in From the Archives

Thomas - Analysis of the tone material

by Einojuhani Rautavaara

In this article Einojuhani Rautavaara describes the background to his opera Thomas, and explains certain technical aspects of the opera's musical structure. Thomas had its first performance at the Joensuu Song Festival in the summer of 1985.
Thomas is an opera in three acts. It was written and composed between 1982-85, with processes going forward together in parallel, each influencing the course of the other.

The opera was commissioned for the baritone Jorma Hynninen, who also provided the original inspiration behind the work, and it tense is proposed chat it should be given its first public performance in the summer of 1985, 150 years after the publication of the original edition of the Kalevala. The venue chosen for the opera’s premiere is the Joensuu Song Festival in Northern Karelia, right in the heart of Kalevala country. The composition’s origins and the moment chosen for its unveiling have a marked bearing on the nature of the opera: it focuses on the drama of one main character, and at the same time it is the ritual and metaphor of a cult screeching back right into the primal mists.

For all this, one can expect chat the traditional, commonplace vision of the Kalevala as the poetic creation of the Finnish people, and particularly that of the agrarian population of Karelia, will be somewhat shaken by the title of the piece – Thomas – and for many it may seem difficult to accommodate what follows the title-page within the confines of this traditional vision.

My two earlier, more modest Kalevala-inspired works Marjatta matala neiti (Marjatta the Lowly Maiden) and Runo 42 (Canto 42) both adhered to Lönnrot‘s Kalevala texts; they merely pruned out some sections, fused others together, and attached prologues and epilogues not taken from the epic itself.

But Thomas sees the Kalevala as a great world epic, expanding it in space as far afield as the Himalayas, and in time to regions yet more distant. In the ritual Sampo poems one can make out the shape behind it of Mahanirvana Tantra’s “Shambbu”, the beginning of time. And yet the opera’s central figure is “Dominus Thomas episcopus Fillandiae” – as he was described by Gregorius IX in the mid 13th century. Thomas was the man who first envisaged the potential for the making of a nation out of Finland and the Finns – saw it through his own burning ambition, will, and desire for self-aggrandisement, right to the bitter end.

The head-on collision and ultimate fusion of the age-old Kalevala culture and the new, Christian culture of the conquerors from the west forms the milieu for the opera, in which the (supposed) undertones are resonant with antiquity, the cradle of civilisations, Veda hymns ….



To put it another way, the atmosphere governing this work is one of synthesis. And as a parallel phenomenon, its tonal material, too, is a synthesis of different tonal systems, as will become apparent later on. Without a doubt my early introduction to Joseph Yasser‘s monomanical and ingenious theories in his Evolving Tonality, and to the musico-sociological work of Kurt Blaukopf left behind an interest in the possible interrelated networking of tonal systems; their genealogical hierarchies. But above all a sympathy for the possibility of synthesis – the need for it and belief in it – has developed gradually through the very varied phases of my composing career.

The tensions required to hold together the broad span of the librettist’s ideas appeared to set similar and parallel demands upon the composer. However, since both these individuals were on this occasion incarnated in the same person, it was not difficult to achieve a dialogue, on either the cognitive or any deeper level. What followed was a need to organise the musical material, particularly the pitch material, at an early stage in the process, in order that the web of events, characters, allusions, and associations that go to make up the opera could be integrated with the music. But rather in the form of some spontaneously created organism, and not some “organisation” dictated and regulated externally.

I should point out here that an interest in the basic musical material has been central to my composing work, since its principle has been to allow the music to grow freely, without force – organically. I have no wish to be a musical architect; I should prefer the term “gardener” (though one in a garden laid out in the English fashion rather than the French). But the chaotic is to be avoided since it is aesthetically uninteresting, and improvisation is equally undesirable, since it always stems ultimately from the improviser, and not from the subject. Nature does not improvise, nor is it chaotic; it follows strictly the directions of a genetic code, in mutual relation with environmental factors. Within musical material, within its constellations, there lies hidden such a genetic code, the amino acids of the music – all the necessary information is implanted there. The composer is not able to add anything of any significance to this. He must simply find it, and so must be interested in the tendencies of his material. Picasso had the right idea: “Je n’invence pas, je trouve.”

The composer should naturally take a stand on the actual “opera problems”. As to how the singing voice was to be used, for my part this was already clear after writing five previous operas. Continuous recitative or “speechsong” is in my view conducive to making out of opera something quite unnecessary, that is to say muddied, garbled spoken theatre, given a descriptive orchestral accompaniment. And when I hear that, it brings to mind Stravinsky‘s great question: “But who needs it?”

Various theses set themselves up as building blocks for my work. Firstly, the music itself should shape its own language. It was not possible to take something from the general musical language, still less from some private language, and make of it a new package, as does a pop musician or “ISCM composer”. How this was solved is explained briefly below.

A few minutes after the opening of the opera, we hear the three mages singing a long broad-intervalled melody, which when separated out from the polyphonic texture of the terzetto shows itself to be formed of a chain of minor triads, as shown below:


As can be seen here, all the three notes of each of the chords are used in the melody. Since the chords are all mediants, that is they form diminished seventh chords from their roots, it follows that all the notes used in the melody form a symmetrical mode, a so-called whole-step half-step scale:


When this procedure is repeated twice, but transposed a whole step downwards (as happens in the terzetto), so we can achieve the two other possible transpositions of the scale and insert all twelve notes (with repetitions) into the melody.

The scalar material was put together in such a way refeed to as the material. This can be said to have evolved out of the α material, which shows quite the simplest of states: a chain of modulations following some specific series of intervals, e.g. according to the pattern 4 + 1 (four half-steps + 1 half-step), as shown here:


The keys appear in this order as pandiatonic fields. Their density, on the other hand, is organised such that the notes of the D-aeolian minor above all appear during four measures or units of time. Later, in C sharp minor, all the notes of that scale appear during a single unit, possibly as a cluster.

But when one turns to examine the above β-melody, one observes that all those notes which have previously already appeared in the melody (E flat, C, A, and F sharp)?! now form a “diminished seventh chord”:


When this set 3, 0, 9, 6 is transposed a half-step downwards, we arrive at the following scale:


i.e. a 12-tone row, which is derived from α and β (from α through β and which I have called the γ material).

A sense of curiosity is an essential tool for any artist, and one which here, too, reveals new ways onewards from the row som conceived. One can notice immediately that at the same time as the row’s opening heptachord is a symmetrical whole-step half-step mode minus one note:


- so again its closing heptachord is one note short of being a symmetrical mode of two whole-steps and two half-steps (1 – 1 – 1/2 – 1/2):



And thus, when the entire closing hexachord is transposed a half-step upwards, the result is that the row is changed into a new transposition of the mode mentioned immediately above:


In this way it was possible to realise the β material’s next-of-kin, ββ (a scale of two whole-steps and two half-steps 1 – 1 – 1 / 2 – 1 / 2). It transpired, however, that the 12-tone row – that is to say, the γ material – was not the best possible answer to the composer’s need, in terms of its interval structure. Among other things, it was difficult to use the y material for fast runs, since there where only three-note units in seconds in both hexachords, broken by thirds in between. Also, the so-called “fifth row” (quintenreihe) derived from the γ row was impractical:


Further, the mutual symmetry of the hexachords would have been useful in many instances (e.g. in the mirror harmonies often used). Hence I constructed a combination of the first hexachord of row γ/O1 and the second hexachord of the row γ/V1:


but reading the latter three-note groups of both in reverse order:


- and thence arranging the groups again according the the sequence 1,4,3,2, as shown below:


In the new row (γγ) thus conceived, the latter hexachord (b) is the same as a retrograde of the first hexachord (a), transposed six half-steps b = Ra + 6. That is to say the required symmetry has been achieved, as also have the two four-note scales seen above. The fifth row (quintenreihe) form of this new 12-tone row was also more practical, for instance when chords of fourths were required:


All of the α, β, γ, ββ, and γγ materials derived by the above methods are used in the opera’s pitch arrangement and harmonic planning. The means udes could be referred to as “a self-correcting process”, the term used by Charles S. Peirce ehen describing science. The ways in which the materials were used is a process in itself. The idea of symbolising the opera’s different cultural elements by means of different tonal materials seemed both unnecessarily academic and at the same time an overly naïve approach.

It is clear that when such different systems as those represented by α, β, and γ function in the same work, in the same music, they cannot work, as it were, “on their own terms”. It would be more than a little strange if the γ material were to follow the classical twelvetone technique and the α material the functional fifths relationships. They should without a doubt borrow from each other’s structural principles, or perhaps follow some macrostructural directives from above.

Hence, for example, when in the first act there appears in the chorus a chord derived from γ/O3 (the third transposition of the original form of the tone-row), which dominates the entire scene:

esim14- then this detail is, as it were, “zoomed” into the macrostructure in the monologue of Thomas’s which follows. The monologue is built on successive chords having the roots shown below:


The reason for the new arrangement is naturally to avoid harmonic sequences. This provides an example of “augmentation” between the various structural levels.

A much more immediate principle of form in this opera is, for instance, the use of the chorus as a constant, ever-present factor. It has a role, takes part in events, comments on them, and very often it represents the internal monologues and streams of consciousness of the characters in the drama – when its actual presence is not concrete for them. In this sense, Thomas can be seen as a “chorus opera”.

But the aim of this article is to restrict itself to but one aspect of a broad and many-layered composition. It may seem to some to be a singularly technical aspect. Bearing this in mind, let me say that I concur fully with Philip Glass when he says: “For a long while we had this very small band of practitioners of modern music who described themselves as mathematicians, doing theoretical work that would someday be understood. I don’t think anyone takes that very seriously anymore … “

But at the same time, I also agree with what follows this, that is: “Any music that ignores the principles of order and simply expresses raw emotions must seem inadequate for this scientific age … “

Naturally, the linking together of the above described various (and to many people contradictory) systems must of necessity come to break the taboos of each system. But then it must be noted that what is at issue in Thomas is specifically the fusing of different “disciplines”, or different cultures. That this takes place on the level of the tonal material can be regarded as symbolic of this fusion. Furthermore, it is my belief that all artistic taboos are evidence of short-sightedness (in time and place), and often of racism.

To everything that has been said above should be added the rider that this is a work of art which is under discussion. The criterion for such a work is that it should have a meaning, be explicable, only through its own self. Thus there is really nothing in it to be “explained” – at least not by its sub-structures, the composer actually says nothing essential about it as a work of art. Quite the opposite is true in fact, since the image of the work can only by warped by all other sources of information bar that of experiencing the opera itself. It should be felt and experienced in the flesh, just as it is itself no more or less than a manifestation of the body and mind of the artist behind it.


Translation: William Moore

This article was first published in FMQ 1-2/1985 and is republished with the kind permission of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s family.

Examples of notation © Fennica Gehrman Oy Ab.