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26.6.2017 Feed


“The Alpine Symphony is no tourist ad”


In its day, Aarre Merikanto’s orchestral poem Pan was considered ultra-modern. How radical is it actually, compared with other European works of the same age?

Merikanto completed the final version of Pan in 1924. He had been mulling over at least two versions of it in his mind, and it had been subjected to a strict development process. The topic would appear to have been occupying him for some time. Because he had written a song also called Pan in 1916, setting a text by V.A. Koskenniemi. The text of this is pretty fantastic. It goes something like this:

“Oh traveller in the night and wilds / immersed in the forest’s dusky gloomy, / oh in whose breast there burns a wanton lust! / Only the forest’s murky eyes he sees / and the nocturnal shadows as they rise and fall, / and the boughs bent over in the tangled woods / and from his hiding place steps Pan. / To his lips he raises his reed pipe, / he plays, plays a song wild and untamed, / and the forest echoes and echoes to a myriad notes. / But reason deserts the traveller in the night, / wandering in the forest’s dusky maze / and he dreams, he dreams of unbridled happiness.”

This can of course be taken as a lightweight description of the frolics of Pan and Syrinx, but there is also a suggestion of something else in the final lines: of a mind that has lost all reason, of madness. Either may be the case in Merikanto’s orchestral poem, but personally I’m inclined to believe there is something personal lurking behind his ultra-expressionism. This notion, and the idiom of the work suggest two points of comparison to me: Debussy’s Jeux of 1912 and Schönberg’s absolutely hysterical Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (Accompanying Music to a Film Scene) of 1929. Merikanto’s Pan falls between the two in time, so to my mind he is quite close to the European Zeitgeist in his idiom.

There are on the other hand a few strange features in his music. For there are certain general axioms in his orchestration that have not vanished even from 20th-century music. Regardless of style, it has been the custom in composing for orchestra to double melodic figures; for example, a horn may be doubled on a cello, or a viola on a clarinet and cor anglais; in the simplest case, the first and second violins play the same thing an octave apart. It is precisely in such combinations and juxtapositions of timbre that Richard Strauss, for example, is one of the greatest masters. But there are virtually no such doublings in Merikanto. Each of his horizontal gestures – be it a melody, counter-melody or filler note – stands on its own and is not doubled on any other instrument or instrumental group. This is very unusual. Merikanto was, however, a pupil of Reger, who was likewise an extremely clever orchestrator. Was it possible that his other teacher, Vasilenko in Moscow, left him feeling confused, or did Merikanto give Scriabin’s scores only a cursory reading? Or was it deliberate? It is this feature that gives Pan a certain insubstantiality and timbral blurriness. To me, this is one of the strangest and most fascinating pieces in the history of Finland’s music.

It was also typical of Merikanto, as of the other 1920s Modernists (with the possible exception of Klami) that they spent very little time in each musical episode. Their units might last for, say, only four bars. Just as something interesting is beginning, they pass on to something else. Scriabin, whom these composers admired, is often ostensibly fragmentary, but at deeper level the music is far more sustained. It may be that the young Finnish composers were not able to hear new music anywhere, or at least not in Helsinki. They lacked a broader concept of how such music really sounded. Merikanto’s Pan was performed at the Nordic Music Days in Stockholm, where it was ripped to pieces. It was a terrible humiliation for Merikanto. But we can only speculate on how it was performed on that occasion, seeing how difficult it is even today!

So despite its shortcomings, Pan truly was attuned to the times. Even on a European scale it’s a piece that made Sibelius look outdated. 1924 was also the year in which his seventh symphony was premiered, and Tapiola was still in the making. We can only imagine Sibelius listening to Merikanto’s Pan on the wireless at Ainola and wondering what on earth was going on.


What sort of future might Merikanto and his contemporaries have had if their Modernist experiments had not been discredited?

There’s not really much cause for speculation here, because whatever direction 1920s Modernism had taken, it would in any case probably have been cut short by the war. The war and the stagnation that followed were in my view the biggest disaster in the history of Finland’s music. It is of course fully understandable that the arts were not a priority in the post-war reconstruction of society.

The characteristic features of Finnish music were in fact the consequence of “three nationalist aspects”. First, it was Sibelius’s fate to exist in the heady period of national awakening and the early days of independence, when his position got distorted: he became a national symbol, which caused him a terrible trauma. The second tragedy was the Civil War, which made the general climate extremely conservative and nauseating. People swore by the values of hearth, faith and fatherland and regarded marching songs as great art. The third tragedy was then the Winter and Continuation War, after which classical music counted for nothing. For a young musical culture only about fifty years old, these were big demarcation points that inevitably guided trends.

Of the band of Modernists, Merikanto was the one with the greatest potential in the public eye and hence of course the greatest expectations were levelled at him. He was the city-bred son of a famous father and while still young had already attracted a lot of attention with his opera Helena.

Other young composers were not under similar pressure. They came from up-country and no one knew them. Merikanto’s tragedy were the high expectations and nevertheless the need to break with tradition. But no one can really be blamed for the way he was treated, at least not the audiences or musicians, who could not possibly judge the new art. But some of the blame can be placed with the critics.


When you conduct Mozart or other Viennese Classicists, how much do you have to work on questions of style?

I’m a syncretist on such matters and in this respect no doubt a typical representative of my generation. We have all been influenced by the performance practices of the early music fundamentalists; we have picked out whatever suits us best. And I have no problem accepting a modern concert grand for Mozart.

So style is a sort of hybrid. Many of the FRSO musicians play early music on period instruments, and the orchestra regularly collaborates with conductors specialising in the genre. But I think even the ‘early-music conductors’ are beginning to be syncretists to a greater or lesser degree.  Sir Roger Norrington has everything played without vibrato, but musically, even he’s quite a Romantic.

In an orchestra, each player has an opinion on how the music should be played. The discrepancy between different views is greater in Mozart than in Brahms or Strauss. In this sense it’s slightly more work for the conductor to form an overall synthesis of everything the orchestra offers.

The problem in performing Mozart is, to my mind, that the phrases are in a way already early-Romantic, and they should have expression and colour. The expression often vanishes when you start wondering about stylistic authenticity. When I want to listen to Mozart, I choose old recordings by Karl Böhm or Josef Krips. Their renderings let Mozart by strong and sing. And slow, I have to admit. This attitude has been lacking in the past few decades, and to my mind it would make Mozart playing healthier.

In our last interview we talked about Carl Nielsen’s relationship with nature in connection with his fourth symphony. How is this theme manifest in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony?

We seem to have quite a few nature themes on the programme for this season: Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Haydn’s Seasons, Nielsen’s Inextinguishable and now Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. This is of course pure coincidence. It’s also a coincidence that the second theme of the first movement of Nielsen’s fourth symphony is almost the same as the sunrise theme in the Alpine Symphony.

The finest thing about the Alpine Symphony is its orchestration. Strauss himself modestly said at a rehearsal for the premiere that he had at last learnt to orchestrate. And indeed – just listen to the way Strauss describes the thunder of the approaching waterfall and then the waterfall itself – harp, celesta, Glockenspiel and string glissandos – it sounds just like a great mass of water hitting a rock. Or the miraculous feeling of space Strauss evokes of an Alpine meadow: the cows and sheep really do seem to be scattered across the meadow. Or the hollow moment after lightning has struck in the storm scene, before the thunder cracks – you can almost count how far away the storm is.

Nielsen’s nature concept is possibly more abstract than Strauss’s. Behind the Inextinguishable is the idea of nature’s renewal, which may serve as a symbol for many other things. But again, Strauss’s Alpine Symphony is no tourist ad, even though some take it as one. Many say it’s a clever but empty-headed work. True, the Alpine Symphony is descriptive music; there’s a cow, a glacier and a thunder storm. In the background it nevertheless has an impressive spiritual content: Nietzsche’s Antichrist, the idea of human development and life span and the world’s salvation through the arts and science.

The work becomes increasingly serious as it proceeds. It begins by climbing out of bed and leaping briskly into action. The climax is reached at precisely the mathematical midpoint – Strauss is second to none in building up climaxes. The nature of the piece then changes: next comes a section called Apparition during which the Alpine Symphony becomes an allegory for spiritual human development. Profound works tend to seem lightweight, as with Mozart and Strauss. The last ten minutes of the Alpine Symphony proclaim Strauss’s unwavering faith that there is a potential for goodness in each human being and that the arts are of great significance in identifying that goodness.


Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo