A few days before its concert marking Finland’s centenary on 7 December, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Southbank Centre will present an afternoon of talks and discussions on the subject – and a little context goes a long way, argues curator Andrew Mellor.
On 2 December at Southbank Centre, I’ll be introducing a series of talks, discussions, videos and performances focussing on Finland’s journey to independence in 1917 and the role art and music played in that process. The afternoon is part of a series of similar events at Southbank Centre that fall under the title What You Need To Know.
The obvious question that title raises – particularly if you’re planning to hear the Philharmonia Orchestra play some truly astonishing music by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius on 7 December – is this: do you really need to know about any of the things we’ll be discussing?
Some might answer that question with a resolute ‘no’. Music is music, they could legitimately argue: it doesn’t need any geo-political or historical baggage to make its point or to move its listeners. To some extent, I agreed. But as someone who came to music because I love what it does to my ears and my senses rather more than what it represents in the way of knowledge gathering or intellectual nourishment, I would politely disagree.
For me, and I suspect for many others, context and investigative discussion can unlock certain elements in a piece of music that would otherwise lie undiscovered. Historical facts, parallel creative narratives and explanations of musical structure and process all reveal things about music that can make us hear it differently; that can make elements of it speak more vitally, painfully, beautifully and universally.
Here’s an example. On 7 December, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra will play Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite – a set of four orchestral movements that tell a story in music drawn from Finland’s epic poem, The Kalevala. The first movement of the suite is one of the strangest and most distinctive stretches of music Sibelius or anybody wrote. It seems to sustain itself purely through intangibly sourced momentum, and to contain no themes or tunes at all. I thought long and hard for many years about what might be going on inside that piece of music to make it so distinctive and so ‘ordinarily’ exciting – music that gets down on its hands and knees and talks to its audience as equals.
The answer isn’t in many music textbooks or even in the score itself (certainly not if you don’t know what you’re looking for). But it is in the historical context; in what was going on at the time Sibelius wrote that stretch of music and how those things influenced him. In fact, the composer was borrowing a structural technique from a certain tradition of Finnish folk singing based on cumulative repetition and slow transformation. If you came to hear Ilona Korhonen singing ‘runo song’ after the Philharmonia’s performance of Sibelius’s last two symphonies in September, you’ll have heard that tradition – or a version of it – first hand.
Once you hear the ‘runo song’ elements at work in his music, you can more easily grasp Sibelius’s procedures. But perhaps more significantly, you can start to understand how his art was rooted in something deeper than just writing functional, purposeful music. It was wrapped up in new ideas of ‘Finnishness’ that were infiltrating the upper reaches of Finland’s creative life in the years before the country declared independence from Russia. Ethically or not, many such indigenous elements were declared representative of the country’s ‘identity’, an identity that was seen as pre-requisite by leading figures mobilising the populace for independence.
Does that, in turn, give extra weight to the sense of striving and pining we hear in the first part of the Lemminkäinen Suite? And if so, should it? Finland’s process of forging a national identity in art influenced a lot of painting, literature, music and even architecture from the late 1800s into the twentieth century. But when we look back on it now, the story doesn’t seem quite so straightforward.
Two people who know more about that than most are the guest speakers at our event – the real experts. Daniel Grimley is one of the world’s leading thinkers in the area of Nordic music and its relationship to worldwide musical currents as well as traits and agendas closer to home. He has some fascinating, evolving thoughts on the subject. His colleague from the University of Oxford, Eveliina Pulkki, is equally well placed to discuss some of the untruths and hidden truths that surround Finland’s artistic reputation and place them in a broader cultural and social context. Not only has she conducted extensive original research in the field, she also happens to be a Finn.
Eveliina, in fact, will help us look beyond Sibelius, an exercise that might help us glance back at the composer and his music with fresh eyes and ears. So too will the music of a composer who wrote at the same time as Sibelius and in the same country, but in a different style: we’ll hear live music by Toivo Kuula (1883-1918) courtesy of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s MMSF Instrumental Fellowship programme. We’ll also hear, via video, from Esa-Pekka Salonen and from the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. Sibelius himself will even put in a brief appearance on screen too.
Hopefully that will make you consider joining us on 2 December. If you do, I hope you’ll discover something new about Finland and its cultural life that will enhance your enjoyment of Finnish art, be it music, photography, literature of even film. But I also hope you’ll bring your own ideas – that you’ll challenge all of us who speak and ask the questions that interest and occupy you, whatever they might be. Sibelius loved nothing more than a frank, free, lively discussion with friends. We hope – minus the large quantities of alcohol – to enjoy the same.