Nordic Music, Unjustly Neglected by Geography

Recently I was preparing material for some lectures I was giving on a Baltic cruise. The topic for each lecture was a different school of Nordic or Scandinavian music - and the point of the talks was to illustrate unfamiliar music from (in these cases) Estonia, Finland, and Sweden. In talks like this I always try to give musical examples, so I did a lot of listening and then prepared a CD of excerpts.  The exercise was fascinating, and it made me focus on the fact that some countries, without the firm and deep and varied connections to the international music scene enjoyed by, say, Germany, Austria, and France, seem to lack the ability to help their best composers develop a place in the repertoire.
A great deal of listening, over a period of some weeks, persuaded me that each of these countries had composers of genuine value whose music was under-represented in the world's concert halls.  

Let's start with Estonia. Finally they have found one composer whose music has made an international impact -- Arvo Pärt --  and one wonders if his music would have achieved the popularity it has had he continued to live in that country instead of Vienna and then Berlin. (He left Estonia in 1980 because of differences with its then Soviet-dominated government.) But Pärt is by no means the only Estonian composer whose music deserves a hearing by all of us. My own nomination, from among quite a few composers, would be Eduard Tubin. His ten completed symphonies are extremely powerful, dramatic, tautly constructed works. Anyone who responds to the symphonies of Shostakovich is likely to connect to Tubin's music.

Finland may have done the best of these three countries: Sibelius's place is firmly established, and thanks to the wealth of Finnish conducting talent -- produced largely by the teaching of Jorma Panula -- we have Finnish conductors in many important posts. They have made us aware of the music of Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Aulis Sallinen, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and others. Still, how many of us have had a chance to encounter one of the twelve symphonies of Kalevi Aho in a concert hall? And at how many Lieder recitals does someone sing the songs of Yrjö Kilpinen, deeply felt and beautiful as they are? And among the important figures of the twentieth century, Joonas Kokkonen seems to me to have been unfairly forgotten. His Requiem is an extraordinarily powerful piece of writing.

Sweden's musical history goes back much further than Estonia's and Finland's. "The Swedish Handel" was what some called Johan Helmich Roman, though we don't hear his music from the early 1700s at all today. We do, fortunately, run into (rare) performances of some of the symphonies of Franz Berwald. But I'll bet that if a German or Viennese composer wrote precisely those same works, we'd hear them a lot more often. Somehow, it seems to me that geography becomes destiny. While these four symphonies may not be of quite the same stature as the Schumann or Mendelssohn symphonies, they are not as far below that level as the ratio of performances would have you believe. And then there's the Brahmsian music of Wilhelm Stenhammar -- music of great beauty and elegance that is largely absent from the repertoire of non-Scandinavian orchestras and performers.

There are, of course, many non-Nordic examples of this as well. To cite just one composer, I believe that the music of Douglas Lilburn would be better represented in our concert halls had he not been hidden away in New Zealand.

If I could wave a magic wand and grant myself a wish, it would be that performers exhibit a real intellectual curiosity, go beyond the music they know, and be open to learning works from traditions other than their own. I wish they would get beyond the prejudices and pre-formed views that shape much of our programming.

September 19, 2008 10:24 AM | | Comments (3)



Well put, Henry. I suspect that many of the recordings that you've been listening to were conducted by Neeme Jarvi, a musician who has always been defined by his curiosity. We were fortunate during his long tenure here with the Detroit Symphony to hear first hand the glories of the Nordic repertoire, including most of the composers you noted in your post. In a related aside, Jarvi's son Paavo has championed a younger generation of Estonian composers, most prominently Erkki-Sven Tuur, a sort of Estonian post-modernist, edgier than our American po-mos.

Interestingly, Norwegian conductor Arild Remmereit's concerts with the DSO last weekend opened with a 7-minute piece by his countryman Eivind Groven, a new name to me. From the mid-20th Century, "Hjalarljod" ("Joyful Shout")blended folk melodies and fanfares in a muscular tonal language, a Norwegian Copland if you will. A masterpiece? No, but certainly worth hearing.

Let's not forget the six fantastic symphonies by Carl Nielsen.

I agree that there is some wonderful Scandinavian music that deserves to be better known, as well as from other countries.
But some conductors, such as the indefatigable Neeme Jarvi, have already been expanding the concert repertoire.
Gustavo Dudamel has been doing similar work in promoting music from Latin America.
The late Virgil Thomson used to sneer at orchestras for playing the same old "fifty pieces" , but fortunately, that is no longer true of programming today.
It's more like Forrest Gump's box of chocolate - you never know what you're going to get.


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