Scene 1. The Great Horse Race Booze-up.
Three friends, Eero, Magnus and Esa-Pekka, are living it up in Siena besides also studying composition. They hear of Il Palio di Siena, the oldest horse race in Italy, in which districts of the city (contrade) compete against one another twice a year. The day of the race begins with each horse and rider being blessed in a church in their own contrada.
The contrada in which the three friends live, Leocorno (Unicorn), comes in next to last in the fierce race, the winner being Aquila (Eagle). Because the friends reckon that this is the only time they will be attending the horse race, they decide to gate-crash the Aquila victory party held nearby. Tables are laid out on the streets, and wine is freely available in a large tun. The Finns party with a vengeance, and by the end of the night only a couple of Germans manage to keep up with their visits to the vastly depleted wine tun.
Scene 2. The Kitchen Table Conception.
The next morning, a quiet moaning may be heard at the kitchen table. Magnus is staring at a bottle of red wine, an excellent choice for breakfast. Being a cautious man, he has packed a pair of woollies: he imagined that it might get cold in Italy in the summer. Now he has found a practical use for this item: he has soaked it in cold water and wrapped it around his head like a turban. Pouring a glass of wine, he muses: “What can you do on a day like this?”
Eero is rather subdued too. He too pours a glass of wine and suggests that the two of them write a piece that will win the composition competition for the Sibelius Violin Competition.
This composition competition has been announced in order to find a new piece for solo violin that will become the compulsory piece in the aforementioned distinguished international violin competition held in Finland. Eero has already penned two pieces for the competition and Magnus has produced one, but they both already know that they will not do well, knowing who are on the jury. Here, in the bleak Siena morning, a new possibility dawns.
Eero digs out a sheet of music paper. Sitting at the kitchen table, he twirls out a clef and writes Adagio above it. He thinks for a moment, writes half a line of notes and then shoves the sheet towards Magnus. Magnus looks at these opening measures, chuckles and continues writing. Then Eero writes some more and passes the ball to Magnus again. They agree that neither is allowed to continue until he has criticised the other’s previous work. The goal is that the piece must on no account become "too contemporary". They must keep their urges strictly in check. Eero writes again, and then Magnus.
The tentative opening motifs acquire a firmer shape, and then Eero spurts out two and a half lines of a soaring melody that Magnus considers quite too much to stomach. “We have to have that,” Eero argues. “You can’t succeed in this competition if you don’t have something like that.” Over the unabashed melody, Magnus writes come Brahms [=like Brahms]. The writing continues through the morning, but by the time the friends forget their headache, they also forget about the half-finished collaboration.
Scene 3. Don’t Leave Your Apples in the Sun.
Esa-Pekka, also still with his friends in Siena, receives a telegram from Veikko Helasvuo, Rector of the Sibelius Academy. He requests that Esa-Pekka travel to Zagreb to attend the annual European meeting of Jeunesses Musicales Internationale. His mission: to talk to the leadership of Jeunesses Musicales to explore whether it would be worthwhile to set up a Finnish chapter of the organisation, because there is already one in almost every other European country. Esa-Pekka agrees to do the job, and Eero and Magnus join him on the train for the fun of it: it is never a bad idea to have company on the train on a journey lasting an entire day.
En route from Siena to Zagreb in what was then Yugoslavia (now Croatia), the friends arrive at the Italian border town of Trieste. It is a sweltering day, and flies buzz around the sweating travellers. Eero and Magnus seek refreshment and cast eyes at the fruit peddled by an elderly woman at the station. Despite Esa-Pekka’s warning words, they buy an apple each and eat them right away. Bad idea. No sooner have they entered Yugoslavia than they are beset with cramps and explosive diarrhoea. Feeling even worse than on the morning after the horse race victory party, the sufferers realise that this is the right time to continue the piece that they have left unfinished.
Lulled by the steady clacking of the train, the young composers begin to scribble notes on scraps of paper, affixing the smudged sketches in the right order to the pages of a newspaper. They agree that they need two kinds of music that must meet each other on certain pitches according to a certain logic, thus forming a seamless whole. Eero begins to write melodies, while Magnus works on virtuoso bowing and scraping. A Magnus scrap, an Eero scrap, a Magnus scrap, an Eero scrap...
By the time the company arrive in Zagreb, the piece is almost finished. Eero cannot even manage to walk; it is all he can do to lurch to the shelter of the park outside the railway station, supported by Magnus. Magnus stands over his fellow sufferer crouching in the bushes, the tattered patchwork violin piece under his arm. This sorry sight is the last that Esa-Pekka sees of his friends that morning as he heads for the meeting.
Eventually, in the afternoon, the bad apple survivors feel invigorated enough to arrive at the meeting venue. The Secretary General of Jeunesses Musicales undertakes to give the Finnish delegation a tour of the city and takes them to a concert that does not particularly impress them in content or execution. Then it is time for dinner, and the Secretary General asks: “Well, do you think that there is a need to set up a Finnish chapter of Jeunesses Musicales?” “Not really,” says Esa-Pekka. “Okay,” says the Secretary General.
The delegation has completed its mission. And to cap it all off, Eero and Magnus finish the violin piece on the way back.
Scene 4. The Great Amorous Italian Escapade.
The three friends having returned to Finland, Magnus suggests that they play the joke out to the finish. They take their scruffy sketches to a copyist who prepares a nine-page manuscript in an elegant hand. At least it is now not possible to identify the composers by their handwriting. But the real fun is only just about to start. The three masterminds must think of a name and a CV for the composer of this new piece, and they come up with Juhani Pursiainen the theatre musician.
Juhani Pursiainen was born in Finland but was evacuated to Gothenburg, Sweden, as a child during the war. He was raised there and received his initial musical education at the Conservatory. Subsequently he became a ballet conductor and theatre composer in Malmö. When a Polish dance company visited Malmö, Pursiainen fell ardently in love with a Polish ballerina and followed her to Poland. He was out of sight for years, but eventually the marriage soured, and the embittered Pursiainen fled to Italy, where he was engaged as conductor at the Municipal Theatre in Vittuone, where he remains to this day. Pursiainen’s extensive output includes a Lamento for oboe and strings, a few chamber operas and incidental music to seven Shakespeare plays – entirely natural considering his theatre career.
Vittuone is an actual place in Italy, a tiny town that Esa-Pekka found on the map while studying in Milan. [Its meaning in Italian is obscure, but to a Finn it sounds delightfully like the Finnish word vittu which, begging the reader’s pardon, means "c*nt". Moreover, the Italian suffix –one is an augmentative, making the meaning even stronger.] This is a perfect name to be associated with the hoax being hatched by the three conspirators which is by now taking on a life of its own. Because the mailing address of Juhani Pursiainen in Vittuone is not known, the two friends give Eero’s address in Finland as the contact information for Mr Pursiainen in their submission to the competition committee.
Scene 5. The Great Hoax Exposure.
Quite some time goes by. One day, as Eero is in composition class at the Sibelius Academy, Rector Helasvuo enters the room. “Can I see you a minute, Eero?” he says from the door. He reveals that the jury of the Sibelius Violin Competition has just held a meeting and that 3rd prize in the composition competition has been awarded to Juhani Pursiainen. “So who is this fellow, anyway?” he asks, the assumption being that Eero knows Juhani because the contact address is Eero’s. Blindsided, Eero decides not to lie to the Rector but instead reveals the hoax. The Rector appreciates the joke, but it later emerges that many of the jury members are rather less than pleased at being hoodwinked like this. Because falling for a hoax represents a substantial embarrassment for these authoritative figures, the matter is hushed up and never spoken of outside of a small inner circle.
The competition rules state that all prize-winning works will be printed. The two tricksters are pressured to publish the work under their own names, but they are adamant about seeing the process through to its logical conclusion. And so it is that to this day there exists a solo violin piece titled Canzona by a certain otherwise unknown Juhani Pursiainen.
A photo of Juhani Pursiainen must now be obtained. Esa-Pekka goes to Helsinki railway station, wearing sunglasses and a stolen bowler hat, unshaven and with his teeth blackened with charcoal. The railway station photo booth spits out four black-and-white photos. These are the only known images of Juhani Pursiainen.
Scene 6. I Can Say This on the Radio Because It’s an Actual Place!
Because Canzona has won a prize, it has to be given a public performance. At a concert given two weeks after the Sibelius Violin Competition, violinist Hannele Segerstam premieres the piece in the chamber music hall at Finlandia Hall. The concert is broadcast on radio, hosted by eccentric radio personality Hannu Taanila. Both Segerstam and Taanila are in on the joke.
Before the concert, disconcerting rumours have emerged to the effect that Pursiainen is not a real person. There is thus a need to reinforce the narrative. Esa-Pekka is studying in Milan at the time, and – always ready to step up for the team – travels by bus to the town of Vittuone and mails a letter in which "Juhani Pursiainen" expresses great resentment at his existence being called into question. Live on the air, Taanila reads out the postmark multiple times to impress even on the slowest of listeners that the letter was actually mailed from a place whose name sounds like something that you definitely are not allowed to say on the radio.
One critic writes: “Taanila first read out a confusing letter that explained about the composers behind Juhani Pursiainen. It was not entirely clear to me who had actually created this piece, which began as a promising meditation but then lapsed into a vacuous cadenza.”
Some days after the concert, Eero and Magnus are out on the town in Helsinki. They happen to meet with Hannele Segerstam, who tells them with a twinkle in her eye: “The only thing I don’t understand is that you both write such crappy stuff for violin but Juhani Pursiainen’s writing is so wonderfully natural!”
The writer has published two dozen non-fiction books and has written, directed and produced more than 30 documentary films and TV documentaries on music and the arts. He is preparing a TV documentary on the tale of Juhani Pursiainen.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: From the manuscript of Canzona by Juhani Pursiainen, © Fennica Gehrman Oy Ab
Highlights of Salonen’s and Lindberg’s concerts and celebrations in 2018
17 August, 2018
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Paula Vesala, Alan Gilbert, Matti Salminen, the Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera, the Chorus of the Finnish National Opera
Helsinki Festival, Helsinki, Finland
1 September, 2018
Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Truls Mørk
The Baltic Sea Festival, Stockholm, Sweden
10 November, 2018
London Philharmonic Orchestra; London Philharmonic Choir, Vladimir Jurowski
Royal Festival Hall, London, UK
27 & 28 September, 2018
Orchestre National de Lille, Alexandre Bloch
Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France
29 September, 2018
Orchestre National de Lille, Alexandre Bloch
Le Phénix, Valenciennes, France
19 & 20 October, 2018
New Japan Philharmonic, Hannu Lintu
Sumida Triphony Hall, Tokyo, Japan
29 & 30 November, 2018
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, Magnus Lindberg
Turku Concert Hall, Finland