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The symphonist who broke the glass ceiling – Helvi Leiviskä 120th anniversary at the Kokonainen festival

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

Helvi Leiviskä wrote monumentally culminating symphonies and influenced numerous Finnish composers. As a theosophist, she wanted her music to reflect her world view and believed in the power of music. Thanks to the efforts of musicians and scholars, she is now attaining the place she deserves in the repertoire of Finnish orchestras, 120 years after her birth.

In 2022, we celebrated the 120th anniversary of the birth of Helvi Leiviskä, the first woman in Finland to create a career as a professional composer. Multiple bodies showcased Leiviskä’s music and career, building on the ‘Leiviskä renaissance’ that had begun some years earlier. This, in turn, forms part of a broader trend where scholars and musicians are unearthing the work of Finnish women composers, thereby reshaping and augmenting our knowledge of the history of Finnish music. 

Helvi Leiviskä (1902–1982) was quite unknown to the public at large up until a few years ago, but recently she has been steadily gaining recognition. In a landmark performance in 2020, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and pianist Mirka Viitala, in a stupendous effort, performed Leiviskä’s Piano Concerto on Independence Day, 6 December. The work had been commendably edited by the Savo Musical Society, which has championed forgotten composers, not only Leiviskä but also the life’s work of Laura Netzel, for instance.

Leiviskä certainly needed the publicity, since none of her major works were published in her lifetime – only a handful of minor pieces. In 2021, Fennica Gehrman signed a publishing deal with Leiviskä’s estate and published the core of her chamber music output: her Violin Sonata, Piano Trio and Piano Quartet.

Among the most significant works in Leiviskä’s output are her three symphonies, which Fennica Gehrman intends to publish in due course. Two of them have already been edited and were performed in autumn 2022 using the newly created performance materials: Sinfonia brevis by the Helsinki Philharmonic under Dalia Stasevska, and Symphony no. 2 by Sinfonia Lahti under Anna-Maria Helsing. Sinfonia Lahti also intends to record all of Leiviskä’s symphonies with their Chief Conductor, Dalia Stasevska. This project involves not just the three ‘proper’ symphonies but also an early venture into the genre.

The Kokonainen festival in Helsinki celebrated Leiviskä's 120th anniversary in a discussion by Finnish musicologists. Photo: Tuomas Tenkanen.

An anniversary celebration

An excellent opportunity for getting acquainted with Leiviskä’s music and philosophy came towards the end of the anniversary year with the Kokonainen festival, which organised a theme day titled Helvi Leiviskä 120! at Balder Hall in Helsinki on 3 December 2022. Soprano Iida Antola and pianist Fanny Söderström performed some of Leiviskä’s late solo songs, and violinist Linda Suolahti (artistic director of the Kokonainen festival), cellist Kati Raitinen, violist Elina Heikkinen and pianist Tiina Karakorpi gave determinedly fiery performances that did justice to the essence of Leiviskä’s idiom: decisive force and austere yet beautiful spirituality. Expert talks described the woman behind the music. The keynote speech was given by Eila Tarasti, a musicologist who has written an extensive biography of Leiviskä, Nouse, ole kirkas (Arise, be bright, 2017). Musicologists Susanna Välimäki and Markus Virtanen also participated in the discussion. 

Leiviskä was a pioneer in many ways, a woman writing music at a time when composing was viewed as the exclusive province of men. Leiviskä knew what she wanted and achieved it. Her father was opposed to his daughter becoming a composer, and the identity of a creative artist did not come easily to her. She discovered a justification for her life’s work in theosophy, joining the Ruusu-Risti [Rosy Cross] Society founded in 1920. One of the prominent figures in the Society was composer Erkki Melartin, who was Leiviskä’s most important teacher and also a sort of father figure, she having lost her father in her teens.

While losing her father was a heavy blow for Leiviskä, it did free her up to pursue her dream: to write symphonies.

“Leiviskä made her choice at the age of 20,” says musicologist Eila Tarasti. It was then that Leiviskä wrote her early Symphony, as part of her studies that she had begun three years earlier at the Helsinki Music Institute (subsequently the Sibelius Academy). This was the first symphony that had ever been written at that school. 

Erkki Melartin was Leiviskä’s teacher in music theory and composition from the first, and she studied with him for a total of eight years. She also studied in Vienna and received tuition from composer Leevi Madetoja and conductor Leo Funtek. The influence of Melartin and Madetoja can be clearly detected in Leiviskä’s orchestral idiom, but she does have a strong and distinctive vision of her own, particularly in her symphonies.  

Melartin was supportive of Leiviskä’s career. When she emerged as a composer at the turn of the 1930s, Melartin’s composition class at the Sibelius Academy included a considerable number of women. Leiviskä became a central figure among his students and an important influence and focus for networking among women composers.

Leiviskä was also active in the Finnish women’s rights movement. She frequently performed as a pianist at events held by women’s associations, where she was admired for pursuing a career in an overwhelmingly masculine field. Musicologist Susanna Välimäki points to a chain of Finnish women writing music, from Ida Moberg (1859–1947) via Helvi Leiviskä to Kaija Saariaho, whose 70th birthday was celebrated with a Special Feature in FMQ in October 2022. Leiviskä was the first among pioneers and broke the glass ceiling. For a period of no less than 35 years, she was the only woman admitted as a member of the Society of Finnish Composers. 

Performing Leiviskä's chamber music works at the Kokonainen festival. Photo: Tuomas Tenkanen.

Music of spiritual growth

While Leiviskä did manage to create a career as a professional composer, she had to struggle against prejudice all her life. She made a living as a concert pianist, and she held the position of librarian at the Sibelius Academy for many years. She was accustomed to being the breadwinner in her family, due to her father’s early death.

Leiviskä used whatever time she could spare from her day job to write music. Her output is small in terms of the number of works, but this is more than made up for in quality and weight. It is significant that Leiviskä chose to focus her creative energies on symphonies in particular, according to musicologist Markus Virtanen. Her choice was not an insignificant one: after all, the symphony is traditionally regarded as the ‘king of genres’, the most manly pursuit in all European art music. Leiviskä saw the symphony as “the highest manifestation of music”, and she regarded music in general as a meaningful resource for humanity, with the power to achieve change.

Leiviskä frequently published articles in the press about music, religion, philosophy and the mission of an artist. While she was appreciated as an opinion leader in the field of music, her works were evaluated largely through the prism of her gender and her theosophical world view. Both were cause for disparagement, even if holding esoteric world views and spiritual idealism was more the rule than the exception in the arts at that time.

Theosophy was for Leiviskä above all a pursuit of spiritual growth and self-improvement, which manifested itself in the soaring arcs and rising patterns in her music. Eila Tarasti notes that Leiviskä’s music often features ambulating ostinatos, reflecting our journey on the path of life and the quest of a spiritual seeker. Many of her works feature a relentlessness leading to a culmination, a cosmic explosion followed by serenity, the attainment of a new level of consciousness.

“It was typical for early modernism to express internal human narratives in extensive, abstract musical genres such as symphonies and sonatas,” says Susanna Välimäki, who has studied the music of composers such as Ida Moberg. Moberg, whose principal focus was in writing operas, was like Leiviskä also a follower of theosophy.


Captivating compulsion 

Leiviskä took part in the debate of her day about modernism in music. For her, following one’s internal path of advancement was more important than following trends: fidelity to one’s ideals was more important than using new means of expression for their own sake. Leiviskä’s symphonies and chamber music works trace a stylistic arc from late Romanticism to Expressionism and Neo-classicism. Eila Tarasti believes that Leiviskä’s fidelity to her vision is one reason for the “weight and durability” of her music. Indeed, her music remains captivating to this day. One need only hear her music performed live to realise that she is a major figure in the continuum of Finnish music. 

Leiviskä was unmarried, modest and industrious. She highlighted power or will as one of the principal features of her music at a time when such qualities were only associated with men. The chamber music works performed at the Kokonainen festival showed how Leiviskä managed to crystallise weighty content and sculpture-like, soaring shapes even into a work of brief duration. For instance, the op. 34 solo songs Liekki [Flame] and Runolintuni [My poetical bird] encapsulate the mystical struggle of light and dark in a short space of time. The slow movement of the Violin Sonata is a fine example of Leiviskä’s gradually evolving music, a noble ascendance where humble perseverance and fierce determination combine.

These are the tones that, we hope, will be increasingly heard at orchestral concerts in the future.


Featured photo: Helvi Leiviskä at her desk in 1964 by Ensio Ilmonen

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi