Thursday, July 23, 2020

Injecting a Bit of Discovery This Week: An Intimate Trio from Finland

"For this week’s dose of great music, I chose a whimsical work by a wonderful Finnish composer, Erkki Melartin, performed in Summermusic 2012. Contemporary of Sibelius, Melartin composed well over a hundred works including several symphonies, string quartets and piano works. The string trio Op. 133, written in 1927, toward the end of composer’s life, is a true gem in a very limited repertoire for this combination of instruments. It is a charming imaginative work with moods ranging from light-hearted, quirky humor to genuine sorrow and contemplation.  Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director, Market Square Concerts
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If I were to ask you, "Name a Finnish composer..." you'd be ready to say "Jean Sibelius" just as I would add, "other than Jean Sibelius." And you'd stop, think, and maybe, like most American concert-goers, come up blank – or afraid to mention someone like Einojuhani Rautavaara simply because you're thinking "how do you pronounce that!?"

I doubt many of you'd come up with "Oh yeah, well... there's Erkki Melartin."

The last of the Summermusic 2012 concerts featured the little-known Piano Quartet by the well-known Richard Strauss, a work completed when he was 20, which you might have listened to in last week's “weekly dose,” as well as a string trio by an almost completely unknown Finnish composer named Erkki Melartin which you'll get to hear on this week's “weekly dose.” In fact, unless you attended that concert eight years ago – keeping in mind, for many of us, our last chance to hear live music with Market Square Concerts was this past February which might feel like five years ago – I doubt you've heard much of Erkki Melartin's music, before or since.

This performance of Erkki Melartin's String Trio Op. 133, featuring violinist Peter Sirotin, violist Michael Stepniak, and cellist Fiona Thompson, was recorded on July 25th, 2012, in Market Square Church by the church's audio technician, Newman Stare.

The Trio, written when Melartin was in his early-50s, is in four movements:
Allegro (beginning with a motivic slow introduction) in A Minor
Andante funebre (beginning at 5:08) in E Minor
Scherzo: Presto; Tempo di minuetto (beginning at 9:27) in C Major
Finale: Vivace (beginning at 12:45) in A Minor

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Back when I was a student and we had things called record-players (“phonographs” makes them sound even more antique), my professors and I loved to play “drop-the-needle,” setting the arm down in some random spot on the record and then trying to guess who the composer was or which piece from our “listening list” it could be from wherever you'd landed.

In my junior-level “styles” class, I liked torturing my own students with works they couldn't know or maybe even composers they'd never heard of by having them figure out stylistic influences or technical details to make an educated guess.

Erkki Melartin's String Trio, p.1
Listening to this piece, I would be amazed if anyone would say, “Oh, that's by Erkki Melartin!” much less “from the late-1920s.” I'm not even sure one could hear who might've influenced him during his career – earlier, Mahler, maybe Nielsen, perhaps, maybe even his fellow countryman, Jean Sibelius; but in this piece, any such forensic evidence had long been absorbed into the composer's own DNA.

The timing of the piece is also interesting, putting him in context with Finnish music in general or Sibelius in particular. While I'd have a blast digging into what other Finnish composers were writing in the 1920s, let it suffice that Sibelius completed his last major work, the immensely powerful (and often terrifying) tone poem, Tapiola with its mythic evocations of great northern forests, in 1927 – you can listen to it, here. Compare that to the few short miniatures he wrote in the following two years, his last published work, “something completely different,” a set of three bucolic tone-paintings, delicate as watercolor miniatures, the Suite in D Minor for Violin & Strings, Op.119, written in 1929 (that last movement, beginning at 6:35, always made me think it should be called "The Flight of the Mosquito" and instead end with a loud slap!).

Though he lived until 1957, dying three months before his 92nd birthday, Sibelius published nothing more, but late one night famously destroyed his long-awaited 8th Symphony, however much of it he may have completed, in the kitchen fireplace.

By comparison, Melartin, who had chronic health issues, died in 1937, a week after his 62nd birthday, and left two symphonies incomplete as well as a structural outline for another. While you might listen to this string trio and wonder about the influences of Mahler, keep in mind there's only so much you can do with the texture and variety available from three stringed instruments. Here's the finale of his last completed symphony, No. 6, Op. 100, which he subtitled “The Elements”  (if you have time, listen to the opening which is definitely influenced by the opening of Mahler's 7th which was premiered in 1908). Melartin began it immediately after World War I but did not complete it until 1924, two years before he began the much more intimate trio.

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Erkki Melartin
While I'd dug into the whole idea of how so much of that summer's music had been written by well-known composers "before they became famous," it would be unfortunate to leave Melartin out of this simply because he never became famous, at least in this country. His music, what I've heard of it in digging around YouTube, is certainly worthy of examination, whether I'd be convinced he's "unjustly neglected" or not (considering how many composers get performed who should be "justly neglected," but I digress...).

His situation merely points out the fact how much music is out there that is not being heard. When you consider it, there are a lot of composers we hear on a regular basis but in reality that only scratches the surface of all the composers, at what ever level, who've tried to climb this mountain we call "lasting fame." Could there be something out there - other composers, other works - hidden from view (or rather, our awareness), who might speak to a later generation of listeners?

After all, if it had been up to Beethoven's contemporaries, we'd never have heard his Violin Concerto if it hadn't been for a teenager named Joseph Joachim who decided to play it 17 years after the composer's death and brought it into the repertoire.

Or if Mendelssohn hadn't been passionate about a neglected work that had never been performed since its composer's death. Of course, someone else might have dusted off Bach's St. Matthew Passion, but the point is, somebody had to.

As conductor of the Vyborg Orchestra, Erkki Melartin introduced Mahler's music to Northern Europe, conducting the slow movement of the Resurrection Symphony in 1909. He was also the first Nordic composer to be influenced by Mahler. In a long list of compositions, Melartin composed a substantial amount of vocal and orchestral music, but less in the way of chamber music, little aside from his four string quartets, two violin sonatas and this lone trio.

So how do people discover previously little-known or even unknown works? Well, somebody performs them, other people hear them and decide they want to spread the word around. Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang, always on the look-out for something new and interesting, heard Melartin's String Trio at a recent Bard Festival and decided they wanted to include it on some future program. So that led to the opportunity for you to discover it.

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Melartin was born in 1875 – Erkki is, btw, the Finnish form of Erik – studied with Martin Wegelius who founded a music school in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, which in 1939 would be renamed after his most famous pupil, Jean Sibelius (Melartin later became a teacher and then director of the school). And in Vienna, Melartin also studied with Friend-of-Brahms Robert Fuchs who also taught the likes of Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Zemlinsky, but also Sibelius. He began teaching harmony at his alma mater after his return from Vienna, then became its director in 1911, retiring in 1936, the year before his death. He was a prolific composer, wrote hundreds of songs and choral pieces though he considered himself primarily a symphonist. His best-known work is the “Festive March” from his 1904 ballet based on Sleeping Beauty, the most popular wedding march in Finland.

His 4th Symphony – the “Summer” Symphony – begun in 1912 is a more pastoral version of those landscapes we think of with Sibelius' music (to most American concertgoers, Finland must be nothing but ice, snow, bleak fields, and dark woods!) and uses a wordless vocalise in the 3rd Movement Andante much like Carl Nielsen's Sinfonia espansiva which premiered in Denmark the same year. Stylistically, unlike Sibelius who created a recognizable “national voice” that sounds thoroughly original, Melartin's style is more influenced by the German Romantics, especially Mahler.

Yet out of some 185 published works, I'd never heard of him before, myself, and considering my interest in the obscure, that's (frankly) saying something!

By the way, if you're still wondering about that question – naming another Finnish composer other than Sibelius – and coming up blank, check this list of Finnish composers! Because of my background as a composer and time spent in the radio business, I've had more opportunity to hear several works by composers less known to the general public. For instance, there's Kaija Saariaho, whose opera, L'Amour de loin, was performed and broadcast from the Met in 2016 (here's a sample), and her 2014 piano trio, "Light and Matter," among other works I've managed to hear. Einojuhani Rautaavara was becoming quite popular with new recordings coming out during the years before he died in 2016, with his 1997 String Quintet Unknown Heavens and something of an oddity, the beautifully evocative Concerto for Birds & Orchestra, Cantus arcticus (birdsong by way of tape-recordings!) written in 1972, and proved quite a hit with my "Requests" listeners.

I've also particularly enjoyed Magnus Lindberg's 2nd Cello Concerto of 2013; and Nyx, written in 2010 by Esa-Pekka Salonen, better known as a conductor, is a very impressive orchestral work, clearly benefiting from experience learned on his 'day-job.' Though Salonen hasn't written much chamber music, Leila Josefowicz performed his Lachen verlernt for solo violin for Market Square Concerts in 2005. And, going further afield into more modern paths, there's Sampo Haapamäki and his 2007 string quartet, "Connections" which I'd stumbled upon accidentally while looking for something else.

If nothing else, these few composers alone prove what variety there is when someone mentions "Finnish music." It's more than just Sibelius.

Plus, doesn't it make you wonder, compared to the amount of music and the composers you're familiar with, what else is out there waiting for you to hear them for the first time?

– Dick Strawser

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