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4.6.2017 Blog


“The ‘Inextinguishable’ is a song of praise to Nature”


You often plan programmes around a theme. But the silver thread running through this concert is not blatantly obvious. Does the programme have one nevertheless?

Listen to the concert first! By no means do I always plan my programme entities very consciously; I think more about colour or feel. A good programme is not necessarily one that looks smart on paper. And when, like today, there’s a premiere on the programme, I can’t even know what’s coming. Sometimes I talk to the composer beforehand. I ask them whether, say, there’s a literary reference behind their forthcoming work, or whether they have any ideas for what else we might play. On the other hand, I don’t want to trouble composers by constantly asking them what they’re going to write.

Now that Fagerlund’s work is ready, I can see that the energy of Nielsen’s symphony and Fagerlund’s music to some extent inhabit the same world. So the Ravel concerto is sandwiched between two works of inextinguishable energy. But this wasn’t particularly premeditated! My guess is that when they’re heard in succession, they’ll balance one another out and the listener will feel satiated.

Sebastian Fagerlund is on a considerable upward curve, and not only in Finland. What makes him such a noteworthy composer?

It’s the same with Fagerlund as it was with Magnus Lindberg 30 years ago: the orchestra is beginning to feel at home with his music. A symbiosis has evolved between Fagerlund and the FRSO that will, we hope, be inspiring for him, too. He’s familiar with the orchestra’s strengths and even when he’s composing, he maybe imagines who he’s writing for, even a specific player.

Sebastian’s music could be described as musician-oriented. The player doesn’t need a pair of compasses, a ruler or a pocket calculator; he can just pitch himself into the music. Drifts is shorter than Fagerlund’s other recent pieces, and it has a slightly different dramaturgy. His works have often had a clear quick–slow–quick construction with the same basic pulse tick-tocking away in the background.

The form of Drifts is somehow amoeban: the listener may have difficulty working out when it’s slow and when it’s quick. Sure, there’s still the same pulse running right through it, but the orchestration and the motif technique sometimes make certain sections sound a lot slower. The sections overlap kaleidoscopically so that the result is in fact a continuum in which the pulse seems to change even though it’s actually the same.

I’ve done so much music by Sebastian now that I’m beginning to see he has tempo fixations in the same way as other contemporary composers whose music has been played a lot by the FRSO. Just like Magnus Lindberg or Kaija Saariaho, for example, Fagerlund has his own characteristic tempo to which all the work’s tempos relate and that are multiples of the initial tempo.

Fagerlund arrived at his characteristic orchestration by traditional, well-tried means, even though his idiom is in fact modern. The lowest material is slower-moving, and the higher it goes, the more we find faster stuff. The slower foundation produces more harmonics and the timbre carries on upwards. In this work, for example, the foundation is a perfect fifth almost throughout. The harmonic base resonates well and the other material is like a topping. This is not actually a modern idea, because the late-Romantics were already using it.

Maurice Ravel said his G-major concerto was influenced by Mozart. How is this manifest?

Ravel did, yes, make specific mention of the slow movement of Mozart’s clarinet quintet as the model for the slow movement of his own piano concerto. The connection is not very obvious, but it’s evident in the way the instruments enter, or the main theme is embroidered in the recapitulation. Ravel borrowed ideas about timbre from Mozart in his orchestration and instrumentation. He said he wanted to compose a piano concerto of Mozart and Saint-Saëns type, because these composers are “not so profound”! Only a Frenchman can mention Mozart and Saint-Saëns in the same sentence, and at the same time fail to notice the profundity of the Mozart piano concertos.

The elements of Ravel’s music – the Basque background, the Classical French tradition and the influence of jazz – coexist in sweet organic harmony. The second theme of the first movement of the piano concerto could be Gershwin. Ravel was fascinated by jazz and made use of the opportunity, knowing that the concerto would be going on the American market. Then the ticking material, in which the piano merges to become part of the orchestra, reminds me of Petrushka: they are kindred pieces in their mechanicalness. The brevity of the finale is in turn a Classical trait: it’s the same length as, for example, the Haydn symphony finales lasting just a few minutes.

Ravel wanted to call his G-major concerto a divertissement, and it is indeed possible to detect a certain need to “divert”. Ravel’s concerto is as light as a feather. He composed both his concertos at the same time; they lay side-by-side on his desk. Could it be so that more of the pot marked “grave” splashed into the concerto for the left hand than into this concerto?

As we know, Stravinsky called Ravel a Swiss watchmaker. Was he doing Ravel’s composer persona an injustice?

As a person, Ravel may well have been like that. Maybe Stravinsky was alluding to the dapper, sedate man with his love for clocks and mechanical objects rather than to his music. And the works of Ravel do have a certain precision in the sense that they are deliberated and thought out right down to the finest detail. In his best orchestrated works, such as Le Tombeau de Couperin, Mother Goose and Daphne, the place of every note is considered, nothing is splurged and the tone colours are carefully mixed. Maybe Stravinsky was even envious of Ravel’s self-discipline and stylistic consistence, which Stravinsky did not really seem able to achieve.

How do you relate to the Nielsen symphonies?

I was Chief Conductor of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra for a time, and that of course is Nielsen territory. Nielsen played the violin in the Gothenburg Symphony and that’s not far from Copenhagen, so it regards him almost as one of its own. During my term there, I conducted the third, fourth and fifth symphonies a lot. I haven’t done the others. I like the first two very much, but the sixth is still an enigma for me: it’s such a translucent, strict piece that I’m a bit afraid of attacking it. The fourth symphony is my favourite, and I’ve recently conducted it in Tokyo, Moscow and other places.

The thing that appeals to me in the fourth symphony is its unbridled energy, and also its form, which balances with the energy. Nielsen already had a one-movement symphony in mind in around 1914, in other words at the same time as Sibelius was contemplating this format too, though Sibelius didn’t finally write his seventh symphony until the 1920s. Nielsen’s one-movement format is different, however. It’s reminiscent of the idea of Sibelius’s fifth. The movements don’t have names or numbers, even though it’s clear when they begin and end. Nielsen’s idea of a single movement looks more to the past than Sibelius’s does. Nielsen admired the B-minor sonata by Liszt, which was in turn influenced by late Beethoven. Another model for him was Schönberg’s first chamber symphony, which is also in one movement but divided into recognisable sections.

Another thing that appeals to me in Nielsen is his handling of keys. The way they follow one another is sometimes really strange, but at the same time extremely premeditated and calculated. The modulations and the arrivals at certain main keys cause almost physical reactions.

Nielsen was aware that the ordinary listener, who can’t usually analyse or put a name to things, may nevertheless feel and recognise the harmonic processes. He is really clever at playing with listeners’ expectations, at giving them shocks. In leading up to and arriving at the great climaxes, Nielsen is to my mind a genius, one of the best.

The timpani duel is an absolutely unique piece of instrumentation. It’s not just a great stereophonic effect; it’s unadulterated violence, one of the most aggressive moments in symphonic literature. There’s no point covering this aggressiveness up, though it must of course be sonorous and well played.

I can to a certain extent relate to Nielsen as a person. He was known to be a bit crotchety and impatient and couldn’t abide slowness, but he nevertheless had quite a sense of humour. I’ve seen photos of him as a young man making faces and fooling around. In one famous childhood photo he’s looking serious in army uniform, holding a cornet. The cornet’s almost as big as he is. One feels a bit sorry for him, but at the same time his determination is impressive. I sometimes wonder whether there’s any connection between a composer’s nature and his music, and in Nielsen’s case it seems there is.

What do you think Nielsen meant by “inextinguishable”?

Many think “inextinguishable” means that the symphony doesn’t stop, it keeps rushing ahead. And this it does. But that’s not what’s inextinguishable here; the “Inextinguishable” is a song of praise to Nature, to everything that is renewable. Whatever happens in the world, something new will always begin to grow, water will well from somewhere.

The idea of a Dane describing Nature tends to make Finns smile, because to us, Denmark doesn’t have any “nature”, just flat land, tufts of grass and the odd stream here and there. We think we alone understand the relationship between primeval Nature and humanity.

Sibelius’s concept of Nature is so sacred to us and so frighteningly deep. But we all have our own Nature: it’s there in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony just as in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, and the cow mooing in the Alps is just as profound a creature as the age-old Finnish pine somewhere in deepest Karelia.

As a young man, Nielsen spent a lot of time on the island of Fyn and experienced at first hand the wind, the rain and the plants that pushed up through the earth. He saw music as a symbol of this renewal and made his symphony a manifesto to life. The symbolism which the “Inextinguishable” represents means more to me than the fact that this symphony, even musically, does not seem to extinguish.

Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo