Tauno Pylkkänen in Profile
by Kimmo Korhonen :: 2000
Tauno Pylkkänen (b. March 22, 1918 in Helsinki; d. March 13, 1980 in Helsinki) was an unusual figure on the Finnish musical scene because he was the only Finnish composer of his generation to devote himself first and foremost to opera. A Late Romanticist full of vitality, he was known by such epithets as “the Nordic verist” and “the Puccini of the North”. His interest in opera was further reflected in the fact that he was Artistic Director of the Finnish National Opera 1960-1969.
Opera was a natural choice for Pylkkänen, for he had been introduced by his actress foster mother to the world of the theatre at any early age. As he once said, “My first memories are of the enchanting atmosphere of the theatre. I was present when plays were being directed, I listened secretly outside the door when parts were being rehearsed, and all the games I played with my pals out in the yard were theatre ones. [...] Growing up in an atmosphere and environment such as this developed my sense of drama and directed my thoughts, once I had received my musical awakening, towards opera.”
Pylkkänen composed ten operas in all, though the first of them, Jaakko Ilkka (1937), written before he was twenty, has never been performed. The earliest opera to actually be staged was Batsheba Saarenmaalla (Bathsheba of Saaremaa, 1940/58), completed when he was only 22 though later revised for its premiere in Tampere in 1959. Bathsheba is based on a subject by the Estonianised Finnish writer Aino Kallas, as were his later operas Mare ja hänen poikansa (Mare and her Son, 1943) and Sudenmorsian (The Wolf’s Bride, 1950).
The premiere of Mare and her Son in Helsinki in September 1945 marked Pylkkänen’s breakthrough. Tauno Karila wrote in the daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat of Pylkkänen’s public opera debut: “There is no doubt whatsoever that Pylkkänen has a special instinct for stage music. His recitative flows and is at the same time eloquent. The melody grows in glowing lines, proceeding from one situation to another and bearing the listener with it.” The Wolf’s Bride was, however, the opera that brought Pylkkänen international recognition: originally written as a radio opera, it won third prize in the Prix Italia competition in 1950.
Small-scale operas with the full-scale works
Pylkkänen’s operas tend to be classified under two headings: full-length ones and small-scale ones lasting under an hour. This classification is primarily one of length, since even in the miniature operas he used a larger-than-usual orchestra. The full-length operas are, in addition to Mare and her Son, Simo Hurtta (1948), Ikaros (Icarus, 1944-1953), described by Pylkkänen as a “musical legend”, Opri ja Oleksi (Opri and Oleksi, 1957) and Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, 1967). All were premiered at the Finnish National Opera (or its predecessor, the Finnish Opera). The first of the small-scale operas, Bathsheba of Saaremaa, was followed by The Wolf’s Bride, Varjo (The Shadow, 1954) and the TV opera Vangit (The Prisoners, 1964).
Pylkkänen is generally said to have given his best in the dramatically compact small-scale operas, and The Wolf’s Bride and The Shadow are said to mark the apex of his career. The core theme of the shorter operas is woman and forbidden love. In The Wolf’s Bride Kallas’s variation on the ballad-like human wolf theme acquires an absorbing depth psychology dimension and addresses the conflicts that arise when the narrow role ascribed to a woman by society fails to accommodate her sensuous world. The Shadow is more realistic in its handling of its topic and has been likened to Menotti.
The roots of Pylkkänen’s idiom lie in the Late Romantic era and the flowing melodies of Puccini. In The Wolf’s Bride and The Shadow he nevertheless adopted a more chromatic approach to harmony and free tonality, and he even momentarily introduced a 12-note row in The Prisoners and The Unknown Soldier. The Pylkkänen operas lost some of their lustre in the 1970s alongside the new works by Kokkonen and Sallinen, but both The Wolf’s Bride and The Unknown Soldier got a good reception when revived in the late 1990s, thus proving that they still have much to offer.
Although opera is by far the weightiest genre in Pylkkänen’s output, he did compose a fair amount of music of other types. Closely related to the world of the theatre is the ballet Kaarina Maununtytär (1961). Pylkkänen felt quite at home with the human voice. The best-known of his song cycles is Tuonelan joutsen (The Swan of Death, 1943) - settings of poems by Aino Kallas - but others include Kuun silta (Moonbridge, 1953), Visioner (Visions, 1958) and Ilon ja surun lauluja (Songs of Joy and Sorrow, 1976).
He also composed a symphony (1945), but he was not particularly suited to this genre. Other notable orchestral works by him are Ultima Thule (1949), a work at times in Impressionistic vein inspired by the northern regions, and the Preludio sinfonica (1952). He further wrote a certain amount of chamber music, such as a string quartet (1945).
Translation © Susan Sinisalo