Advance, Retreat

By Whittall, Arnold | Musical Times, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Advance, Retreat


Whittall, Arnold, Musical Times


Advance, retreat... After Sibelius: studies in Finnish music Tim Howell Ashgate (Aldershot, 2006); xii, 308pp; £60. ISBN 07546 51770.

IT'S DIFFICULT not to think of music written by Finnish composers since 1957 as post-Sibelian, even if it was consciously intended as antiSibelian. Yet the complexities of Sibelius reception the extended dip in appreciation after his death, the gradual resurgence of interest as part of the more pluralist, less puritanical musical world after 1970 have helped to ensure that only a few of his Finnish successors have been the object of sustained interest and admiration outside Finland itself. The emergence of a gifted generation of Finnish conductors - Salonen, Saraste, Oramo et al - has certainly done the wider profiles of Saariaho, Lindberg, Aho and Salonen himself no harm. Yet the particular qualities of their music have done little to plead the cause of earlier post-Sibelian Finns - Rautavaara intermittently excepted - to a wider audience. All the more reason, then, to welcome Tim Howell's decision to give as much space in his survey to Merikanto, Bergman, Kokkonen, Sallinen and Heininen as to Rautavaara, Saariaho and Lindberg.

Howell has to cover a lot of ground, and literary style occasionally buckles under the strain, as when he refers to elements which are 'aurally visible' in Saariaho's music. In general, however, the argument is well-sustained in relation to the trajectory which he signals by discussing 'the shadow of Sibelius' in terms of a prototypical 'modern classicism' - with particular reference to the Symphony no.6 and Tapiola. This is then shown to survive in all the composers who follow, even when they engage with technical and stylistic developments - serialism, aleatory counterpoint - of which Sibelius himself was innocent. (One wonders what he thought of Merikanto's Concerto for Nine Instruments (1925) which, we're told, contains 'the first twelve-note chord in the history of Finnish music'.)

Howell's method means that all the works discussed tend to be seen as promoting ultimate integration rather than its reinforced rejection. Or, as he sums up the work of Aulis Sallinen, 'his own brand of modernism has been fashioned from a synthesis between traditional and innovatory elements and, as such, offers the most deep-rooted parallel with Sibelius so far.' By the time we reach the Lindberg of the Clarinet Concerto, completed in 2002, Howell is still stressing the composer's concern to 'move into a more continuous way of seeing material', and to seek 'resolution through synthesis' when 'a sense of equilibrium between elemental control and energetic freedom is always present', and when 'each work seems io explore the composing-out of chaos to reveal order, setting up an imbalance and revealing an underlying symmetry'.

Using this schematic basis, Howell is able to show how a wide variety of (usually) large-scale compositions conform to his modern-classic criteria. The perils of reductiveness are obviated to a considerable extent by the way he sweetens technical description and analysis with evaluation and appreciation. …

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