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The String Quartet and a smell of warm buns

by Jouni Kaipainen

"Although I am not a string player myself, the string quartet is inextricably intertwined with my early musical life. Later on, my own string quartets, which appeared regularly at intervals of exactly 10 years, became milestones in my private and working life."

Throughout my adulthood I have been proud to be able to say I am one of the only artists I know who retains a vivid memory of the moment when he or she decided to commit to a particular occupation. It happened when I was 12 years old, some time in the spring of 1969.

At that time we always had a maid. This was a way of ensuring that my mother, who was a writer, was not disturbed in her work – hardly an affordable option now – and the girls, who came from the country, were all ingenious housekeepers. One of them always treated us on Saturdays to her special homemade buns. Whenever I got home from school (in those far-off days we went to school on Saturdays too) the house smelt of freshly baked wheat flour, and still now that all too rare an aroma awakens in me a feeling of security and relaxation.

Birth of a composer

One such Saturday in spring I once again arrived home tired, and, as usual, grabbed a couple of cinnamon buns and a glass of fruit juice. It was then that I noticed the new gramophone record. They used to come in the post about once a month, because my father belonged to the Concert Hall record club. Cancelling the monthly disc would have meant going to a certain amount of trouble, which my absent-minded father almost inevitably forgot about.

This time the new record was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, which I began to listen to as I munched on my buns, unaware that what I was doing would have a decisive impact on the rest of my life. And so it happened that before the first two movements were over, I said to myself: this is what I want to do one day! The following Monday I went to Fazer Musiikki, a music shop just outside Helsinki, to buy manuscript paper, and at the same time started a collection of miniature scores. My initial purchases obviously included Beethoven’s third symphony, as well as one or two of his others, but I also bought something rather smaller in scale, and cheaper too: Beethoven’s string quartets.

I then listened to more records and studied more orchestral scores. These compact little books held some mysteries, which were only solved rather later. For example, transposing instruments caused some bewilderment: why did they all seem to sound ‘right’ when the clarinets and brass appeared to be playing the ‘wrong’ notes? Such puzzles conspired to erect a barrier so insurmountable that I decided 1 would compose not a symphony but a string quartet (although the alto clef [viola part] was of course difficult for a boy who had only ever played the piano).

I did not make compromises in any of the other areas, however. Like the Eroica, the piece would be in E flat major and last the same length of time: 50 minutes. I remember that when the fourth movement was completed I had not quite reached that point and so I wrote a fifth, which, as an extra movement tagged onto the end, was allowed to move around freely in distant A minor.

Crucial to my first attempt at writing a string quartet was the intuitive realisation that I could substitute an ensemble of four string instruments for a symphony orchestra. I believe this is one of the main reasons why composers continually favour the string quartet as an idiom: it is the smallest unit which can meet the highest textural demands of large-scale works both credibly and in terms of overall balance.

Bartok 414 times over

For some time Beethoven was my only real idol and has never stopped being someone to emulate. Quite early on, of course, I came to realise that the dream of presenting the world with a new Eroica was ambitious to say the least. Before long my horizons broadened: first on the scene were other old masters such as Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms, but then I became seduced by Bartók. It will be noticed that all these are major figures in the world of string quartet music. I bought the Tatrai Quartet’s complete recording of the Bartók quartets and started listening to them carefully, my sole aid the accompanying booklet, translated into impenetrably cryptic English from the Hungarian.

When, feverish with excitement, I met my future teacher Aulis Sallinen for the first time, he first made some pertinent but encouraging comments on my work and then spoke words of endless praise for Bartók, urging me to study his quartets. I eagerly agreed, just as I would have eagerly agreed to anything he might have suggested, and I bought the six scores and got down to some hard graft. My plan was to listen while following the score to one of the quartets every day, proceeding in numerical order and making a note of the number of listenings, until I could honestly say I knew the works inside out.

I obviously experienced this moment of enlightenment 18 months later because it was then that my note-taking stopped. Five hundred and thirty days had passed and in that time I had listened to each of the Bartok quartets 69 times. The project had not been excessively pedantic, however: I calculated that the listenings had taken place on just 414 days, leaving 126 days off! This immersion in quartet writing was without doubt the most rewarding study that I undertook when I was young.

Adrenalin, inspiration and fumblings

I started my apprenticeship with Sallinen in 1973 when I was 16 and I stayed with him for three years. Among my assignments were two string quartets. The model to follow was, naturally, Bartok. During the ritual of getting to know the works I had been fascinated by many of the features of his string quartet music. In the fast movements, the uncompromising nature of the rhythmic expression and textural density, the continual feeling that the composer is on top of the situation, his ability to retain a sense of insistent continuity despite the constant changes in texture, and, of course the sheer instrumental inventiveness were the core areas of musical thinking that I admired. On the other hand, the timelessness and disembodied intensity of the slow passages, and the way they seem to probe the world of the hereafter with their tiny but telling gestures were just as enthralling. Being in control of all these diverse expressive gestures is something that still preoccupies me today.

But there was obviously another side of the coin to all this idealism. At the crudely practical level, everything I had learnt and absorbed was measured. At this stage it was not really yet the time to find my own voice, nor was that likely. With the benefit of hindsight I could say that I merely achieved a simplified imitation of Bartók’s style.

Bartok’s neo-classicism permeates the consciousness of a young devotee of his music looking for material for new output far more readily than do the subtler, more individual aspects of his style, and above all, his textures. This is perhaps only a good thing, however: a total espousal of another’s idiosyncrasies tends to become a dead weight highlighting one’s lack of originality, while in the end what is needed is the means to say something new. In any case I can now see how distant my first efforts were from the model I was trying to emulate. To my experienced eye it is the texture of my youthful attempts that immediately shows what I achieved here, and so the essentially non-Bartókian nature of the music comes as a surprise.

I would nevertheless be doing my sincere endeavours an injustice if I forgot the adrenalin rush of inspiration that I got from my journey through the world of Bartók’s music and my own fumblings that resulted from it. What mainly remains with me from that time is my conviction that the string quartet and chamber music more generally are key idioms that represent western musical culture at its finest and most sublime.

I happened to write no string quartets with my other teacher, Paavo Heininen. An incomparable authority on the subject of texture, he tried to make me understand the true substance of the most diverse combinations of musical texture, their special expressive characteristics and their possibilities. All this had its effect on my later quartet works, as did the fact that I spent much of the late 1970s studying Heininen’s own first string quartet with a magnifying glass.

Heininen introduced Berg’s quartet music to me. Its, as it were, yin and yang components are built from the closely related but, at the same time, opposite poles of the String Quartet op. 3 and the Lyric Suite. We obviously also spoke of Webern. When almost 30 years later on I ventured on a Webern-inspired escapade to a world of the microscopic in the final movement of my Fifth String Quartet, I recalled what Heininen had got me to think about.

Three quartets for Kuhmo

My chamber music bug had already progressed fatefully far when its potency was boosted even further after I was invited to be Concert Secretary for the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in 1981. This festival sweats music from all its pores. For me the experience was like a parcel: when you took off the neat wrapper a whole incredible network was revealed, with a vast number of leads and cables taking information, emotions and experiences from one individual to another, a wild spaghetti that derived its sweet aroma from a kind of global larder of spices, often from many ethnic kitchens at the same time. A Festival commission took me to seventh heaven: I was asked to write a string quartet, my third, for the 1984 event.

Then my life was subject to a series of coincidences that I can only describe as thrilling. Kuhmo also commissioned and premiered my fourth and fifth quartets, and this happened at intervals of exactly 10 years. Consequently, although I would not dare to compare myself with the ‘house-hold’ names in quartet writing like Haydn, Beethoven, Bartók and Shostakovich, my quartets have become, almost by default, milestones in my private and working life. Now, however, I just hope that not another ten whole years go by before I have the chance to write my next.

I will therefore continue writing string quartets. It is one of the subgenres of composition that is closest to my heart, and I believe it will provide me with opportunities galore for presenting a more intimate side to my music. And now I have a new and pleasant role: as the writer of the programme notes, I am involved in the series of string quartets by the New Helsinki Quartet at the Ritarihuone (House of Nobility) in Helsinki. The ensemble was founded by Ilari Angervo, and has achieved a good deal of success. The series features potentially all the important quartet music, and has given me a welcome chance gradually to reacquaint myself with the big quartet repertoire. The masters of the idiom, from Haydn to Lutoslawski, from Beethoven to Xenakis, speak to me with unparalleled force and intensity, and not least because they have chosen this king of the small ensembles as a medium for expression.

Translation: Spencer Allman

This article was first published in FMQ 1/2006, a theme issue “The String Quartet in Finland today”.

Editor’s Note:
Jouni Kaipainen’s String Quartet No. 6 “The Terror Run” was completed in 2010 and String Quartet No. 7 “Batsheba” in 2013. 
The string quartet series at the Ritarihuone was organised from 2004 until 2009.