in From the Archives

The success story of the man who forged the Sampo

by Helena Tyrväinen

"From the shadow of Sibelius, a quite different Finnish composer emerged. Uuno Klami regarded national subjects through the eyes of a humorist, without romanticizing, but he was also fascinated by exotism. As an orchestral virtuoso he was without parallel in Finland," writes Helena Tyrväinen on the 100th anniversary of Uuno Klami, the ‘Sunday’s child’ of Finnish music.

The Great Hall of the University of Helsinki, September 27, 1928. The programme leaflet of the sensationally successful first composition concert of Uuno Klami (1900-1961) reads like a trip around the world: first an orchestral work entitled Habanera, then the Piano Concerto Un nuit à Montmartre, Kolme kiinalaista laulua (Three Chinese songs) for soprano and orchestra, and finally Karjalainen rapsodia (Karelian rhapsody). The audience was amused and perhaps slightly terrified by the jazzy elements in the Piano Concerto or the caricatured swagger and polytonal dissonances wedded with Finnish folk music in Karjalainen rapsodia. This was the appearance on the Finnish musical scene of a Karelian cosmopolite, a Modernist and an iconoclastic humorist, fresh from the influences of Paris — the Finnish equivalent of a phenomenon known in Paris as succès de scandale.

This first composition concert was the starting point of the success story of the “golden boy and Sunday’s child in new Finnish music” (this description comes from poet and composer Elmer Diktonius), a success story that continued throughout his life and beyond, apart from a quieter period in the 1960s and ’70s. Klami’s music was widely performed in Finland and got off to an early start internationally too; in his lifetime, his music was performed in Germany, Britain, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, France, the USA, Estonia, Spain and Italy. Working as a freelance composer and part-time critic, Klami was granted a composer’s pension by the Government in 1939. In the 1940s, he was acknowledged as the undisputed leading figure among active Finnish composers. In 1953, audiences of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra nominated Klami as their favourite Finnish composer after Sibelius; and in 1959, his status was officially recognized with his appointment to the Academy of Finland as its only composer member. In 1994, a questionnaire circulated among audiences of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra showed that Klami is, after Sibelius, the Finnish composer most frequently requested to appear on concert programmes.

Uuno Klami made his breakthrough in Finnish music at a time when Sibelius, by then of course world-famous, had stopped releasing new works. The shadow of this ‘mighty oak’ persisted in Finnish music for a long time, though. In Britain, the main stronghold of his international reputation, Sibelius was respected as a symphonic composer, Beethoven’s most important heir. Thus, we might observe that in the programme of his first composition concert Klami was provocatively distancing himself from the ideals of the Maestro of Järvenpää. Instead of the ‘profound logic’ of Sibelius’s symphonies Klami proposed rhapsody and exoticism. He cast Finnish elements in an unrestrained primitive light in Karjalainen rapsodia, and in the Piano Concerto he took up a genre untouched by the older master.

The little fiddler and Fate

Later, Klami continued to maintain his distance from Sibelius. He did this consciously at least to some extent, though by no means out of sheer provocation. Klami was a child of his time, and his background was quite different from that of Sibelius. The fact that Sibelius entered the world of music through music-making at home is demonstrated by the well-known photograph of him and his siblings performing as a trio at Hotel Seurahuone in Loviisa. Photos of a slightly younger Klami show him outdoors with a cap on his head, strumming a guitar.

Uuno Klami attained his exalted position in Finnish music from unusually modest beginnings in cultural terms. He was born in the municipality of Virolahti on the south-eastern coast of Finland on September 20, 1900, the first child of seaman and shop assistant Anton Klami and farmer’s daughter Amalia Korpela. Uuno was not yet four years old when his younger sister died of tuberculosis; and a few months later, the disease carried away his father. The family was not poor, and there was plenty of music in Uuno’s childhood. Several relatives were folk fiddlers who played at feasts; Uuno’s father Anton could play the fiddle too, and his mother sang and accompanied herself on the guitar. Uuno taught himself to play the harmonium and the violin that the family had at home and developed a passion for reading. Considering this starting point, it would have been easy enough to embrace Finland’s national heritage from the idealized Romantic viewpoint!

Virolahti was by no means a backwater. Farmer-sailors who lived on the coast told tales of their long trading voyages to foreign lands and smiled at inland dwellers whose lives they considered to be limited. Members of the Klami family sailed to the New World; some remained there, some returned. Uuno acquired a cosmopolitan view of the world at an early age.

Cousin Hilja, who lived in the same household as Uuno, was to be Fate as far as his composing career was concerned. She worked as a maid with the family of Huugo Niinivaara, director of the local agricultural college. Theirs was a civilized family who made music at home, and Hilja told them about her talented cousin. Uuno was invited to the Niinivaara home, where he was treated to concert music and was asked to improvise on the piano. It was Hilja who secretly sent some of Uuno’s compositions to the Helsinki Music Institute (which was later to become the Sibelius Academy), with the result that a letter arrived requesting the young composer to get in touch with the Institute. In autumn 1915, Uuno and his mother moved to Helsinki so that he could begin studying music. However, Amalia Klami died of consumption the following summer. Orphaned at the age of 15, Uuno did not have the energy to pursue his studies at once. A long pause followed; in spring 1918, at the age of 17, he enlisted with the Defence Corps and fought in the Finnish Civil War ((1) Based on information verbally received from Marjo Valkonen.). Later that year, he volunteered to serve in the Estonian War of Liberation, and in 1919 he participated in the Aunus excursion of the ‘Karelia committee’.

Uuno continued his studies in 1920 and took up composition in autumn 1921 with Erkki Melartin, a broad-minded teacher who had his finger on the pulse of international developments in music. The artistic approach and ideals of Klami’s composition teacher differed greatly from those of Sibelius, and Klami later expressed his profound appreciation for the guidance he received. Why and at whose instigation Klami developed a penchant for the French school — something that was commented upon even in reviews of works performed when he was still a student — is not known, albeit Paris was the focal point of lively interest in Finnish musical circles at that time. Of Klami’s teachers, at least Leevi Madetoja (history of music) and Ilmari Hannikainen (piano) had been to Paris and were well acquainted with French music.

Cosmopolitan Paris and the Franco-Russian inspiration

Klami’s first study trip abroad in 1924-25 took him to Paris. Certain reference works, including foreign ones, state that he studied with Ravel; but Arbie Orenstein, an American Ravel expert who has edited a collection of his writings, has not found any references at all to Klami in the composer’s correspondence. Composer and conductor Manuel Rosenthal, who became Ravel’s student in 1926 and later a close personal friend, had never heard of Klami in that context. In December 1924, Klami reported back to Finland that he had bought a book costing 100 francs at the instructions of composer Florent Schmitt. Nothing further is known of this relationship either, although Klami’s studying with Schmitt was referred to in writings on Klami at an early stage.

Nevertheless, Parisian influences are clearly audible in Klami’s music and evident in his letters and other writings. Titles such as Petruchka, Le sacre du printemps, La valse, Le festin de l’araignée, La mer and Pelléas et Mélisande recur in the letters he mailed home from Paris. Klami noted how distinguished and international the membership of La Société Musicale Indépendante was and dedicated an entire newspaper article to Honegger. He later summarized his stay in Paris thus: “Russian Modernists, Prokofiev and Stravinsky [and] new Spanish music really shook me up. That’s where Karjalainen rapsodia came from.” Klami was to retain an admiration for Ravel’s “beautiful orchestral sound” and “natural elegance of means”. He also developed a lifelong admiration for Stravinsky, particularly for his early ‘Russian’ works and the “ingenious use of a gigantic orchestra in Sacre.”

In Paris, Klami acquired an aesthetic and technical foundation for his composing work that lasted him a lifetime. His six-month stay in Vienna in 1928-29 did nothing to shake that foundation. His teacher there, Hans Gál, was on friendly terms with Alban Berg and Anton Webern but himself represented a wholly different type of musical ideal, and Klami never came in contact with the Viennese School. He was amazed by how conservative musical life was in this city of symphonic composers. “It is an upheaval for the Viennese public to have to listen to anything written after Brahms or Bruckner. Paris is the Promised Land for new music, Vienna ditto for old,” he wrote. Paradoxically, his greatest experiences in Vienna were visits by Ravel and Bartók. It was while in Vienna that Klami wrote the Ravelesque virtuoso waltz Opernredoute for large orchestra, and echoes of the Bolero heard at that time found their way into his elegant orchestral suite Merikuvia (Sea Pictures), completed soon afterwards.

A different Modernist

Klami was one of the 1920s Modernists, the revolutionaries in Finnish music, even though he was somewhat younger than Aarre Merikanto, Väinö Raitio and Ernest Pingoud. From our perspective, it may seem difficult to see how Klami’s work could have been so very revolutionary compared with that of his older colleagues; his radicalism was aimed more at the aesthetic and philosophical basics of composition than at the musical idiom. However modern his music sounded, it never completely abandoned the feeling of tonality.

“Shall he have more of a voice than the joking and party tricks that the concert yesterday was mostly about?” asked critic Heikki Klemetti after the first composition concert. But it was precisely Klami’s humour, parody and joie de vivre that appealed to audiences, while conductors appreciated the mastery of supple virtuoso orchestral writing that he soon perfected. (“An instrumentally idiomatic and brilliant texture has always been a factor contributing to the vitality of a piece and its resistance to wear and tear,” Klami said himself.) Klami was hugely more popular with Finnish orchestras than his elder Finnish Modernist colleagues.

Sulho Ranta wrote of Klami, a colleague and a friend, in 1932: “A Finnish composer does not have to use modality and the venerable ‘music is made of sorrow’ attitude; Klami has demonstrated this. He is a refreshing thing, always inventing something new and in his mentality too quite a rare composer in this country, saying: ‘Composing should not be taken so terribly seriously’ — this is the blond Karelian-French young man who leads the field in his generation.”

Klami built up his reputation as a humorist with works such as Neljä suomalaista kansanlaulua (Four Finnish folk songs, 1930) for chamber orchestra, Kohtauksia nukketeatterista (Scenes from a puppet-show, 1925/31), Rag-Time & Blues (1931) and Sérénades joyeuses (1933). His exuberant Kuvia maalaiselämästä – Kansanjuhla (Scenes from country life, 1932), written in the ‘Russian Stravinsky’ idiom, remains exhilarating even today, on the occasion of his centenary. In this work, country people are not idealized as per National Romantic aesthetics; instead, they are at once delicate and rugged. The work exhibits, in a curious form, the poetic-cum-realistic artistic attitude that is a recurring feature in Klami’s output. Another gem is Karjalaisia tansseja (Karelian dances, 1935), a sprightly and playful piece written for the centenary of the Kalevala making use of folk music motifs in the ‘Russian Stravinsky’ spirit.

Klami and the ‘musics of the world’

While giving appropriate weight to Klami’s own statement whereby Karjalainen rapsodia derived its inspiration in 1920s Paris, we should take into account the ideas he took on board that had nothing to do with Finnish National Romanticism. Inspired by popular music, Klami wrote in a Spanish vein (Habanera, Deux sérénades espagnoles, Séguidilla, Jota, Sérénades espagnoles) or simply drew upon the idiom of Manuel de Falla (e.g. Capitain Scrapuchinat in Merikuvia), and was fascinated by the Orient (as witness Kolme kiinalaista laulua, Kiinalainen kauppias (The Chinese merchant) in Kohtauksia nukketeatterista and Sérénade orientale). The poetic and inspired Tsheremissiläinen fantasia (Cheremis fantasy, 1931) for solo cello and orchestra is a wonderful blend of exoticism and Finno-Ugric identity. Klami would seem to have picked up the attitude towards ‘musics of the world’ typical of many composers in Paris, for example the members of La Société Musicale Indépendante. In that context, quoting folk music was usually not intended as a vehicle for expressing nationalist intentions. Interestingly, exoticism and Finnish folk music disappeared from Klami’s output at about the same time in the mid-1930s. (The suite Sérénades espagnoles, assembled in 1940s, is a collation of earlier compositions in Spanish style.)

It is illustrative that after Finnish folk music, indeed soon after settling in Finland after returning from Vienna, Klami took an interest in Finnish subjects. In 1929, he began sketching a large-scale work based on the Kalevala, intended first as an oratorio or choreographic work drawing on his Parisian influences. The work eventually became the Kalevala-sarja (Kalevala suite). It was premiered with four movements as Koreografisia kuvia Kalevalasta (Choreographic tableaux from the Kalevala) in 1933. It attained its final five-movement form in 1943 after extensive reworking; the momentous Lemminkäisen seikkailut saaressa (The adventures of Lemminkäinen on the island of Saari, 1934), which ended up as a separate orchestral scherzo in its own right, was originally to have been one of the movements of the suite. In fashioning his ballet concept into an orchestral suite, Klami cut much of the ‘Sacre-like’ static and atmospheric elements. The suite is one of the most virtuoso orchestral works ever written in Finland and perhaps Klami’s best-known work today. It has been programmed by many notable conductors, including orchestral wizard Leopold Stokowski. Klami wrote: “I tried here, as in my other works, to avoid as far as possible the heaviness and profound melancholy for which Finnish music has been heavily criticized, particularly abroad.”

The first movement of the Kalevala-sarja, Maan synty (The creation of the earth), based on the same poem from the Kalevala as Sibelius’s Luonnotar, is a grand cosmic vision starting from an immaterial void and ending in a triumphant celebration of the bold new planet Earth. In Kevään oras (The sprout of spring), the composer paints a delicate picture of the fresh new setting of nature in spring. The sensual and carefree nature mood piece Terhenniemi was added to the suite in 1943; it does not refer to any particular poem in the Kalevala but simply to a misty landscape. It is considered the composer’s finest masterpiece. The melancholy Kehtolaulu Lemminkäiselle (Cradle song for Lemminkäinen) features the mother of Lemminkäinen, the Don Juan of the Kalevala, kneeling by her son’s body. In the final movement, Klami depicts the forging of the Sampo, a mythical artefact that generates prosperity. Two of the themes in this movement bear a close resemblance to ancient runo tunes. Klami cast his mythical finale in a fairy-tale glow reminiscent of the early, Rimskian Stravinsky. Here, Klami establishes himself firmly as a Scandinavian associate member of the Franco-Russian school.

The gleeful inspiration of Finnish high culture

As the 1920s ended, Klami’s irony waned. The positive attitude of his idiom, a rarity in Finland, manifested itself characteristically as mercurial virtuoso instrumental writing and inventive, airy orchestration. Written in Prague in 1936, the scintillating Overture to Nummisuutarit (Cobblers on the heath), a play by national author Aleksis Kivi, is a case in point — a show of good humour and of lucid classical virtuoso instrumental writing.

The year 1937 saw the completion of the grand inspired Psalmus, a “symphonic psalm” for choir, vocal soloists and orchestra, which is a close runner-up to the Kalevala-sarja for the title of Klami’s most popular work. The text is a religious poem by 17th-century Finnish poet and philosopher Juhana Cajanus, the first major literary poem written in Finnish, Etkös ole, ihmisparka, aivan arka (Wretched man, are you not made sore afraid). Kodály’s Psalmus hungaricus and perhaps Honegger’s Le Roi David may have inspired Klami to take up the project. Klami employs a large orchestra to set the poem, a lament on the transitory nature of the universe, in a solid work lasting nearly an hour with much realistic detail and descriptive power.

In the scherzo-like soprano aria Kell on ruumis raittihimbi, raudaisembi (Where’s a body sturdier, hardier than a fish’s in a lake?) Klami playfully follows the story of a small fish meeting its death in the stomach of a pike and the pike then ending up in a man’s boiling cauldron. A realist and an observer of life, Klami at once encapsulated a disillusioned insight into what is painful in this mortal world and what there is to laugh about. One of the critics writing about the premiere mentioned the “Catholic outlook” of the work. Orchestral brilliance and humour combined with a religious subject apparently seemed strange to Finnish, Lutheran audiences. Being unconventional, the work had no further performances for over two decades and became something of a historical oddity before conductor Ulf Söderblom revived it in the 1960s. It was soon hailed as one of the most significant Finnish compositions of all time.

Symphonic adventures

Klami is best remembered for those works where his inspiration was literary or visual. Apart from Finnish literature such as the Kalevala, Juhana Cajanus and Aleksis Kivi, he was also inspired by world literature, authors such as Eugene O’Neill (incidental music to Desire under the Elms), William Shakespeare (several compositions on King Lear), Federico Garcia Lorca (incidental music to Bodas de sangre (Blood wedding)), Edgar Allan Poe (unrealized ballet project The Devil in the Belfry).

Klami grappled with the symphonic genre in 1928, writing the Symphonie enfantine in Vienna. The title harks back to the child motif used by several turn-of-the-century French composers (e.g. in Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges). With the title, Klami probably meant to explain away the atmospheric, austere quality of the work and the absence of traditional symphonic tensions. The first movement is more misty and Impressionist than virtually anything he ever wrote, and all in all the Symphonie enfantine is one of his most ‘French’ works.

Klami did not write his two actual Symphonies until 1938 and 1945. The venerable genre restrained the composer’s freedom of orchestral invention, which at times struggled against the constraints of symphonic construction, sometimes gaining the upper hand. The First Symphony is characterized by an artistic and provocative attitude often found in Klami’s work. Restraining motifs to triad harmonies was by no means a conventional solution; the triad combinations sound strange and do not invite Romantic empathy. Klami’s temperament also sought a release in rhythm.

The Second Symphony, written in 1945, is Klami’s war symphony. It is unlike any other of his works: instead of a Modernist, a humorist and a visionary we find a subjective voice and a sombre orchestration. The motifs are traditional in idiom and stolid in rhythm. The work’s artistic precedents are, surprisingly for Klami, Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, the ‘elegiac’ Madetoja perhaps, even Tchaikovsky. As for many others, the war represented a personal crisis for Klami, who had experienced the battles of the Isthmus of Karelia. Perhaps writing the symphony was a sort of mental reconstruction for the composer? Originally, material presented in the final movement grew into a reminiscence of Balkanin marssi, a 19th-century military march whose lyrics are familiar to all Finns (“Long have we suffered cold and hunger…”). This extra-musical reference links Klami’s Second Symphony in a fundamental way with the output of his mentor, Melartin the Mahlerian, and distances him from Sibelius’s symphonic writing. However, this reference was deleted from the fair copy of the score made in 1954; we do not know why.

Klami’s Violin Concerto (1943/54) underwent a similar revision, because in its original form it was considered to contain a quote from a schlager named Top Hat. For all its Sibelius associations and Prokofiev quirks, this solid virtuoso work deserves distinction in Klami’s output in particular and in Finnish music in general.

Shaman and classicist

The Second Symphony along with works such as All’Overtura (1951) helped create the impression that the post-war years were a somehow especially conventional creative period in Klami’s career. This impression has been profoundly shaken by Karjalainen tori (Karelian market place, 1947) and Revontulet (Aurora borealis, fp. 1948), recorded by conductor Sakari Oramo in the 1990s.

There is no trace of folk music left in the suggestive Karjalainen tori, and the virtuoso orchestral treatment now speaks in more abstract terms than before. Perhaps the brass fanfares and the dissonantly distorted waltz theme could be interpreted as an expression of the trauma of war and nostalgia for the lively city of Viipuri, lost to the Soviet Union in the war? Themes for Revontulet appear in a sketchbook of his dating back to the war years. This work seems to embody natural mysticism focusing on a spiritual experience rather than the senses; its colour is more Expressionist than Impressionist. The musical concept reinforces this effect, since Klami rarely wrote as symphonically as here. “The Northern lights can be much more than a superficial play of colours in the sky. They can be an expression of the infinite loneliness of the human spirit,” Klami explained at the time. He considered Revontulet his best work to date, and if the music of the ballet Pyörteitä (Whirls), left unfinished in the late 1950s, has hitherto been regarded as astonishingly modern in view of Klami’s development, it came as a great surprise that this style had already emerged in Revontulet ten years earlier.

Klami renewed his contact with the musical life of Paris during a six-month sojourn in 1949-50. His long-standing plan for a ballet gained input, and he became interested in the music of the group called La Jeune France, particularly Messiaen and Jolivet. Indeed, Jolivet’s Trois complaintes d’un soldat may have served as the inspiration for Klami’s Laulu Kuujärvestä (Song of Kuujärvi), a dramatic and visionary work exploring war experiences; both works are for baritone and orchestra.

It was during this stay in Paris that Klami wrote part of his Second Piano Concerto, premiered at his 50th birthday concert in autumn 1950. He had tried his hand at Neo-Classical features even after his first stay in Paris (for instance in Hommage à Haendel, 1931). His Neo-Classicism in the 1950s was much more crystallized. “The aim towards increased simplicity and austerity characterized the concerto and was evident in the ensemble: here, the masterful orchestral colourist had limited himself to strings. Likewise, the golden flashes of humour in the work are more introvert and less showy than before. Fundamentally, the concerto could be described as serious music-making,” wrote Joonas Kokkonen in his review of the premiere.

In Teema, seitsemän muunnelmaa ja Coda (Theme, seven variations and coda, 1954) for cello and orchestra, energetic Neo-Classicism is merely the starting point for the composer’s inventive and unconventional explorations of the world of colour and virtuoso playing. Klami the Neo-Classicist shaking hands with Klami the Shaman and Klami the Visionary; certain ‘primitive’ effects recall the Tsheremissiläinen fantasia. The form of the work is classical, referring back to Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations.

It is something of a paradox that Uuno Klami was a dramatic composer who never completed a stage work. The piano score (orchestrated by Kalevi Aho in 1988) of Act I of Pyörteitä, a ballet loosely based on the story of the Sampo in the Kalevala and planned for three acts, won the ballet category in a composition competition organized by the Wihuri Foundation in 1958, and two orchestral suites fashioned from Act II were performed during the composer’s lifetime. In the 1950s, Klami complained that he was becoming increasingly self-critical; the dodecaphonic and Serialist mainstream probably made him feel an outsider, and his appointment as the only composer member of the Academy of Finland probably generated pressure. Preparations for the staging of Pyörteitä at the Finnish National Opera ran into difficulties, and his pace of working grew slower. Apparently, he never finished the ballet.

In the music of Pyörteitä, Klami cherished a dream that had emerged in the transition in stage music he had experienced in Paris in the 1920s and that had persisted through the decades. The composer seems to have beheld the mythical, somehow soulful world of the ballet with passionate tenderness. The dissonant idiom, with themes that are abstract and narrow in compass, is at once strict and profoundly nostalgic. The lucid and consciously dextrous orchestration contains rhythmic suggestion. Even in its unfinished state, it is one of Klami’s major works.

It was in his native Virolahti that Uuno Klami’s heart gave out, on May 29, 1961, on the threshold of summer. In his unexpected and shocking passing Finland lost an important, active and respected composer.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 2/2000

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