Aulis Sallinen: "Good art is always lucid"
by Mari Koppinen :: 2004
Certain adjectives always seem to crop up in connection with the music of Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935). He himself cannot, however, suggest a single one that applies to his output as a whole. “My works are, to my mind, all very different. The very fact that I’ve composed in such widely different genres, from children’s songs to opera, makes my output highly diverse,” he says.
There is nevertheless one word that applies to all his music, and that is ‘lucid’. It’s something he aims for in everything he writes, because, “Good art is always lucid and full of vitality,” as he puts it.
In composing, Sallinen says the establishment of musical characters is for him always of utmost importance. But even more essential is cutting down all the material that accumulates and rewriting the work as a whole.
Pupil of Merikanto and Kokkonen
The path followed by Aulis Sallinen to become one of the leading Finnish composers has not been the shortest possible. While studying composition at the Sibelius Academy, he was also undergoing teacher training at the University of Helsinki and teaching at schools in Pukkila, Vantaa and elsewhere.
During his first years as a student at the Sibelius Academy (1955-58) he enjoyed the colourful tuition of Aarre Merikanto, the forefront 1920s modernist. His teacher after the death of Merikanto was Joonas Kokkonen.
Sallinen reckons that his teachers, among the finest composers of their day, influenced his style, or at least to begin with. “Of course I modelled myself on my teachers. There’s nothing unusual about that, I’m sure, in the history of music. Before you become independent, you try to please your guru by writing as he does.” Sallinen goes on to admit that his first performed work composed as a student, Two Mythical Scenes for Orchestra, was tonal for at least one reason:
“I wanted to please Merikanto, who had no time for serialism.”
The inevitable finally occurred in the late 1950s: “Serialism found its way to Finland and my fellow students greeted it with open arms. And so did I. My diploma assignment in 1960 and my first two string quartets were something in the nature of an application of 12-note music.”
The advent of serialism marked the beginning of Sallinen’s independence as a composer – a period during which he tried to break away from tonality. “But I never actually did,” he quips.
Own distinctive style
In the year that Sallinen was writing his diploma assignment for the Sibelius Academy, he was appointed the first General Manager in the history of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It signified the end of his career as a primary school teacher, though he has in a way assumed the role of teacher later in life, as a composer; in the course of his musical career he has composed a lot of repertoire for children. His third string quartet, for example, Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March (1969), was originally commissioned for concerts for schoolchildren. Sallinen has frequently been inspired by the Tapiola Choir conducted by Erkki Pohjola, for which he has composed such works as the Suita grammaticale (1971) and Songs of the Sea (1974).
The post of General Manager of the FRSO was a plum job for a composer still only 25 old. It was an opportunity to acquire a profound familiarity with the orchestra and its repertoire. His job included programme planning, attendance at rehearsals and concerts, and handling the players’ administrative affairs. “The time I spent at the Radio was a real university education for me. If my teachers had a stylistic influence on my works, it was all washed away,” Sallinen recalls. The nine years he spent with the orchestra influenced him strongly, he feels, as a composer.
It was while he was General Manager of the FRSO that he wrote his first widely-acclaimed works, even though his composing mainly had to be confined to the weekends and summer holidays. Meanwhile he was also teaching part-time at the Sibelius Academy.
In 1962 he composed the orchestral Mauermusik dedicated to the memory of a young man shot at the Berlin Wall. This work is regarded as the culmination of the modernism of the late 1950s and early 60s and Sallinen’s youthful style. The Quattro per quattro (1965) that followed clearly sets off in a new direction and is above all in his distinctive, free-tonal style. Although it does still bear traces of row technique, it nevertheless contains some clearly-recognisable triads. The trend towards elements of consonance was even stronger in the violin concerto of 1968.
Sallinen has the most natural explanation for the change of style in the latter half of the 60s: “Serialism did not suit my sonority aesthetics, my way of writing.”
The Horseman and the Finnish opera boom
On being granted a five-year state artist’s grant in 1970, Sallinen’s career as a composer seemed sufficiently secure for him to resign from his post as General Manager of the FRSO. His appointment as Artist Professor in 1976 further allowed him to give up teaching at the Sibelius Academy. In 1981 he was made an Artist Professor for life, i.e. awarded a life-long state stipend.
The chance to concentrate exclusively on composing allowed him to turn to works of a symphonic nature. He completed his first symphony in 1971, and his second, titled Symphonic Dialogue, the very next year.
Having established a free-tonal style of his own, he then took the next significant turn in his career by composing his first opera, The Horseman (1974). This was composed to a text by Paavo Haavikko for the fifth centenary of Olavinlinna Castle, scene of the Savonlinna Opera Festival. The enormous popularity of The Horseman was to spark off an unprecedented Finnish opera boom in the 1970s. As a result, Sallinen found himself tied up with opera for a couple of decades to come. The next opera, The Red Line (1978), likewise enjoyed an ecstatic reception, as did the subsequent The King Goes Forth To France (1983), Kullervo (1988), The Palace (1993) and King Lear (1999).
His operas finally won Sallinen the reputation of being a front-line Finnish composer. Recognition also came from abroad; his works, and especially his operas, were widely performed the world over. Even today, Aulis Sallinen is still the most frequently-performed opera composer in the history of Finnish music.
“The 1970s and 80s were an absolutely whirl for me. Commissions were coming in from all over the world. Things have since calmed down now that there’s a younger generation to commission. And that’s as it should be.”
Sallinen jubilee 2005
Nowadays spending most of the year in France, Sallinen dismisses all talk of retiring. Composing is vital for him, and anyway it’s always on his mind. New works appear in a steady stream, but not too many. “If I try to write too many, they don’t have time to mature. And I don’t understand the point of churning out vast quantities, seeing that there’s already too much music in the world.”
Today, on the eve of his 70th birthday, Sallinen’s music is again in great demand. The jubilee year begins in style with the US premiere of his symphony no. 8. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under its Artistic Director Paavo Järvi will be conducting it three times in Cincinnati and once at Carnegie Hall, New York in January 2005. The Horseman makes its comeback at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in July, and a complete recording of his main orchestral works is being made in Germany.
Also in the pipeline are the premieres of a number of new works, this time for chamber ensemble. Eight symphonies and six operas have kept Aulis Sallinen well occupied for years. In consequence, he has recently begun to steer away from large-scale orchestral works and to concentrate instead on things he once had so little time for. Such as chamber music.
“I’m very keen on it at the moment. Musically, it’s just as demanding, but physically less strenuous. What’s more, chamber music has its uses; here in Finland we have a fine young generation of musicians. In addition to the traditional instrumentalists we have accordion players, guitarists… It really is a fascinating world.”
Translation © Susan Sinisalo)