Finland's tragic romantic
by Erkki Salmenhaara :: 1987
In the eyes of his contemporaries, Toivo Kuula (1883-1918) was a somewhat eccentric artist. He features in Finnish musical history as a tragic, romantic figure, for in addition to being of a tempestuous disposition, he met a violent death at the age of 35 in the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War.
In his obituary of his composer colleague Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947) described the young Toivo Kuula and how he got to know him as follows: “While taking my morning walk through the streets of Helsinki, my attention had been caught by a dark young man of smallish stature whose entire being seemed to exude some extraordinary electrical charge. Striding along at a rhythmic pace, head held high - a little too high, seemed to me - with an air of self-confidence, of triumph about him that obviously reflected a fast-flowing emotional undercurrent - everything about him seemed to say: here is a man who knows what he wants and who has confidence in his own powers!
“I gradually heard more about him, a I learnt his name: Toivo Kuula, a name increasingly on people's lips at that time. Like me, he was studying at the Music College: we were fellow students.
“At the Music College I managed to get slightly closer to him, though it would be wrong to speak of any personal friendship. I remember once when Armas Järnefelt, then head of the College, set at the piano singing and playing something that appeared move him deeply. He got more and more caught up in the intense feeling of the piece and on reaching the end he said, pointing the manuscript: ‘This Toivo Kuula is some fellow!’ I read the title of the work, ‘Tuijotin tulehen kauan' (Long Stared I into the Fire)...’
“Toivo Kuula had, at the end of that same artistic period made his first great victory with his Violin Sonata in E minor, just before we made each other’s acquaintance. He was then writing his great piano trio under the direction of Jean Sibelius. It was an unprecedented pleasure to hear his unconventional, liberal opinions on music and composers. We did not, of course, always agree, often we would have quite spirited arguments, but this only gave the conversation an added attraction. As a friend Toivo Kuula was resolutely sincere and also expected the same of others.”
Kuula and Madetoja were both natives of Ostrobothnia, the province facing Sweden across the northern part of the Gulf of Bothnia. The roots of their music lay in the folk music tradition of their native region. As students they both collected the folk melodies of Ostrobothnia, and they both combined the Finnish idiom with international ideas, above all French music at the beginning of the century. They both studied in Helsinki, first under Armas Järnefelt and later Jean Sibelius. The first concert of Kuula's music on October 7th, 1908 was a brilliant success. The papers published leading articles on the piano trio, which was regarded as a notable addition to the slight volume of Finnish chamber music literature existing at the time.
First study trip abroad
After the concert Kuula set off on his first study trip abroad, first to Bologna in Italy, where his teacher was the organist and composer Enrico Bossi, who also enjoyed a reputation in Finland. In spring 1909 he went on to Leipzig, before spending the autumn in Paris. In his letters to Madetoja Kuula described the stimuli he absorbed during his stay abroad, which colourfully reflect the state of music in Europe at that time. Madetoja, who had plans for a similar tour himself, asked Kuula for advice, and received the following reply:
“I have been in France for three-and-a-half months now and heard and seen a lot, even things I have not heard before - the young French school. This has aroused a tremendous interest in me with its flexibility of orchestral technique, composition, harmony, etc. - It is difficult to imagine - a more versatile musical life in every respect. - There is no end to the composers you can hear at the concerts. The wind instruments are more noble than in Germany, the horns weaker - and there is a constant supply of music by such young composers as Debussy, Dukas, Labey, Forêt, and so on, and you can enjoy new, fresh music full of ideas that is sufficiently reflective but that uses for reflection new, wonderful, marvellous motifs that speak of burning, flaming emotions, hear harmonic twists that sound strange to the ear, but hear them a second and a third time, and you immediately fall in love with them. You can hear new, peculiar twists of counterpoint and motifs you will not find in the literature we are accustomed to listening to.
“I'm not familiar with Vienna; Sibelius is, but my advice would be - if you really want to study, learn and be inspired, come to Paris. Here you will find everthing your heart desires.”
Madetoja ventured to express his doubts about the new French school which had in Finland - (though on very slight acquaintance with Debussy), been severely criticised by the choir leader and editor of the journal Säveletär, Heikki Klernetti: “You seem to have a great admiration for new French music. I wonder how I will fare. I still have a preconceived idea that the French are nothing more than dabblers in colour, they don't speak, they speechify. In other words the ideas contained in their music are overshadowed by the splendid and pictorial use of colour. - I do agree with you that the new German trend is very harsh and militant. Take, for example, Strauss's Heldenleben, which was performed here in the autumn. But Brahms, whom you too mentioned, is to my mind unsurpassed when it comes to content.”
Naturally Kuula zealously defended French music and went on to describe in more detail its two main lines, the Schola cantorum circle upholding the tradition of Franck, and the supporters of Debussy.
“As regards - technique, nowhere else can I find anything to compare to the French, not even Richard Strauss. Now there are two musical trends in France, Debussy's and d'Indy's. Both have different tastes and different fine points. The d'Indy tradition at its best is probably represented by Paul Dukas, an extremely talented and clever composer, but there is no one to beat Debussy for technique -“
In Paris Kuula composed one of his most extensive a cappella songs for mixed choir, Meren virsi (The Song of the Sea) to a poem by Eino Leino. He showed it to his teacher who, while commending it for its beauty, pointed out that it could not be performed “by any human forces”. “But it has already been performed,” was Kuula's reply. “Impossible,” said his teacher. “Where on earth did you find a choir capable of it?” “In Finland,” was Kuula's proud reply. The Suomen Laulu conducted by Heikki Klemetti had performed it at the choir's 10th anniversary concert in 1910. Klemetti and Kuula had engaged in somewhat biting correspondence over the song, details of which the hot-tempered Klemetti would have liked changed and which the equally hot-tempered Kuula refused to change.
Madetoja told Kuula that at its first performance this infinitely difficult work had made a great stir, but although it had been amply rehearsed, it “did not go entirely satisfactorily - b2 is too high for our sopranos”.
Meren virsi, which is more of a broad tone poem than an ordinary choral song, well reflects Kuula's expansive, expressive idiom. The homophonous episodes are tinged by late-romantic harmonic effects, but for he most part the choir is treated polyphonically and is sometimes even divided into a double choir in eight parts. After Kuula's death Madetoja made an arrangement of the work in which the part for the second choir is transferred to the orchestra.
Kuula concert, 1911
At a concert of his works in February 1911 Kuula introduced his Helsinki audience to some more works of his Paris period. Among them were two extensive works for voices and orchestra, the Merenkylpijäneidot (Maids on the Seashore), legend for soprano and orchestra, and Orjan poika (The Slave's Son), a symphonic legend for soprano, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra. The concert made a stir with its “complete reappraisal of values”, and the influential critic Evert Katila suggested that there was only one name above that of Kuula in Finnish music - Sibelius. Although the underlying mood of these works is again Kuula's melancholy, impetuous romantisicm, the influences Kuula had imbibed from new Finnish music are particularly evident in the orchestral sections. True, Debussian impressionism is only occasionally reflected in them, and to a lesser extent than in the orchestral works Metsässä sataa (Rain in the Woods) and Hiidet virvoja viritti (The Hiisi Slaves Entice) composed a year later. But his handling of the orchestra is colourful and versatile, it has shaken off the late romantic tradition and it clearly has a French air to it, though it is difficult to point to any specific French composer. There are moments that call to mind Florent Schmitt's ecstatic orchestral colouring, but elsewhere the orchestral part is lightened by the expressive wind and string solos. The musical texture has become more complex and the harmony more chromatic - Klemetti in fact complained in private that Kuula had in Orjan poika addressed himself to a new sport: “modulating”.
Both works are settings of texts from Leino's anthology of Whitsuntide hymns. At the end of 1911 Kuula composed yet a third great Whitsuntide poem, Impi ja Pajarin poika (The Maid and The Boyar's Son) for soprano and orchestra, this time in Berlin. In keeping with its subject this is more passionate and more pathetic than the transparent Merenkylpijäneidot, though it is not without its dramatic episodes. The most significant of the three works is Orjan poika, the theme of which had already occupied Kuula in the opening years of the century. The choir is handled with great diversity, both homophonically and polyphonically, as in the fugue expositions. The closing of the work, describing the slave boy's dream and death in beautiful string solos and a softly radiant final chorus, are extremely impressive. Kuula made a separate orchestral arrangement of this final section and called it Elegy, final chorus and epilogue. This has also been performed abroad, in e.g. Hungary and England.
Kuula's main work is probably his Stabat Mater for mixed choir and orchestra to the classical text by Jacobone da Todi. He worked on this great work until his tragic death in 1918. (Kuula was shot dead by a drunken soldier in Viipuri during the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War, and his murder was never properly resolved). It thus remained uncompleted and the finishing touches were added by his friend Madetoja.
The Stabat Mater is stylistically the most versatile of Kuula's great vocal works. Herein lies both its strength and its weakness. The closing Bach-like fugue for choir and orchestra is cleverly written but differs in style from the general atmosphere of the rest of the work - it is thought to be based on a fugue originally written in Bologna. The opening movements are dominated by airy motifs in French mood and achromatic romanticism reminiscent of Wagner. The style of this rhapsodical work is somewhat lacking in uniformity. But any such shortcomings are compensated by the passionate intensity of the expression, thanks to which Kuula's Stabat Mater justifies its place in the standard Finnish repertoire for choir and orchestra. The universal Latin text would also permit its performance abroad.
Kuula concentrated on vocal music: he was not a symphonist, and he had a personal reason. His beloved and subsequently his wife Alma Silventoinen was one of the best-known Finnish Lied singers of her day. She performed new Finnish vocal music, particularly her husband's songs, of course, and also new French songs. The tone poems I have already mentioned for soprano and orchestra were composed specifically with her in mind, and she was the soloist at the first performance. But Kuula also composed a large number of solo songs for her, which they performed together on the extensive concert tours that took them to all parts of Finland and even as far as St. Petersburg.
In his solo songs Kuula is far more the conventional romanticist than in his works with orchestral accompaniment. He generally observes the traditional Lied form in three sections and uses recurring motifs in his piano accompaniments. The songs are in melancholy, romantic vein and are even sentimental. But on the other hand the best songs display an individual melodic invention he seldom achieved in his large-scale vocal works. The very first song, Tuijotin tulehen kauan (Long Stared I Into the Fire; Eino Leino), to which Madetoja refers in his article, was an unconditional success. Among the extremely beautiful songs in the permanent repertoire are the fresh Aamulaulu (Morning Song; Leino), the romantic Kesäyö kirkkomaalla (Summer Night in the Church Yard; V. A. Koskenniemi), the tender Syystunnelma (Autumnal Mood; Leino), the lighter and airier Sinikan laulu (Sinikka's Song; Leino), the uninhibitedly romantic Epilogue (V. A. Koskenniemi), the melodically expressive Yö nummella (Night on the Moor; A. Hjelt) and the charming though somewhat bathetic Marjatan laulu (Marjatta's Song; Leino), Vanha syyslaulu (An Old Autumn Song; V A. Koskenniemi) and Suutelo (The Kiss; A. Kouta).
As a choral composer Kuulas was perhaps even more significant than as a Lied composer, and his best choral songs are still great favourites with Finnish choirs and their audiences. The choral songs can be divided into three types: the complicated songs containing polyphonic episodes, the simpler songs relying more on expressive late-romantic harmonies (both melancholic in mood and full of pathos) and the light, rhytmically expressive, even humorous songs - settings of lyric Finnish folk poems from the Kanteletar collection and some of the lighter poems by Eero Eerola and Larin-Kyösti. Among the songs in this last category are Metsän kuninkaalle (The Forest King), Keinulla (The Swing), Vai ei (No?) and Tuli tuttu, vanha tuttu (Came A Friend, An Old Friend). But in their immediate appeal such broad choral frescoes familiar to all Finnish music lovers as Siell' on kauan jo kukkineet omenapuut (Long Have The Apple Trees Blossomed There; V. A. Koskenniemi), Auringon noustessa (Sunrise; V. A. Koskennierni) and Virta venhettä vie (The Current Bears The Boat Along; Eino Leino) represent Kuula the passionate, fiery artist at his most characteristic. Such lyrical mood pieces hovering in time as Iltatunnelma (Evening Mood; L. Kemiläinen) and Kesäyö (Summer Night; L. Pohjanpää) make their effect with beautiful, resounding harmonic twists.
Kuula was a brilliant, tempestuous, glowing representative of Finland's burgeoning music and his brief lifetime achieved only what can usually be called a composer's ‘first’ or early period. He never completed his symphony or his plans for a full-length ballet, nor were the influences of the new French style ever fully integrated into his own Ostrobothnian brand of romanticism.
Translation © Susan Sinisalo
Originally published in Finnish Music Quarterly 2/1987