Helvi Leiviskä in Profile
by Kimmo Korhonen :: 2000
Helvi Leiviskä (Helsinki, May 25, 1902 - Helsinki, August 12, 1982) was the first significant Finnish woman composer. She faced certain prejudices in the course of her career, but she was also instrumental in disproving such prejudices. It was a pleasant surprise for many (male) critics that Leiviskä was not a lyrical writer of miniatures; instead, her music was powerful and expansive, and she did not even hesitate to tackle the supreme genre of the symphony.
Leiviskä first emerged as a composer with chamber music works at student concerts in the 1920s, but her real breakthrough was her composition concert in Helsinki in 1935. On the programme were the Piano Concerto in D minor (1935) and Kolmoisfuuga (Triple fugue, 1935) for orchestra. Critic and composer Martti Paavola wrote about the Piano Concerto: “Helvi Leiviskä’s serious artistic approach, perhaps closest akin to that of Brahms and Bruckner, is here manifest in an already notably mature and technically lucid idiom.”
This first composition concert highlighted the importance of counterpoint in Leiviskä’s musical thinking. This harks back to her time in Vienna and her teacher Arthur Willner, who was known for his insistence on counterpoint. The influence of Leevi Madetoja, another of her teachers, is also palpable, for instance in her major chamber music work, the Violin Sonata in G minor (1945). This sonata was on the programme of Leiviskä’s second composition concert in Helsinki in 1945, which featured only chamber music. Her third composition concert in 1947 included orchestral and vocal works, the main work being her First Symphony in B flat major (1947).
Symphonies take front rank
The core of Leiviskä’s output is her orchestral music, above all her three symphonies. They are serious, even severe works that can be associated with Bruckner on one hand and Madetoja on the other. The Second Symphony in D minor (1954) is more contrapuntal than the First, and due to the counterpoint, particularly her fugal technique, her style became more chromatic and bordering on the free-tonal. The single-movement Sinfonia brevis (1962/72) and the Third Symphony (1971) have no key indication.
‘Rugged Post-Romanticism’ is perhaps the best way to describe Leiviskä’s orchestral writing. Her piano works complement this image, with added Neo-Classical features. This is particularly apparent in Suite antique (1929), which is cast in the form of a Baroque suite and even has Baroque-type textures, and in the Sonatina in F major (1935), which is perhaps Leiviskä’s most frequently performed piano piece.
“Life is a struggle”
Leiviskä had a serious ethical approach to her composing. In 1945, she wrote: “My life is a constant struggle, a constant effort to conquer various internal and external problems. When a good friend happens to recommend a more carefree attitude to life and a less critical approach to composing, among other things, I feel inside me that I have no other choice than to remain faithful to my ideal. The values of one’s existence are what they are, whether they are easy or difficult to attain.”
Translation © Jaakko Mäntyjärvi