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The uncomfortable tales of Hofmann

by Karoliina Vesa

Heinz-Juhani Hofmann has attracted attention with vocal works addressing troublesome subjects. His no-holds-barred naturalism relishes contrasts and extremities.

It is a sweaty evening in the gymnasium of Viitasaari School in July 2010. Finland’s most venerable contemporary music festival is about halfway through, and an audience consisting of composers, local holiday residents and a handful of committed contemporary music freaks have assembled to listen to a recital by mezzosoprano Jutta Seppinen and pianist Paavali Jumppanen.

Sitting on plain plastic chairs, the audience have already listened to almost an hour of music revolving around the theme of the festival – the human voice – and are riffling through their programmes in anticipation of the concluding work, a solo by Heinz-Juhani Hofmann entitled Petollinen on ihmissydän yli kaiken (The human heart is treacherous above all). Then you can almost hear their jaws dropping. For ten minutes, Seppinen not only sings but screams, hisses and shouts in a burst of verbal pyrotechnics, ranting about sadism, the repressive power of religion and the vulnerability of a child. A dazed audience exits into the summer night.

Extremely loud and incredibly close

Heinz-Juhani Hofmann (b. 1973) has established an exceptionally brutal naturalism as his hallmark on the Finnish musical scene. In recent years, he has written vocal works on topics such as incest, violence and repression, pulling no punches in any way.

This approach culminated in his monologue opera Ihmissydän (Human heart), which was very well received. Hofmann wrote the libretto himself, and he has written the texts for nearly all of his other vocal works too.

“I never set out to shock people,” says Hofmann. He also dissociates himself from any overt social or political agenda. He shows us things but does not editorialise.

He discovered this strain in 2008, working on a piece commissioned for soprano and string quartet, Hysteria ja rukous (Hysteria and prayer). He had been suffering from depression for nearly a year and finally wrote himself out of it with words and music.

“I could not close my eyes against the sickness of the surrounding world any more. And I just could not stand poetry any more. I wanted my expression to be something more concrete, something that really reaches out and grabs you.”

Giving voice to women

Over the past four years, Heinz-Juhani Hofmann has written nearly four hours of music, all but one work being vocal works for women’s voices.

Hofmann freely admits that he needs the pressure of a commission deadline in order to write music. He has barely any unperformed works in his back catalogue. His output is not huge, but many of his works have been performed many times over by his trusted performers, singers Jutta Seppinen and Piia Komsi.

“I have been spoiled rotten. Never once have they said to me: I can’t do this,” the composer says of his performers. And there is every chance of such a reaction, as Hofmann calls for extremities from the performers of his music too. His pieces typically feature performance instructions such as ‘hysterically’ or ‘in a panic’. Jumping manically from playful tunes to rapid-fire recitatives to screaming, shouting and extreme emotions, his works certainly do not give performers an easy ride.

And indeed it was initially not easy for the composer himself to listen to them. “It all started with Petollinen on ihmissydän, and I was incredibly nervous about the premiere. But Jutta and Piia are the brave ones in performing this stuff,” says Hofmann with appreciation.

Orchestral manoeuvres

For now, Hofmann is done with the theme of sexual violence. In a new departure, the work entitled Kaksi muistijälkeä (Two traces of memory) completed last year, Hofmann explores his father’s death in a touching way. He expects to continue this theme in one form or another.

At the moment, however, he is busy with a one-hour opera, Ahti Karjalainen – elämä, Kekkonen ja teot (Ahti Karjalainen – life, Kekkonen and achievements), focusing on the story of a controversial Finnish politician overshadowed by long-standing President Kekkonen. The libretto is by Juha Hurme. Commissioned by the Kokkola Opera Summer, its premiere is scheduled for late May. The opera is scored for a ten-piece ensemble and four soloists and represents a step towards largerscale pieces.

Hofmann is also working on a trumpet concerto commissioned by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, to be premiered in autumn 2014.

“I have written very little orchestral music, or instrumental music of any kind, because people have not asked me to. This is not to say that I am not interested in it,” says Hofmann. Describing the aesthetics of his music, he says: “My roots are in the serialist or post-serialist idiom. Sometimes there has to be a huge flurry of notes, sometimes nothing at all.” His works are getting bigger, but his path is clear: Heinz-Juhani Hofmann is a man of contrasts and extremes.


Karoliina Vesa is a contemporary music specialist and producer with the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE).

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Saara Vuorjoki / Music Finland