in From the Archives

Uuno Klami and the Kalevala

by Erkki Salmenhaara

Musicologist and composer Erkki Salmenhaara provides an introduction to the work of the Franco-Russo-Karelian cosmopolitan who was Uuno Klami.
It scarcely needs to be said that Jean Sibelius was, and is, the best-known Finnish representative of composers working with Kalevala. When the great man lapsed into the long silence of his later years, perhaps the greatest hopes for a successor in this branch were pinned on Uuno Klami (1900- 1961). Klami did not disappoint his audience – his Kalevala Suite has become a Finnish classic. But Uuno Klami’s vision of the Kalevala had moved some way from the familiar Sibelian image of the national epic.

“One of the most noticeable features of Uuno Klami’s personality was a certain laconic quality, a kind of caution in his relationship to his surroundings. What he was actually thinking, he kept to himself. He would often condense whatever it was he had to say into short staccato bursts. It was perhaps intended as the expression of an exhaustive personal opinion, but there was usually something not quite complete about it, a couch of aphorism, the evasive shielding of his inner self; in a word, a noli me tangere attitude taken to the most sensitive limits. Klami was one of the observers of this world. . . ” Tauno Karila, a Finnish critic and musicologist, here provides a picture of Uuno Klami which squares well with the widely held view that Klami was “a man who kept his cards held close co his chest”.

In his composing, too, Uuno Klami was a solitary, unique, and slightly mysterious presence on the Finnish music scene. From beginning to end he trod his own path, fired by an infelt passion simply to write gloriously sounding, clear music, which required no explanation or interpretation. It was characteristic of Klami as both man and composer that his method of parrying those who labelled him a humourist was itself a highly amusing observation: “This reputation comes from the fact that initially no one could play my pieces properly, and so they did sound rather comic. Every year, the players get better, and I find myself becoming a more and more serious composer.” Klami’s real inner seriousness, often very profound, is revealed only in his compositions – for those with ears to hear. Behind the great, humane sense of humour there always lies a serious, even tragic quality. As one of life’s observers, Klami saw behind the scenes, to the realities, and described what he saw realistically. And as is sometimes the way with truly profound realism, it often turns in Klarni’s music into its apparent opposite: poetry.

A certain sort of inner determination shows up throughout Klarni’s composing career. He wanted to be an unfettered composer, and in spite of financial difficulties never tied himself down to teaching-work or any permanent post. Already in his third year of elementary school he announced his intention of becoming a composer, although he had had no real musical education to speak of. There was little musical stimulus forthcoming from his modest childhood home in Virolahti, a village on the south coast, close to the present border with the Soviet Union, but he still managed to become self-taught on the violin and accordion, and tramped 12 kilometres to an agricultural college where he could improvise on their piano. It has recently come out that he probably went with his mother for music lessons with Emil Sivori in Viipuri, now in the Soviet Union, before at the age of 15 he arrived in Helsinki to try to gain entry to the College of Music, later the Sibelius Academy. He knew that this was his rightful place: “And if they won’t let me in, then I shall just stay there, right outside the door if necessary.” A year later his mother died. His father and sister had succumbed to tuberculosis some time earlier. Klami was alone with his music. About this phase of his life he never spoke to anyone, not even to his wife of many years, Toini Klami.


A colourful orchestrator

But Uuno Klami was also categorised (by the influential Swedish-speaking poet and critic Elmer Diktonius) as a “Sunday’s child and Fortune’s pet” in Finnish music, and there is something inborn and inherently effortless about the ease with which Klami, with practically no formal musical training behind him, was able in the 1920’s to take in the marvellously rich orchestral treatments and vivid rhythms of composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Honegger, and Stravinsky, and to embrace the then quite unfamiliar cosmopolitan world of the Franco-Russian school while yet blending with this the important ingredient of the Karelianism of his home and the region where he spent his summers. It should at this point be rioted that when Klami graduated – with no diploma awarded – from the Helsinki College of Music in 1924, he had appeared in the college concerts only as a composer of chamber works – albeit with considerable success. On his home ground, as a master of orchestral works, he was, however, more or less self-taught. In his first year studying in Paris from 1924-25 he met Ravel and Schmitt among others, but there is nothing to suggest any formal studies. Klami had directed himself towards French ideals of style back in Helsinki, and in Paris he steeped himself in all the finer points of the emotional world of the Franco-Russian school and its primitivistic-sensual orchestral colour. He was a born orchestral composer, who had from the outset both of the basic components for orchestral thinking at his command: the ability to start up, accelerate, and bring to climax the immeasurably complex machinery of a full orchestra, and conversely the gift for stopping to listen to the most delicate nuances of individual instruments and groups of instruments.


Klami on Ravel and Stravinsky

Ravel and Stravinsky remained as exemplars for Klami throughout his life, although in his later more ascetic style he distanced himself somewhat from the direct stylistic influences he acquired from them. In honour of Ravel’s 60th birthday in 1935 Klami had this to say about “the leading light of modern French music”: “He is without a doubt one of the foremost orchestral maestros of all time. In sheer instrumental virtuosity perhaps someone of Stravinsky’s brilliance can outshine him, but not in the natural delicacy and power of the measures he uses. Ravel’s orchestra will continue to stand as the paragon of the so-called ‘beautifully sounding’ modern orchestra.” Five years prior to this, he had written of Stravinsky: “There can be no doubt that Le Sacre is one of the most incredible scores ever written. For the first time music ceases to be anything but music. – The music is cold and serious, but it is pure, absolute. It makes a great impression on one, to be able for once to see the music face to face, alone, completely undisturbed.” Reading between the lines, it seems as if Klami in his admiring description of these musical masters is also saying something about himself. As a counterweight to Stravinsky’s absolutism he also stresses the importance of Honegger: “he brought back to music the feeling, the feeling which Stravinsky had driven out by force.” The lines with which Klami closes his 1938 tribute to Ravel rake on a personal, poetic quality. He speaks at the end of Ravel as a theatrical composer – and perhaps once again of himself: “He is a stranger to human emotions and life, and for him reality changes into war. Ravel rules a kingdom made up of children, animals, goddesses, fairies, and bells. It is Ariel’s kingdom.” Ravel had composed the fantasie lyrique L’Enfant et les Sortileges, Klami his Symphony Enfantine.


Getting acquainted with the Kalevala

But the result of Klarni’s sojourn in Paris was not simply Une nuit á Montmartre (1925), a piece which is reminiscent of Ravel’s later piano concertos. For while he was in the French capital, he went and borrowed a copy of the Kalevala from the Sorbonne library. Karelianism and cosmopolitanism began to take their appointed places as the twin poles of Klarni’s intellectual world. This new synthesis of the national and the international found its first expression in the Karelian Rhapsody which Klami introduced in 1928, on the occasion of the first full programme of his works. From the 1930’s onwards it was to become one of the composer’s most-played pieces. In this work we can find, already brought to fruition, two of the fundamentals of Klami’s music: a stilled, secretive and portentous Misterioso, about which one could also use the epithet “feelings of expectation” applied to the opening movement of Klarni’s suite Rustic Scenes, and a completely contrasting extrovert, spirited, even rowdy joie de vivre, distinguished by diatonically trolling trumpet melodies, a gloriously ringing tutti, and an animated rhythm, often percussively stressed. The misterioso opening theme of the Karelian Rhapsody is suggestive of both the opening motif in the first movement of the Kalevala Suite and – almost note for note – of the viola and cello theme found at the beginning of the fourth movement. When Klami also makes a side-reference to the Kalevala he borrowed from the Sorbonne in a comment on his Karelian Rhapsody, he seems to be implying that the Rhapsody is somehow connected to the Kalevala theme, or at least to his new fresh approach to the musical treatment of the epic.

Klami returned time and again to Karelian themes in his compositions. The works of the 1930’s include Three Karelian Folk Songs, the exultant – and only 60 seconds long – Karelian Prasniekka for piano and string orghestra (1934), Karelian Dances for orchestra (1935), Five Ugrian Folk Tunes for orchestra (1938), and the somewhat rhapsodic amalgamation of contemplative and virtuoso themes Fantaisie Tscheremisse, Op. 19, for cello and orchestra (1931). In the following decade these were joined by the colourful concert overture Karelian Market Place (1947).

The turning-point in the approach of Finnish composers to the Kalevala was, however, reached in Klami’s best-known work, the Kalevala Suite. It is there that clearly specified Kalevala themes are treated from Klami’s new perspective, a viewpoint markedly different from that of the familiar National Romantic tradition. The best description of this new approach is to be had from the composer himself. Klami was always very sparing in his writings on his work, but his only moderately extensive study of his own music deals precisely with the Kalevala Suite and the events surrounding the appearance of its various versions. About the beginnings of the project, Klami has this to say: “Well aware of the dangers which would follow from my stepping into the area ruled autocratically by Jean Sibelius, and conscious of the fact that many efforts in that direction had resulted in music that was predominantly grey and uninteresting, I began my planning from an entirely different point.” And then again on the fourth movement of the final version: “Here, as in others of my works, I tried my best to shrug off that heavy-heartedness and my deep melancholy for which Finnish music has encountered so much criticism, particularly abroad.”

In the final, printed score, which bears the sub-title Five Tone Pictures for Large Orchestra, the following descriptions are given of the subjects of the five movements.

I. THE CREATION OF THE EARTH is based on the first canto of the Kalevala, which describes the formation of the earth out of chaotic beginnigs.

II. THE SPROUT OF SPRING. The legendary hero Väinämöinen sows a seed, which sprouts from the earth and grows blossoms.

III. TERHENNIEMI. A mythical atmosphere is created by light, hovering dance rhythms.

IV. CRADLE SONG FOR LEMMINKÄINEN. The amorous hero’s mother sings this mournful song to her son, whom she has rescued from the river of Tuonela (the Styx) and brought back to life by charms.

V. THE FORGING OF THE SAMPO. The smith Ilmarinen forges the Sampo, a marvellous magical instrument, the exact nature of which continues to mystify scholars. It was the mysterious source of all good fortune, the fabulous national treasure of the ancient Finnish folk of the Kalevala.

As can be seen from this, the movement making up the suite are a series of tonepictures loosely woven around the mythological subject (the Finnish composer Pehr-Henrik Nordgren has described the work as a monumental orchestral fresco), with the exception of Terhenniemi, which does not describe any known section of the Kalevala. In this way, Klami in his own new fashion actually did continue the Sibelian tradition. Sibelius, who himself incidentally planned a work on the forging of the Sampo during the 1920’s, was similarly not interested in composing literary, illustrative tone poems, but created independent tone poems or symphonic fantasias, which were linked to the general nature and atmosphere of their subject. That Klami’s attitude was somewhat more realistic in its thinking is, however, brought out in lighthearted fashion by his comments in an interview following the first performance of the initial version of the work in 1933: “‘Kalevala’ has been in the making for around ten years now. The suite opens with The Creation of the Earth, which is followed by The Sprout of Spring, a pastorale, all that digging and sowing stuff, then the Cradle Song by Lemminkäinen’s mother for her wayward son, the great playboy, and finally The Forging of the Sampo.”

A Lullaby written for string orchestra and based on Kalevala themes known from as early as 1930. It is therefore clear that the Kalevala Suite was on the drawing-board well before 1932, when Klarni, urged on by the conductor Robert Kajanus, composed the first version of The Creation of the Earth in a very short time. In his interview Klami refers to a period of around ten years, and when the final version of the work did not see the light of day until 1943, the various phases of the composition process lasted a full twenty years. It may well be that Klami already had the Kalevala Suite in mind when he borrowed that copy of the epic from the Sorbonne.


Shaping the final version of the suite

The composer was not satisfied with the original form of his suite, because it contained “two typical central movements” side by side with one another. In order to put some distance between them he set about composing an orchestral scherzo Lemminkäinen (1935), based on the young Don Juan’s adventures on an island full of women. This piece grew, however, to unmanageable dimensions (62 pages, 12 minutes) as far as the Suite was concerned, and after the first performance Klami separated it off as an independent composition. Although this boisterous and colourful work is typical Klami, it does contain links with Sibelius. The trumpet motif, which reminds one of the central theme of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen’s Homecoming, precedes a highly Sibelian development progressing in foaming semiquaver figures (itself something unusual in Klami’s music), and the many-stepped, powerful final ascent and the climax with its fortissimo chords interspersed with pauses brings to mind the close of Sibelius’s 5th Symphony.

Just as with Sibelius’s symphony, the first efforts at reshaping the Kalevala Suite still did not lead to a satisfactory conclusion. Ten years later, Klami set ro work again on improving the suite’s orchestration. In the middle of this, there appreared “almost out of the blue through a lucky insight … the sensual orchestral piece ‘Terhenniemi'”. This was to become the third movement in the final version, in place of the planned scherzo, and is generally regarded as one of the finest displays of the art of orchestral treatment found in Klami’s works, or for that matter in the entire Finnish orchestral music canon. The Creation of the Earth was extended and fused together with The Sprout of Spring which follows. The Cradle Song and particularly the Forging of the Sampo also had considerable additions made.

In the same vein as the works of Stravinsky’s Russian period, most of the themes of the Kalevala Suite are rather narrow, archaic in feel, following the verse-song ideal with only a few notes winding and repeating, but rhythmically sharpened and capricious. In actual fact the verse-song theme from the Forging of the Sampo does not differ significantly from the four-note rune theme in the second movement of Sibelius’s Kullervo Symphony (1892). The Kalevala-inspired archaic subjects are similar, but the stylistic medium into which they are embedded is entirely different: Sibelius’s with its Brucknerian-Wagnerian National Romantic flavour and Klami’s with its touch of Stravinsky, Ravel, and cosmopolitanism. But there are also more romantic rnotifs, such as the catching melody of the Cradle Song, or the melody which precedes the beating, dissonant forging theme in the Sampo movement, and which bears a resemblance to the main theme of Sibelius’s En Saga. Although Klami took his most important stimuli from the Franco-Russian school, he is not afraid of using unabashedly romantic devices. These also appear in his neo-classical period, with the most impressive in his oratorio Psalmus (1934-35), written for mixed choir, soloist, and orchestra, about which composer Aarre Merikanto wrote after the first performance in 1937 that there was not a trace of the Ravel and Stravinsky influences “which have undeniably been displayed earlier in Klarni’s music (and for that matter in the music of many others among us)”.

Quite apart from the mastery of his handling of the orchestra, Klami’s Kalevala Suite is a milestone in his music – and in Finnish composition since the days of Sibelius – by virtue of the fact that its musical themes are exceptionally individualistic and musically significant; in this respect there is not a hint of the eclecticism which occasionally troubles Klami’s compositions. On the other hand, a certain eclectic quality sets its stamp on the 1938 composition In the Belly of Vipunen, a scene taken from Canto 17 of the Kalevala, with which Klami took second prize in a national competition arranged by a male voice choir. The baritone solo recites “Then Vipunen rich in songs, old man of great resources”, in search of the Kalevala verse-song idiom, but the choir is primarily handled in unisons with simple themes, and the orchestra part is more or less reduced to doubling or accompaniment. One point worthy of note is the theme which enters, initially in F sharp minor, towards the end of the work, which is apparently a backward glance to the Psalmus oratorio first performed in the previous year. For 1945 two of the Klami cataloguers (Olavi Kauko, 1961, and Tauno Karila, 1965) make mention of a Kalevala-inspired symphonic poem, The Boat’s Complaint, but this work has been lost, and no further information is available on it. It must remain a mystery whether it was in some way connected to the well-known painting of the same name by Akseli Gallén-Kallela.


Whirls – Klami’s Kalevala ballet

A similar air of mystery surround Klami’s last Kalevala exploration, the ballet Whirls (1957-1960?), based on the story of the magical and much-coveted Sampo forged in Canto 10 by the smith Ilmarinen. It is, however, a mystery of quire different stature, since on the strength of what we know of the work today it ranks among the most important of Klami’s compositions, and can as such be set alongside the Kalevala Suite or the Psalmus oratorio.

Klami got down to work in 1957-58, given the initial shove by an opera and ballet music competition sponsored by the Wihuri Foundation. The competition jury announced that only one entry of real worth had been received for the ballet competition, and Klami took the prize with the first act, which was all he had been able to complete within the time limit set. It is possible that behind the ballet project there lay a choreographic work which Klami had planned some two years earlier. In a 1955 newspaper interview, the composer had said that in response to offers by Leopold Stokowski of performances of the piece in the U.S. he was working on a choreographic fantasia of around 30 minutes’ duration, and that it was “more or less a completed work, with only the tail still missing”. The composition was based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Devil in the Belfry. In much the same way as Poe haunted Sibelius during the writing of his 4th Symphony, it seems as though the high-priest of Gothic horror may have had a hand in the creation of Klami’s Kalevala ballet. There is nothing in Klami’s output to suggest a choreographic fantasia such as he mentions, so it is conceivable that he transferred some of the musical ideas – from this stillborn venture to the new ballet project which came along two or three years later.

For a long time, nothing concrete was known of the work except two orchestral suites, of which the first was premiered in April 1960, performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. While compiling this survey of Uuno Klarni’s Kalevala-related works I spent a day going through the collection of scores at the Finnish National Opera, in search of material. From the card-index I came across a card which recorded as “missing, presumed lost” the manuscript for Whirls, with the authorship accredited pseudonymously (and with a none-too-subtle nod to the verses of Canto 10) to one Mr. Kirjokansi. After a thorough search, however, the lost manuscript was located. The manuscript, in the composer’s own hand, and in the form of a piano score, contains a synopsis of the ballet, which was not previously known to exist, and the music for Acts I and II, comprising 61 and 58 pages respectively.

A comparison of the piano score and the score of the orchestral suites shows that with the exception of a few bars here and there the suites correspond to the second act of the newly discovered piano score. The idea that the work would have actually been completed is given added weight by the fact that along¬side the synopsis of Act III are marked the precise durations of the numbers contained in it (3′, 3’30”, 5’30”, 4′ and 8′, for a total of 25 minutes). With Acts I and II noted down as lasting 38 minutes and 42 minutes respectively, the entire work was to run for an hour and three-quarters.

Despite efforts from a number of directions, the search for the score of the missing third act has so far proved fruitless. In spite of the information set out above, there is still some doubt as to whether Klami did really ever get the ballet finished.

Whirls provides an example of Klami’s mature, astringent later style. The themes are short, atmospheric, and there is no evidence of any of the broad, romantic themes encountered in the earlier Psalmus. Klami has also distanced himself from neo-classicism as such, something which is brought out by the fact that he seldom if ever resorts to the deus ex machina effects in pure chords practised by the neo-classicists and many later composers. The chording is dissonant practically throughout. The dissonances are sharpered by orchestral devices, such as in the clear, shimmering Ronde V from the orchestral suite (Dances of the Night I, with the additional marking “The Stars”), or softened, as in the dreamlike Ronde (Lento e suave) which follows immediately upon it, or in the translucent music of The Son of the Moon, also from Act II. The misterioso from the number in Act I entitled The Awakening of the Fires is based on a strange harmonic colour and flaring, dissonant theme fragments. The Dances of the Fires which follows is full of movement an dancing energy. The Song of the Waves, again in Act I, is a contrastingly impressionistic, misty, secretive tone picture. In the Dances of the Slaves, which closes Act I and refers to the men employed to work the bellows at Ilmarinen’s forge, there is a grotesque quality reminiscent of Prokofiev. Taken as a whole, for all its bareness and ascetic quality, the work exudes a rare charm, and displays forcefully the presence of a strong, original, and richly imaginative grip.

Uuno Klami’s offbeat sense of humour is left behind him in his affirmation that “Composing really shouldn’t be taken so damned seriously.” Even as a member of the Academy of Finland Klami was a determined opponent of academicism and sham profundity. And yet the often long and complex process that went into the writing of his works shows just how seriously he really felt about his composing. And in the final analysis, it demands just as deep and serious application to create deliciously light, airy, and fresh tone pictures as to mould the most grief-ridden and grave of symphonies.


Translation: William Moore

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