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Ernst Mielck - Thrice homeless

by Kimmo Korhonen

Ernst Mielck, who died at the age of only 21, is regarded as one of the most dazzling prodigies in the history of Finnish music. He was a curious figure, an outsider who nevertheless managed to make waves before his untimely death.

The brief but meteoric career of Ernst Mielck (1877–1899) is one of the most curious in the history of Finnish music. He made his début as a pianist in Viipuri at the age of 17, and over the next few years he wrote a handful of compositions that demonstrate a firm command of his idiom, including the first substantial symphony ever written in Finland (1897), predating the First Symphony of Jean Sibelius by two years. Indeed, his contemporaries regarded him as a potential challenger to Sibelius.

The high point of Mielck’s career was a composition concert given by the Berlin Philharmonic in December 1898, where Mielck appeared as piano soloist in his own Konzertstück. Soon afterwards, his flight was cut short. Sickly and in fragile health since childhood, Mielck collapsed in late spring 1899 and never recovered even with a move to the milder climate of Switzerland. He died in Locarno in October 1899, two days before his 22nd birthday.

Mielck was an eccentric, introvert personality who could never have lived an ordinary life. Music was everything to him, virtually the only meaningful content in his life. Just as Gustav Mahler once famously described himself as thrice homeless – as a Bohemian in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew throughout the world – Mielck was similarly excluded from mainstream society. He was a German speaker in a land where Finnish-speakers and Swedish-speakers were struggling for linguistic supremacy; his musical orientation was towards central Europe at a time when Finnish National Romanticism was entering its prime; and he was an ailing recluse in a world of healthy people.

“He was a fragile child”   

Mielck is generally regarded as one of the most dazzling prodigies in the history of Finnish music. While he was certainly a major talent, he was not a child prodigy in the same sense as composers like W.A. Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn or Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Mielck did not begin to study music until the age of 10, by which time true child prodigies are already seasoned professionals.   

But on the other hand, having once seriously set about studying music, Mielck made astonishingly rapid progress. Before he had reached the age of 14, his teacher and parents were ready to send him to Berlin for further study.   

There were obvious reasons why Mielck was not a child prodigy. His mother later recalled his early years: “He was a fragile child. Once he had tetanus, and the doctor, who thought he had died, told me: ‘Don’t cry, it’s best that he was allowed to die, because otherwise he would have become an idiot.’ But he wasn’t dead, and he recovered. […] By the time he reached seven years, he had hardly spoken – we could not think of sending him to school…”   

Ernst did not turn out to be an idiot, although he did suffer from a speech delay and probably a delay in his intellectual development in general. Mielck’s biographer John Rosas cites causes such as untreated meningitis, rickets and tuberculosis. But illnesses do not explain everything; there may have been other factors at play in shaping Mielck’s personality.   

One possibility is some form of autism. When Rosas published his monograph in 1952, autism was not very widely known, and it is likely that he had never heard of it. In retrospect, we may note that Mielck exhibited many features that would indicate that he had some kind of autism: slow development, reticence, social awkwardness, rejection of the outside world and an almost obsessive focus on one area of interest. After Mielck discovered music at the age of 10, there was no longer room for anything else in his life. His fragile health was apparently no hindrance to his musical career as such, although it may have inhibited his progress as a pianist. His sickly condition and possible autism had much more of an impact in his everyday life: he was taciturn, socially inept and evidently had very poor situational awareness, as witness for instance his tragicomic infatuations with two of his girl cousins.   

A ‘German’ composer in Finland   

Mielck was born into a wealthy family of merchants in Viipuri, a Finnish city not far from the then Russian capital of St Petersburg. He grew up in a cultured home where art was much discussed and which was frequently visited by leading musicians. Finland’s star soprano Aino Ackté was a frequent guest at the family’s villa, Mathildenhof, described as ‘palatial’. The story of Mielck’s childhood reads almost like the life of Hanno Buddenbrook in Thomas Mann’s masterpiece The Buddenbrooks (1900). Mielck’s grandfather emigrated from Lübeck (Thomas Mann’s home city!) in the 1850s and set up as a successful merchant in Viipuri. Although Ernst’s mother was Swedish-speaking, the Mielcks spoke German at home.   

German merchants had been a fixture in the city of Viipuri since the 14th century, and although by the end of the 19th century they only accounted for about 5 % of the population, this 5 % included many of the most influential families in the city. Musical life in Viipuri was also dominated by Germans. The city orchestra was founded in 1860 by a German expatriate, Richard Faltin, who was born in Danzig (today’s Gdansk), and the orchestra was conducted by Germans until Armas Järnefelt was appointed to the post in 1898. This was apparent in the repertoire of the orchestra too, consisting mostly of music from German-speaking central Europe. Mielck was a member of cultured and educated high society in Viipuri thanks to his German birth, but from the perspective of Helsinki, Finland’s capital, he was an outsider. Towards the end of the 19th century, cultural life in Helsinki and more generally in Finland was coloured by the language struggle between Finnish speakers and Swedish speakers. A Finnish-speaking culture was gradually usurping the centuries-old Swedish cultural hegemony, and this was a context where Mielck found it difficult to place himself.   

What is more, Mielck had had his schooling in Viipuri, with a private tutor hired by his family, and had then gone straight to Berlin. Virtually every other Finnish composer of any description at the time first studied at the Helsinki Music Institute before going off abroad, establishing contacts in musical circles in Helsinki in the meantime. Mielck had no such contacts when he began to seek to establish himself in Helsinki, guided by his strong-willed mother.   

Fortunately for Mielck, he was received with encouragement by conductor Robert Kajanus, the leading figure on the Helsinki musical scene. Yet Mielck’s mother complained in a letter to her trusted friend Aino Ackté that in Helsinki Mielck was considered German, not Finnish. She wrote that only Kajanus and Sibelius had been friendly to him; everyone else had viewed him with suspicion.   

On the other hand, because of his German background Mielck found himself quite at home in Berlin, where he stayed for extended periods of time. He studied with Max Bruch on two occasions and was one of his favourite pupils. He also made the acquaintance of no less a personality than conductor Arthur Nikisch, who gave him encouraging references even though he never did conduct any of Mielck’s music. 

Central European ideals amidst the rise of National Romanticism   

Stylistically, too, Mielck was an outsider in the Finnish music of the day. The 1890s marked the powerful rise of the National Romantic movement in the Finnish arts, music not excepted. Only a few years earlier, Kajanus had employed Finnish national elements in some of his orchestral works, and Sibelius was laying down the foundation for Finnish national music in his groundbreaking works Kullervo, En saga and the Lemminkäinen legends. Some of Järnefelt’s works also included national elements.   

Mielck’s music, influenced as it was by Mendelssohn and Schumann, was just the sort of thing that Finnish composers were trying to distance themselves from – music in the central European mainstream style. What is more, Mielck’s style was not only foreign but very conservative too: he was writing the kind of music that people in central Europe had been writing half a century earlier. He was not interested in the fashionable post-Wagnerian approach that coloured Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen and some of Järnefelt’s works.   

The un-national and ‘absolute’ nature of Mielck’s music was put to use by the most influential critic in Helsinki, Karl Flodin – a sort of Finnish equivalent of Eduard Hanslick – who used Mielck as a blunt instrument in bashing the premiere of the revised version of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen. Only a couple of weeks earlier he had praised Mielck’s Symphony for its concise form and ‘universal ideas’. The same symphonic, non-rhapsodic approach also colours Mielck’s most successful work, the Dramatic Overture (1898), written in Berlin largely under the influence of the Tragic Overture of Johannes Brahms.   

Although Mielck’s output is firmly rooted in central European Romanticism, he did experiment with Finnish national elements on occasion. The first such occasion was in summer 1896, when he wrote Fantasia suomalaisista säwelistä (Fantasy on Finnish tunes) for piano, a work that was subsequently lost. Having just studied with Bruch, he may have been inspired by Bruch’s interest in folk music subjects.   

Mielck made more extensive use of Finnish folk tunes in some of the last pieces he ever wrote: Konzertstück for piano and orchestra (1898), Kolme fantasiakappaletta suomalaisista polska-aiheista (Three fantasy pieces on Finnish polska motifs) for piano (1898) and the Finnish Suite for orchestra (1899). Here, the inspiration may have come from Armas Järnefelt, who became conductor of the Viipuri Orchestra in autumn 1898. Before finding accommodation of his own, he lodged with the Mielcks and made friends with his younger colleague. He and Mielck even talked of going on a folk music collecting trip in summer 1899, but Mielck’s fatal illness scuppered this plan.   

Although the national element in Mielck’s final works consists only of simply quoting folk tunes rather than any deep immersion in ‘Finnishness’, this may nevertheless indicate that the young composer was going through a transition. It could also be seen as a reflection of a subconscious desire to get closer to the pulse of Finnish music and to overcome his role as an outsider.    

Kimmo Korhonen is a freelance writer and has published several books on Finnish music and composers.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi