Finnish composer Paavo Heininen has died

The “most uncompromising Finnish composer of his generation” was born on January 13, 1938 and died on January 18, 2021

Composer Paavo Heininen has died. In the February 2021 issue of Gramophone, Andrew Mellor gave the following insight into the composer’s life and music, which we are reposting as a tribute.

Contemporary composer: Paavo Heininen

Swedish composer Anders Eliasson has told a well-worn story of the day in 1993 when he showed up at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, as a visiting professor. The Academy’s composition chair welcomed him with an outstretched hand: “I am Paavo Heininen, modernist.

Schools and “isms” were already on the way out in the 90s, but even if Heininen knew that, he didn’t care. He is the most uncompromising Finnish composer of his generation and perhaps of the last 70 years (“the most gifted modernist in Finland”, for Gramophone‘s Guy Rickards) – a creator and pedagogue who clings to his serialist ways even when he seems to conceal them.

Heininen was Aarre Merikanto’s last pupil and reconstructed a number of his former teacher’s self-vandalized or unfinished pieces. In 1993, for example, he wrote a concept piece in his memory: Tuuminki- “An idea…of what might have been Aarre Merikanto’s 3rd Violin Concerto” (a work that Merikanto had destroyed). Anxious to be at the heart of the avant-garde despite Finland’s peripheral geography, Heininen traveled to Cologne to study with Rudolf Petzold and BA Zimmermann before enrolling at the Juilliard School in New York, where he was mainly Persichetti’s pupil. He would later study privately with Lutosawski.

Sibelius was still breathing when Heininen’s first significant work was introduced in 1957, the neoclassical Piano Sonatina. A watershed moment would come the following year. Continuing a distinguished line, the first performance of Heininen’s Symphony No. 1 was a calamity. The orchestra which gave its premiere refused to play the middle section of the work and only the first and last movements were played.

The event proved pivotal – traumatic enough for Heininen to contemplate his future, and newsworthy enough for his name to be etched in the consciousness of the new Nordic music scene as that of a enfant terrible. But Heininen would not change direction – as such. On the contrary, he realized that in some works the full implementation of his serial ideas would be more viable and even possible than in others. Two trends of equal importance emerged in his work. In one, he indulged his musical imagination fully and with a rigor that many found abrasive; in the other, he put his technique at the service of chiselled, distilled music, which was appreciated as a simple and beautiful expression of the same rigorous principles.

The composer’s symphonies perfectly illustrate the difference, oscillating between the two strands. After the appalling inauguration of Symphony No. 1, its 1962 successor aims to please. It was written for a light orchestra, is subtitled Little joyful symphony and has nuances of Martin≤’s wit and Berg’s lyricism (it recalls the latter also in its instrumentation, especially its use of a saxophone). In truth, it probably owes more to Heininen’s time with Persichetti in New York.

Symphony No 3 (1969, rev 1977) was a rigorously disciplined attempt to force potentially bulky material into simple, tight forms – a challenge for a composer known for his abundance of detail per unit time. In a sense, it embodies the central paradox of Heininen’s entire compositional project: the fertility of his material and the concentration of his spirit. Again, this proved to be technically overwhelming. Only part of the score could have been presented when it was created, and debate still rages as to how many movements even the complete score has. Symphony No. 4 (1971) reacts once again, becoming thinner and simpler. Its two movements bear the title “Sinfonietta” and contain elements of both random technique and sonata form.

It took Heininen three decades to return to the symphony, but No. 5 (2002) is truly off-putting, as if he had spent all that time trying to get out of it. Its successor, No 6 (2013-15), premiered in 2015, is perhaps the composer’s best attempt to date to invest serial techniques with symphonic momentum. Despite the task at hand, it is not without playfulness.

If the even-numbered symphonies are full of stress and tension, they tell of Heininen struggling with the challenge of his own self-imposed discipline. Some think its restraints deliver cold, empty music arguing in the corners; GramophoneBoth the deans of Nordic music David Fanning and the late Robert Layton have expressed reservations in these pages about the major works of the composer’s pen. Time and the march of postmodernism have revealed qualities that have long been overlooked. One of them is this very sense of tension, heard most clearly in the Mahlerian edifice for strings Arioso (1967). This piece is a good starting point for newcomers to Heininen and leads naturally to the impressive Adagio … concerto for orchestra in forma di variazioni (1963, rev 1966) – a set of monumental variations in which a huge orchestra plays like a chamber ensemble, a testament to the composer’s meticulous instrumentation.

The same quality is found in music that is altogether more piquant but with the same chronology (with origins prior to the composer’s 30th birthday), that of the sextet summer music (1963, rev. 1967). Kimmo Korhonen described the play as Heininen’s “closest approach to serialist constructivism” while drawing a helpful comparison to its direct predecessor, Soggetto (1963) for chamber orchestra, in which sound fields and random elements are used (the latter piece was among the composer’s widely acclaimed early successes). Both devices are also in the Adagio and the first piano concerto (1964).

For a period in the 1970s, serialism in the Nordic countries was frowned upon – seen as going against the goals it had set for itself while going against social democratic principles of inclusiveness and of public value. Heininen’s response was to look into other uncompromising expressions of modernism that could be better understood, using spatial elements, separate sets, and echoing space-time techniques propagated by his kindred spirit Erik Bergman , especially in Tritopos (1977). Not that this completely prevented Heininen from using twelve-tone techniques. In a large assemblage of scores from 1974-75 collected as opus number 32, he included the sprawling piano sonata Sparkling and incandescent poetry, a string quartet and two shorter piano pieces. All, Heininen insisted, were “the same music” (that is, they were built on the same row of notes).

In the 1980s, Heininen would embrace computer-aided methods and follow his edgy, windswept Piano Concerto No. cello (1983 and 1985 respectively). He will also turn to musical theatre. Silkkirumpu (‘The Damask Drum’, subtitled ‘Concerto for Singers, Players, Words, Images and Movements’; 1981-83) is based on the symbolism of an ancient Japanese Noh piece and is holistically designed as a grand crescendo musical and dramatic; it was followed by the more dramatically conventional and musically typical Veitsi (“The Knife”, 1985-88). The latter won the competition for the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland in 1988 and was performed the following year to celebrate the city’s 350th anniversary.

Heininen joined the faculty of the Sibelius Academy as a part-time lecturer in 1966; he was appointed full professor in 1993 and remained in the post until 2001. In these two positions he trained a golden generation of Finnish composers, including Jouni Kaipainen, Magnus Lindberg, Veli-Matti Puumala, Kaija Saariaho and Jukka Tiensuu. The individual paths followed by these characters bear witness to the principle that, however rigorously Heininen observed his own rules, he avoided imposing them on others. And yet, he did not abandon them: his last recorded work, the Boston Violin Sonatas (2016), suggests that his dodecaphonic method is fresher than ever.

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