Monday, 4 December 2017

Toivo Kuula - Finland Awakes !

Finnish composer Toivo Kuula (1883-1918) above, on his deathbed, dying from a bullet which hit him in the last days of the First War of Finnish Independence.  He was close to the battle front, but the shot hit him by accident as he was celebrating in a restaurant when a fight broke out nearby. The brightest hope of new Finnish music was silenced, long before his time.  Kuula was a close friend of Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947), and mixed in Finland's avant garde artistic circles, a younger and more radical set than hung out with Sibeliius and his mates. When Madetoja first set eyes on Kuula, he was impressed by his "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!"

Kuula’s views on music were liberal and unconventional, and he impressed the leading musicians of his time – Jean Sibelius took him on as one of his few pupils.

The early years of the twentieth century were a quantum leap of creativity in Finland.  The popularity of  Sibelius in the west earned Finland valuable support in the decades of war with Russia. Quite literally, Sibelius was the saviour of his country, his music a symbol of national identity.  While Sibelius and his contemporaries blazed the trail, others followed, responding to the same ideas that were galvanizing music, art and literature elsewhere in Europe.  Please see Suomen itsenäisyyden satavuotisjuhla, Finland's 100th Birthday Concert HERE and listen to the concert itself.
Kuula and his friends, like Madetoja could access a deep vein of nostalgia for a lost past, while writing music that reflected cosmopolitan European trends elsewhere : the influence of Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel and Scriabin, for example. Their music continues the Fennoman love of Finnish identity and of the the natural world which nurtured it. Their music deals with the passing of time, of things eternal and of change.They set the poems of contemporary poets, not just those of the past, and many of these, too, wrote in the European
mainstream of the time. For example, Eino Leino (1887-1926), a free thinker
and believer in free love, who lived a bohemian life in Rome with another
equally wild spirit, the poetess L. Onerva – who was later to marry Leevi Madetoja. Kuula wrote a lot of chamber music and, memorably music for choir, a great Finnish phenomenon,and was   particularly drawn to song during his marriage to the soprano Alma Silvantionen, with whom he toured Europe, playing as her accompanist.  Please also see my other pieces on early 20th century Finnish culture, including the film Anna-Liisa 1922. HERE

This fascinating conjunction of nostalgia and forward-thinking provides us with some beautifully evocative mood music. Syystunnelma (Autumn Moods), pictures the coming of winter – long and hard in Finland – and is based on a Leino poem. The poet spies a small flower by the roadside, which he protects by burying it under snow, like the memory of a lost love which must not wither.  Tuijotin tulehen kauan (Long gazed I into the Fire) was an early student work. The composer Armas Järnefelt, Sibelius’s brother-in-law, and Head of the Music Academy, was seen playing it admiringly. "This Kuula", he said "is some fellow!" How beautifully the piano evokes the dying embers of a fire and the poets increasing anxiety as he "sees" a maiden in the flames. The title alone of Kesäyö kirkomaalla (Summer Night in the churchyard) to a poem by another contemporary, Vieko Koskanniemi, evokes the romantic mystery in the song. The same poet’s text, set by Kuula as Epilogi refers to life sleeping hidden "in the womb of night" – the delicatepiano setting expresses implicitly more than the poem alone can say. Jääkukkia (Ice Flowers), another Koskanniemi poem, is a challenge for a good soprano – its exoticism is so highly perfumed that "the flower without any fragrance" is created by music alone. Purjein kuutamolla (Sailing in the Moonlight") exquisitely evokes twinkling stars, and the rippling of waters lit by moonbeams – and then the voice comes in with rhythm, and voice and piano continue together in a surprisingly impressionist manner that makes one wonder what Kuula might have achieved had fate not intervened.

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