The Kennedy Center

Symphonic Dances: Hommage à Uuno Klami

About the Work

Kalevi Aho Composer: Kalevi Aho
© Richard Freed

This work was composed in 2001 and was given its premiere on December 6 of that year, by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä, who recorded it the following month; it enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts, again conducted by Mr. Vänskä.
The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum (with snares), bass drum, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, cymbals, small bells (sonagli), 2 anvils, 2 cowbells, 2 tam-tams, wood block, castanets, piano, celesta, harp, strings, and electronic tape. Duration, 28 minutes.

It is noted from time to time that Finland is the only country personified to the world by a musician, the great composer Jean Sibelius, whose music begins and ends this week's concerts. At the core of Sibelius's greateness was a remarkable level of individuality, and that has been his productive legacy to his latter-day compatriots. Succeeding generations of Finnish composers have flourished with each insisting on finding his or her own distinctive voice. Among those active today, none has been more remarkable in this respect than Kalevi Aho, whose birthday occurs during this week's run of concerts.

No one writes for the orchestra more imaginatively. Aho's music tends to be big, intense, dramatic, sometimes humorous, at once earthy and otherworldly, and audaciously colored. His concertos are truly symphonic works, in which he finds capacities for the respective solo instruments heretofore unimagined, and at the same time gives the orchestra its due in terms of similar challenges and opportunities to shine. He has received numerous Finnish and international honors for his works, many of which have been given definitive recordings by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra on the BIS label that have made the composer and his music known throughout the world. Kalevi Aho has been the Lahti orchestra's composer in residence since the early 1990s.

Mr. Vänskä has also taken Aho's works with him on his various guest engagements (he conducted the NSO in the Symphony No. 9, with the trombonist Christian Lindberg, in 2003) and of course includes them in his concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra. He has been so successful an advocate, in fact, that he now enjoys the satisfaction of seeing various colleagues follow his lead. One of the latest and most remarkable of Aho's works is an expansive and darkly dramatic Concerto for Contrabassoon and Orchestra, brought into being by two musicians with connections to the National Symphony Orchestra. That work was personally commissioned by Lewis Lipnick, the orchestra's contrabassoonist; he gave the premiere a little more than a year ago with the Bergen Philharmonic under Andrew Litton, who began his career as the NSO's assistant conductor in the early 1980s; their live recording was issued by BIS last month. Aho's Clarinet Concerto commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra for Martin Fröst, was introduced by him with Mr. Vänskä in London last April and recorded in Lahti two months later.

Apart from his own original compositions, Aho has shown a productive interest in his musical forebears—Finnish and otherwise—in such undertakings as his orchestration of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death (for the great Finnish basso Martti Talvela) and his attention, both musical and literary, to his compatriot Uuno Klami (1900-1961), who was perhaps the outstanding "individualist" among Finnish composers of his generation. Aho has been a conspicuously active as a writer on musical subjects, and his admiration for Klami is documented in a biography published in 2000 as well as his editing and completion of some of the scores Klami left unfinished.

While Klami developed a broadly cosmopolitan outlook early on—he studied with Maurice Ravel and Florent Schmitt in Paris in the 1920s, and came to admire Stravinsky—he eventually came to focus largely on Finnish themes in his music, much of which was generated by his fascination with the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. One of his attractive orchestral works is a Kalevala Suite, which concludes with a powerful evocation of "The Forging of the Sampo." (Kalevi Aho describes the Sampo, forged by the smith Ilmarinen in the Kalevala, as "a magical object that brings eternal happiness and prosperity.") The same episode became the dramatic subject for the ballet Pyörteitä ("Whirls"), which traces its origin to the year in which that suite was completed (1943) and occupied Klami at the time of his death; preparing this work for performance became a prime commitment for Kalevi Aho, culminating in his composition of the Symphonic Dances to serve as the music for the ballet's final act, which Klami himself had not got round to composing.

In a his note for the Vänskä/Lahti recording of the Symphonic Dances,, Aho points out that the idea for the ballet Whirls, which Klami had intended "to be the crowning glory of his entire output, and at the same time an essential cornerstone of Finnish ballet music," originated in 1943, when the stage and costume designer Regina Backberg (1898-1979) began sketching a scenario, with set designs and costume sketches, for a symbolist ballet given the working title The Forging of the Sampo. Klami had had thoughts of such a ballet on Kalevala themes as far back as the early 1930s, and when he was shown Backberg's scenario he responded enthusiastically.

At that time, though, Klami was busy with the composition of his Second Symphony, and since the Finnish National Ballet's chief choreographer showed no interest, work on the Sampo ballet was set aside for more than a dozen years. It was not until 1957, when the Wihuri Foundation held a competition for a new opera and ballet, that Klami got down to work on his ballet music. He gave it a new title—Whirls—and his piano score for Act I brought him the prize in the competition's ballet section. But, for whatever reason, he did not get very far toward completing the work. Dates were announced for the premiere of Whirls for the season 1958-59, but Klami had no score to offer and another work was performed in its place. The same pattern was repeated in the next two seasons, though by then Klami had composed and orchestrated the music for Act II and divided it into two concert suites, which were performed in Helsinki in April 1960 and February 1961, respectively. Klami's death on May 29, 1961, however, seemed to put an end to the project, as he had neither orchestrated the music for Act I nor composed any for Act III, but a timely discovery sparked a revival of interest, as Kalevi Aho recalls in a note of his own.

In 1985, the year that marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Kalevala, the composer and musicologist Erkki Salmenhaara (1941-2002) found the piano score of the first act, which had been believed lost, in the library of the Finnish National Opera. Salmenhaara's discovery set in motion extensive research into Klami's lost manuscripts and sketches, in which I also took part, as I was writing my book on Finnish music and the Kalevala. No further material for Whirls was found, however.

When I began to feel certain that no more music for this splendid ballet had ever existed, I orchestrated the music of the first act in 1988 and it was first performed at the Turku Music Festival on August 19 of that year by the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra under Jacques Mercier. The music for Act II, represented by the two suites prepared by Klami himself, was not performed in its entirety until August 1991, when Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra presented it during the Lahti Organ Weeks. In the early 1990s, the Klami scholar Helena Tyrväinen suggested that I compose all of the missing third act of Whirls; she also mentioned this possibility to the conductor Ulf Söderblom, who subsequently interested Juhani Raiskinen, the managing director of the Finnish National Opera, in presenting a complete version of Whirls, composed in part by Klami and in part by myself.
In the spring of 2000 I collaborated with Marjo Valkonen on a biography of Uuno Klami, and at that time the plan to complete Whirls was revived once again. The final impulse for the project came in late March 2000, when Regina Backberg's son, the artist Klaus Backberg, came across the fantastic 1940s stage designs, costume sketches and original ballet scenario, plus two different synopses of the scenario, among his mother's effects. The sketches were deposited with the National Opera, and Juhani Raiskinen, who had long been convinced of the importance of Whirls, then commissioned me to write the music for Act III.

The planned staging of the ballet, however, again came to nothing. In May 2001, when I had already begun to compose Act III, unexpected opposition to the project came from the newly appointed ballet director, Dinna Bjørn. I completed the music for Act III by August of that year, as specified in my agreement with Juhani Raiskinen, but because the Finnish National Ballet did not wish to produce Whirls the new manager of the Opera, Erkki Korhonen, agreed that the Lahti Symphony Orchestra would give the premiere of the music for Act III, even though it had been commissioned by the Opera for the Finnish National Ballet. I thereupon gave this music a new title of its own: Symphonic Dances: Hommage à Uuno Klami. Under that title it was introduced by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä in December 2001 and subsequently recorded. The ballet itself still has not been staged, and there are no plans at present for a danced performance.

Whirls is based on a stylized depiction of the forging of the Sampo, with the smith Ilmarinen as the main character. In the ballet's strongly atmospheric first act, slaves stoke up the furnace and Ilmarinen works on the Sampo. From the forge come various objects (each of which has its own dance), but Ilmarinen cannot yet manage to create the "real" Sampo. At the end of Act I the heat is so intense that the sparks fly all the way up to the heavens.
Act II is set in space; it contains dances of the day and night, and its principal characters are the Boy of the Day, the Maiden of the Day, the Boy of the Moon, the North Star, and Venus. According to Klami, the second act, with its generally more lyrical atmosphere, was intended to serve as a period of musical calm, a preparation for the action of the finale.

In Act III, Ilmarinen and the slaves once again stoke up the fires and, when he makes all the winds blow upon the furnace, the Sampo eventually appears from the heat of the flames.

In the rehearsal score for Act I, Klami wrote the names of the five dances he intended to include in Act III, and also their projected timings. I based my work on the titles Klami gave these dances, on Regina Backberg's scenario sketch from the 1940s, and on the choreographer Tiina Lindfors's more detailed scenario synopsis based on that sketch. Here is a detailed description of Act III and the music I composed for it:

In the PRELUDE that begins the act there are reminiscences of some of Klami's themes from Acts I and II. In the second number, RETURN OF THE FLAMES AND DANCE, there is only one brief direct quotation from Klami; otherwise the movement represents a musical style that, while admittedly influenced by Klami both melodically and harmonically, contains no direct quotation. As I wished to retain a connection with Klami's world, and to ensure that the last act would not be stylistically too remote from the rest of the music in the ballet, I did not wish to "over-modernize" the music of the Symphonic Dances.

The subject of the RETURN OF THE FLAMES AND DANCE is the creation of a plough from the newly reheated forge. Ilmarinen then begins an increasingly wild dance with the plough. This number is performed immediately after the PRELUDE, without a pause. In the succeeding GROTESQUE DANCE Ilmarinen works in the forest with the plough, which begins to reveal different sides of its character as he ploughs. From the forest, strange beings of all kinds emerge: there are goblins and forest animals, and eventually even the Devil's Elk awakes from its dreams and lumbers lazily away. The GROTESQUE DANCE functions as a calmer moment of peace in the middle of the sequence.

The work is crowned by the DANCE OF THE WINDS AND FIRES. In this number I have deviated from Klami's original plan, but only superficially. At the end of the work as Klami conceived it there would have been a separate DANCE OF THE FIRES, followed by the DANCE OF THE WINDS AND FIRES. I decided to combine these two dances in order to provide the most effective possible conclusion for Act III and thus for the entire ballet. This number is almost as long as all three preceding sections combined. The East Wind, West Wind, South Wind and North Wind blow in turn, to make the flames that heat Ilmarinen's furnace into a fire that grows ever hotter. In this movement the sound of the winds is realized by electronic means, and at the end of the movement we hear a frantically whining cadenza for all the winds together.

This is followed by the creation of the Sampo, In Regina Backberg's scenario, the wild stoking of the fire and the forging give way to a sudden silence; through the silence we hear a distant hymn, and finally a beautiful young girl rises from the furnace. For Regina Backberg, the Sampo was above all a symbol of youth and of the power of love, which bring to the world new joy, new hope, and new faith in the future. The ending of the Symphonic Dances is in accodance with Backberg's vision. The powerful climax of the DANCE OF THE WINDS AND FIRES is followed by a hymn from the violas and cellos, which ends the ballet in silence.