s production. These works, then, are interesting not only as separate works of art, but also as conceptual starting points.

Additionally, I would like to earmark a few of Kokkonen’s most characteristic compositional traits, paying particular attention to those unmistakable musical fingerprints that exerted the greatest influence on the finished works: not only in terms of Kokkonen’s steering of musical processes, but also with respect to their reception by the listener.

Primeval cells

The first key work – and in many ways Kokkonen’s first “mature” masterpiece – is the Music for String Orchestra (1957), which at the same time as it offers a synopsis and a culmination of his neo-classical period also contains the seeds of his later artistic advancement.

Music for String Orchestra is a key work in many respects. For one thing, it is Kokkonen’s first composition for a larger ensemble and, rather than being written for a smaller string orchestra, has been scored for the string section of a symphony orchestra. Although he was a pianist himself, this is a work in which Kokkonen reveals an obvious talent for writing for string instruments (significantly influenced, no doubt, by Béla Bártok).

Furthermore, the composition is de facto a symphony in everything but the name, and Kokkonen’s ability to apply a rigid symphonic grip reaps its first laurels here. In the Music for String Orchestra, the method of developing the entire work out of a limited set of motifs and harmonies, so-called primeval cells, is applied consistently for the first time – he had already experimented with the technique in the Duo for Violin and Piano written two years earlier – and through this, Kokkonen aligns himself to the German symphonic tradition starting from Beethoven which numbers Brahms and Sibelius as its foremost followers.

Thirdly, the Music for String Orchestra for the first time allows us a substantial experience of Kokkonen’s propensity for founding his musical progressions on a genuine polyphonic basis (it is no secret that Bach was his great idol). In an article in FMQ (4/88), he characterises the primary task – and dilemma – of western society composers during the last millennium: “… how to combine the vertical and horizontal dimensions of music, sounds heard one after another and simultaneously, in the most expressive and the most logical way possible.” This is a question with which he was preoccupied for the rest of his life, finding increasingly successful solutions over the years.

And finally, Kokkonen here writes the first of the Bártok-inspired adagio religiosos, slow movements with an almost sacred character, that were subsequently to become one of his foremost trademarks. The fast movements II and IV, in their turn, are early examples of those lively, and often playful, rhythmical allegros that form a fertile and necessary contrasting basis for the more profound and introverted slow movements.

Guideline song cycle

Another early key work is the song cycle Lintujen tuonela (The Hades of the Birds) 1958-59), set to a text by P. Mustapää. It was written at a time when the First Symphony and the First String Quartet were in their early phases of planning and composition, and yet it is entirely different from these works that were to mark the beginning of Kokkonen’s so-called dodecaphonic period.

The Hades of the Birds, written for a mezzo-soprano, is Kokkonen’s first work for a symphony orchestra and to come to it is to experience a feeling of fulfilment: as if he suddenly realised how well this demanding instrument worked in his hands and adapted itself to his expressive needs. The exemplary transparent and exquisitely coloured orchestral setting scintillates in all the colours of the rainbow while at the same time making the solo voice brilliantly audible.

The song cycle is also a good example of Kokkonen’s intuitive ability to write for the human voice and to give the words and poetic wholes a meaningful musical outfit. These skills were to find their ultimate expression in the opera Viimeiset kiusaukset (The Last Temptations) written 17 years later.

In other respects, too, The Hades of the Birds points forward to Kokkonen’s so-called free tonal period and its central work, the aforementioned opera. This applies to both harmony and melody, and whereas certain parts of the vocal voice bring to mind Sibelius’ Luonnotar – particularly in the title song that was written first and located in the middle – the dance-like progressions of the first song Täydellisyyden maassa (In the World of Perfection) and the lucid ambiences of the last song Sade (Rain) herald similar ambiences in The Last Temptations.

The song cycle’s position in Kokkonen’s production is interesting in the sense that despite its relatively early outlook it points far ahead in time. In fact, it fits neither Kokkonen’s aesthetic views up until then nor the re-orientation that he was pursuing. But at the same time it does indicate clearly how floating the stylistic and chronological borders are in his production. There are numerous links between many of his works, and the chronological aspect is not always prevalent.

Intuitive symphonic thinking

The third key work is the Third Symphony (1967), which is usually regarded as the starting point of Kokkonen’s free tonal period. This work highlights his symphonic thinking and orchestral mastery in an unprecedented splendour.

However, no sharp borders can be drawn between Kokkonen’s stylistic periods, and none of the periods is entirely typical of its epithet. The neo-classical period, for instance, makes use of a large number of chromatic elements alongside a clearly discernible romantically tinged expressive undercurrent. Hence, the transfer into the dodecaphonic period becomes a totally natural and logical sequel to, and consequence of, already existing expressional tendencies.

The dodecaphonic period is characterised by a highly personal implementation of the twelve-note technique and there is space in the music for both tonal ingredients and Kokkonen’s typical dance-like elements. At the same time, the sonority and the powerful expressiveness make the step to the subsequent free tonal period as natural as the earlier step from neo-classicism to dodecaphony.

A statement by Kokkonen that has often been quoted goes: “In a symphony everything depends upon everything else, and everything has an effect upon the whole”. It is true that, just like his great predecessor Sibelius on the opposite shore of lake Tuusulanjärvi, Kokkonen is primarily a man of the orchestra and, above all, a symphonist. His way of thinking in music, of developing his ideas and organising his material is highly symphonic, and his intuitive sense of counterpoint provides the most stable ground imaginable for symphonic seeds to grow on.

In the Third Symphony, Kokkonen liberates himself convincingly from the mental limitations that the application of twelve-note structures on the material after all implied, and he unleashes his entire musical and sonorous fantasy without compromising the rigorousness of his symphonic principles. Yet where, in his first symphonies, Kokkonen had worked with watercolours and graphics, the Third Symphony is a rich fresco in oil where, nevertheless, the display of colours is just as minutely balanced as the other parameters.

In other respects, too, the Third Symphony displays the same admirable concentration in form building and economy of structure as its sisters – the duration of Kokkonen’s longest symphony, the first one, being only 23 minutes long – and it is, above all, in sonority and instrumentation that the Third Symphony forms a technically significant advancement compared with its predecessors.

While Kokkonen used chamber music as a sort of experimental laboratory, it was in his symphonies and symphonic works (including the opera), that he expressed his innermost thoughts. Whereas the first two symphonies (1960 and 1961) are important staging posts and interesting in their dark colouring – which is relatively untypical of Kokkonen’s temperament – it is in the Third Symphony that the symphonist Kokkonen finds the acoustic and aesthetic space in which he can do himself justice.

In the Fourth Symphony (1971), Kokkonen reaches a mastery equal to that of Sibelius in his two last symphonies. All superfluous ballast has been thrown overboard, and only the essence of the symphonic message remains. The formal principle of the Third Symphony with a slow first and last movement framing one (or two) faster movements is now present – for good. The melodic and harmonious material is more clearly formulated, more concentrated and accessible than ever before, coupled with an emotional message that is more immediate than in Kokkonen’s earlier orchestral production.

It is not hard to understand why the increasingly self-critical Kokkonen – although apparently the thought of a fifth symphony never left his mind – did not see any way to proceed after the Fourth Symphony. As we know, this fact resulted, as it had done earlier for Sibelius, in a second “silence from Järvenpää”.

Great operatic synthesis

The Fourth Symphony, in its turn, points toward Kokkonen’s greatest trial of strength and musical synthesis, the opera The Last Temptations which was to mark his international break-through as a composer, as well as also making him known, for the first time, to the man in the street in Finland. According to many critics, The Last Temptations is the strongest Finnish opera besides Aarre Merikanto’s Juha, and it is very hard indeed not to agree on that.

The opera has been analysed thoroughly in other contexts, and I shall content myself with saying that the symphonically structured – and yet vocally compliant and dramatically functional – whole orbits like a huge hub or black hole around its own axis, partaking of an inverted gravity that slings matter and impulses in both directions along its time axis. After the Last Temptations nothing is what it used to be, and yet all important ingredients have always been there.

At this stage, we might also mention other important compositions such as the three-movement Opus sonorum (1965) and Symphonic Sketches (1968), which form important links between the second and third as well as the third and fourth symphonies. These, too, are significant symphonic works, even though their perhaps exaggeratedly self-critical author did not choose to grace them with the name.

It might also be worth pausing for a moment to consider appealing works such us the charming Wind Quintet (1973), the, in a way, nature-inspired tone poem Inauguratio (1971) or the cantata Erekhtheion (1969) written for Turku University. The latter is without doubt one of the best – and most characteristic of its author – pieces of ceremonial music written in our country.

Beyond these compositions we might not do badly to dwell a little on the intricately structured Sinfonia da camera for twelve strings (1962) written at the zenith of Kokkonen’s dodecaphonic period; or to examine imposing vocal works such as the touching Laudatio Domini for mixed a cappella choir (1966). We might highlight the atmospheric organ piece Lux aeterna (1974), the Cello Concerto (1969) full of gusto, the exquisite Sonata for Cello and Piano (1976), or the charming Five Bagatelles for piano (1969), the latter being a broadly structured and technically demanding suite that is anything but a bagatelle.

Considerable space could also be devoted to the three string quartets (1959, 1966 and 1976), which as a whole form the most significant contribution to the genre in Finland since Sibelius, or to what is perhaps Kokkonen’s most amiable and immediately communicative work, the Requiem (1981), which is infused with a deep religious reliance.

Last but not least, we might scrutinise his last important work, Il paesaggio for chamber orchestra (1987), a late and lyrically tinged descendant of Sibelius’ Tapiola, where the landscape, as usual, is what can be seen from the composer’s window, and where Kokkonen’s deep-seated passion for using personal names to denominate his musical motif cells reaches its climax with ringing quotations of the names of three other Järvenpää-related composers: Jean Sibelius, Erik Bergman and Paavo Heininen, as well as, finally – for once during his entire production – Joonas Kokkonen.

Rather than focusing on these, however, I choose to highlight Kokkonen’s perhaps most beloved instrumental work, the chamber symphony … durch einen Spiegel… (1977), written in the wake of the opera and carrying the epithet “Metamorphosis for Twelve Strings and Harpsichord”. Here Kokkonen has refined the idea of motivic metamorphosis and his sophisticated string technique to the utmost, while the harpsichord enters the stage like a herald from another dimension. …durch einen Spiegel… is a late, fourth, key work that at the same time offers one of the most important and most rewarding entrances to Kokkonen’s musical universe.

Dodecaphonic pioneer

Kokkonen has absorbed influences from near and far and, had he been armed to a lesser degree with personal integrity, he may well have become one of the most skilled eclectics of the 20th century. But instead of lapsing into cheap imitation, he has managed to sublime and transform his impressions into a meaningful and, in many ways, innovative musical brew.

From Bach he has learned the mysteries of counterpoint, from Mozart the economy of clarity, from Brahms – who like Kokkonen made his symphonic debut at around forty – the logic of motivic progression, from Berg the intrinsic need for beauty in music regardless of the level of organisation, from Hindemith an ability to synthesise romantic and classicist expressions, and from Bártok the intricate balance between rationality and emotionality. Yet out of all this we see something emerge that is Joonas Kokkonen and nobody else.

For Kokkonen, the dimension of music as an arena of address between human beings – regardless of whether it takes the shape of major or minor triads or tetrachords, or clearly identifiable melodic motifs, or a clearly discernible rhythmic pulse – has constituted a crucial concern, and from this angle the dodecaphonic period in the early sixties was only a step on the way – albeit a necessary step in his development as a composer and an important phase in his quest to find a personal way of addressing his listeners.

At the same time, the sometimes quite harsh criticism that Kokkonen had to take from younger, “radical” generations seems most unjust. It is true that Kokkonen wrote symphonies during a time when it was not comme il faut – thereby giving the Finnish symphony an upswing that we still feel – but, together with Erik Bergman and Nils-Eric Fougstedt, he also launched twelve-note music in Finland. Always open to new impressions, he composed the first dodecaphonic symphony in the country, and he broke up with both the folkloric and the Sibelian traditions – even if, as we have seen, time has later shown that there is much more to unite, rather than separate, the two masters of Järvenpää.

After darkness there is light

In retrospect, Kokkonen’s production today emerges as an unusually well formulated and disposed logically progressing whole, voicing different aspects of the same aesthetic-philosophical thoughts.

Although his opus list has grown from around 40 to around 60 since the 1990s – when a number of pre-1948 works that had been banned re-emerged and some less important works from later years were taken to the fore – Kokkonen’s production as a whole seems to be fastidious and well-constructed, and in his absolute refusal to produce anything half-made or half-hearted he appears as something of a kindred spirit to his five year older French colleague Henri Dutilleux.

The suggestion, emanating in part from Kokkonen himself, that the numerous administrative missions shouldered over the years may have hampered his productivity as a composer should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. Kokkonen said what he needed to say, and I doubt whether the possibility of more “disposable” time would have changed the opus list to any significant extent.

With reference to hair splitting about the much misunderstood concept of “radicalism” – in the sense of “innovative” and “revolutionary” – I feel we might add that the term need not always imply the creation of something entirely new, as it were, out of the blue. It may also be a matter of summarising and remoulding already existent ideas in order to form a musical alloy that shimmers in a totally new way. And it may, above all, be a matter of having the courage to walk your own path regardless of the fashions of the day and the external pressures imposed by the milieu in which you work.

In this last sense, Kokkonen is a “radical” composer, even though in other respects – like his great models Bach and Brahms – he emerges as more of a summariser than an innovator in the traditional “evolutionist” sense.

Beyond all this, however, there is no doubt whatsoever that it is communication with the listener that has always formed the central focus for Kokkonen. In his music, joy and seriousness, tragedy and reconciliation are never far from each other, and even the most introvert and dark passages are infused with his warm and life-embracing humour and humanistic attitude to life. As we know, there is always light after darkness, and within Kokkonen’s work what is perhaps the innermost essence of his artistic message and testament manifests itself by communicating this understanding in the most honest, earnest and comprehensible way possible:

“…The music of today is still intended for the human ear, for the human who, however progressive he may be, still faces the fundamental questions of life, and is just as much alone as he was thousands of years ago”.

Mats Liljeroos is a musicologist and freelance writer on music living in Helsinki. He is also a music critic for Hufvudstadsbladet, Finland’s largest Swedish-language daily.


Joonas Kokkonen: Selected discography

Complete Works – Vol. 1: Symphonic Sketches; Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Symphony No. 4. Thorleif Thedéen, cello, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, cond. Osmo Vänskä. BIS-CD-468 (1989-1990).

Complete Works – Vol. 2: Music for String Orchestra; The Hades of the Birds; Symphony No. 1. Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, cond. Ulf Söderblom. BIS-CD-485 (1990-1991).

Complete Works, Vol. 3: Inauguratio; Symphony No. 2; Interludes from the opera ‘The Last Temptations'; Erekhteion. Satu Vihavainen, soprano, Walton Grönroos, baritone, Academic Choral Society, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, cond. Osmo Vänskä. BIS-CD-498 (1990-1991).

Complete Works, Vol. 4: Symphony No. 3; Opus sonorum; Requiem. Soile Isokoski, soprano, Walton Grönroos, baritone, Savonlinna Opera Festival Choir, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, cond. Ulf Söderblom. BIS-CD-508 (1991).

Complete Works, Vol. 5: “… durch einen Spiegel…”; Sinfonia da camera; Il paesaggio. Wind Quintet. Lahti Symphony Orchestra, cond. Ulf Söderblom and Osmo Vänskä; Sinfonia Lahti Wind Band. BIS-CD-528 (1991)

Complete Works, Vol. 6: String Quartets No. 1-3; Quintet for Piano; String Quartet Op. 5. Tapani Valsta, piano; Sibelius Academy String Quartet. BIS-CD-458 (1989-1991).

Piano Trio. Trio Finnico (Risto Lauriala, piano, Nachum Erlich, violin, Hannu Kiiski, cello). Finlandia FACD 364 (1989)

Laudatio Domini. Leena Murto and Tarja Hietaharju, soprano, the Chamber Choir Dominante, cond. Seppo Murto. Finngospel FGCD-1057 (1989)

Music for String Orchestra, Sinfonia da camera; “… durch einen Spiegel…”. Espoo Chamber Orchestra, cond. Paavo Pohjola; Helsinki Chamber Orchestra, cond. Rudolf Baumgartner. Finlandia FACD 014 (1991; rec. 1980-1981).

The Last Temptations. Martti Talvela, Ritva Auvinen and other soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Savonlinna Opera Festival, cond. Ulf Söderblom. Finlandia FACD 104 (2 cd) (1990) (rec. 1977; previously released as Deutsche Grammophon DG 2740190)

Lux aeterna. Tauno Äikää, organ. Finlandia FACD 700 (1991) (rec. 1975-1981).

Cello Concerto. Arto Noras, cello, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Paul Freeman. Finlandia FACD 702 (1991) (rec. 1975).

Symphony No. 3; Cello Concerto; Sonata for Cello and Piano. Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. Paavo Berglund; Arto Noras, cello; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Paul Freeman; Arto Noras, cello, Eero Heinonen, piano. Finlandia FACD 027 (1991) (rec. 1968-1983)

Piano Works: Five Bagatelles; Religioso; Sonatina; Two Little Preludes; Pielavesi Suite; Impromptu. Janne Mertanen, piano. Alba ABCD 127 (1998)

From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 3/2001