Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Lost Legacy of Yrjö Kilpinen, 1892-1959

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Lost Legacy of Yrjö Kilpinen, 1892-1959

Article excerpt

MUSICIANS THE WORLD OVER marked 2009 with performances commemorating the birth or death years of Handel (1685-1759), Haydn (1732-1809), Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and even Spohr (1784-1859). The 1809 births of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin also contributed to make the year especially memorable for acknowledging the contributions of all these historical figures. However, the year passed without any significant recognition of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Finnish song composer Yrjö Kilpinen (1892-1959), a name that today hardly registers with musicians and audiences outside of Finland, but who, in his day, enjoyed a status there second only to his older contemporary, Jean Sibelius.

In the early to middle decades of the twentieth century, Kilpinen's lieder were heard and praised in many of Europe's music capitals. The first Kilpinen Society was formed in London in 1934, his lieder were published in Copenhagen, Helsinki, and Berlin, and performed by some of the foremost singers of the day. And though many of his songs (numbering over 800, roughly half of which were published in his lifetime) remain fresh and distinctive, they are rarely heard today, even in Finland.


Kilpinen's music studies in Helsinki began at the Helsingin Musiikkiopisto (which later became the Sibelius Academy), and he later traveled to Vienna (1910) and Berlin (1913). In 1918, at the age of twenty-six, he married Darling Alfthan (also known as Margaret), a pianist, and with her gained an important collaborator for performers of his music for their entire married life. Shortly after his marriage, opportunities and exposure accelerated, first with the publication of his large-scale collection of settings of poet Huugo Jalkanen (1918-1920), and then nineteen songs to Eino Leino poems (1920). These collections, both published in Finland by Fazer brought Kilpinen to the attention of Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipzig and Wilhelm Hansen in Copenhagen, which published his many collections of Swedish songs (sånger) in the 1920s. From the 1930s through the end of World War II, his collaboration and friendship with Gerhard Hüsch dominated his artistic activity.


Finnish authors and musicians often describe Kilpinen as the successor to Hugo Wolf, not for his musical vocabulary, but rather for his large collections of settings of a single poet. Most of Kilpinen's songs fall within these larger groupings, a practice he began with twenty-seven Larin-Kyösti poems, opp. 11-14 (1919, unpublished), and extending in various collections of many other Finnish, Swedish, and German poets, the largest being sixty-four settings of Hermann Löns (1944, no opus number) and sixty-four to Kanteletar texts (op. 100, 1948-1959).

With its often spare accompaniments and comparatively diatonic harmonic treatment, Kilpinen's musical style is often described as neoclassical, which for him was a reaction to the excesses of late Romanticism (Example 1).

"Colour is the element of music most inclined to fade," he declared. With this thought in mind, he based his compositions on graphic motivic interplay, sketched out in black and white rather than the garish colours of the National Romantic tradition. Seppo Nummi, one of Kilpinen's handful of composition pupils and himself a devoted composer of lied, described his teacher as an "arctic puritan."1

But Gustav Djupsjöbacka expands on another of Kilpinen's possible stylistic influences.

Wolf pays close attention to the text and gives it a tailor-made treatment. The fact that Kilpinen treats the voice and piano as equal partners in the dialogue suggests that a better model might be Schubert.2

The composer's conservative style was not embraced by Finnish progressives, but he did find enthusiastic audiences elsewhere in Europe throughout much of his career.


One of the most notable features of Kilpinen's oeuvre is his practice of setting Finnish, Swedish, and German poetry. …

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