Sulho Ranta in Profile
by Kimmo Korhonen :: 2000
Sulho Ranta (Peräseinäjoki, August 15, 1901 – Helsinki, May 5, 1960) was one of the most active and diverse musical personalities in Finland in his time. Apart from being a composer, he was a conductor, an educator, an organizational activist and a music writer. In an autobiographical sketch, he quoted, as Rakhmaninov did, a Russian proverb: ”Have I chased three rabbits without catching any of them?”
Ranta emerged in the early 1920s while he was still studying with Erkki Melartin at the Helsinki Music Institute. At the time, Modernism was a strong trend in Finnish music. Ranta’s early works were written in the Modernist vein and were received with mixed emotions. For instance, his Piano Trio (1923) was considered “ultra-modern and quite dissonant,” and the composer was described as a “man of extremes”. His first composition concert, featuring his early songs and chamber music works, held in Helsinki in January 1929, was received with equal coolness.
From Expressionism to Impressionism and Neo-Classical influences
Ranta described his early style as Expressionist, but trips abroad brought new stylistic influences. A stay in Vienna in 1926 was, as he described it, a “nudge towards Impressionism,” and in Berlin and Paris in 1930, he found that “the Classical trend is permeating all new music”. At his second composition concert in October 1931, these new influences, up to and including exotic elements and jazz, were already audible, and the concert was much better received than its predecessor.
Ranta himself considered that the Sinfonia piccola (1932) was the real turning point. It represented a brand of Neo-Classicism that became the dominant style of his mature period. It included features such as traditional forms (sonata form, fugue) and a simplified musical idiom that eventually progressed into a clearly defined tonality.
Four numbered symphonies
The core of Ranta’s output consists of the four numbered symphonies, which were preceded by the unnumbered Sinfonia programmatica (1929-1931), inspired by Greek mythology. Ranta gave sub-titles to his numbered symphonies too: Sinfonia piccola (no. 1), Sinfonia semplica (no. 2, 1936), Sinfonia dell’arte (no. 3, 1947) and Oratorio volgare (no. 4, 1951). The last one differs from the others in that it is written for soloists, choir and orchestra and includes oratorio-like elements.
Despite his wide range of activities, Ranta wrote an extensive body of music, including the symphonies, other orchestral works, chamber music, piano works and numerous vocal works for a variety of ensembles.
After the Second World War in particular, Ranta’s time was so taken up by music writing — as a historian, an essayist and a critic — and by teaching at the Sibelius Academy, whose Deputy Rector he also was, that he could no longer concentrate on composition. Ranta’s major literary works are the reference work Suomen säveltäjiä (Finnish composers, 1945), consisting of autobiographical sketches, and the extensive Musiikin historia I-II (The history of music, 1950, 1956). It is likely that he finally succumbed to his excessive workload.
Translation © Jaakko Mäntyjärvi