Erkki Melartin

Erkki Melartin

Composer

• 1875 1937

Biography

Erkki Melartin is among the many talented Finnish composers that have been unfairly trapped in the shadow of Sibelius, almost as if the space for just one famous Finnish composer exists. As a contemporary of Sibelius, Melartin was overshadowed his entire life and still today, despite having received the recognition that his works are equally worthy. While Melartin’s salon music was very popular, his symphonies never really took off, even though they received praiseworthy premieres. Perhaps his ‘serious’ reputation was unjustly and permanently damaged by the popularity of his salon music even though his works from both genres are unquestionably admirable.

Melartin was born on 7 February 1875 in the rural town of Käkisalmi in the region of Karelia, Finland, which became part of the Soviet Union during World War II. Despite only living in Käkisalmi for a short time, as he moved to Helsinki at a young age, the folk music of his birthplace remained very influential on his compositions. With the exception of brief periods in Viipuri and Vienna, Melartin remained in Helsinki for the most of his life. Another important factor in his life was his poor health, which would always affect him but not hold him back from composing.

As a composition student at the Helsinki Music School (which later became the Helsinki Conservatory and then the Sibelius Academy), Melartin studied with Wegelius from 1892 to 1899 before travelling to Vienna to study with Robert Fuchs from 1899 to 1901. He became an assistant teacher at the Helsinki Music School in 1895, holding the post until 1899. After his return from Vienna he served first as a teacher at the school, from 1901 to 1907 and then as director from 1911 to 1936, succeeding Wegelius. In 1919, Melartin was awarded an honorary professorship.

During his brief pause from the Helsinki Music School, between 1908 and 1911, Melartin was working in Viipuri as a conductor. While there, he also founded an orchestra school. Melartin used his role as a conductor to present his own music and that of composers such as Mahler, whom he admired greatly. In fact, Melartin conducted the first performance of a Mahler work (theAndante from Symphony no. 2) in the Nordic countries in 1909. In addition, he travelled throughout Scandinavia, Russia, Germany North Africa, India and Egypt to conduct his works.

During his long teaching career, Melartin was in charge of the education of an entire generation of Finnish composers. He was known for his open-mindedness as a teacher, open to the ideas of modernism. He even allowed for the use of atonality, but not as a systematic style.

As a composer, Melartin regarded himself as a symphonist, despite his large number of salon works. He completed six symphonies between 1902 and 1924, leaving behind early sketches of what were to be his seventh and eighth symphonies. His goal, however, was to compose nine symphonies.  

During his lifetime, Melartin was easily able to have all his completed symphonies performed, yet only one of them (the sixth) was published. Perhaps the fact that his symphonies remained unpublished after his death explains the relative obscurity of the works. The Sixth Symphony was only published and printed as a present from two of his Danish friends, to whom he had dedicated the symphony, for his 60th birthday.

It was not until the 1990s, more than half a century later, that his symphonies were revived. It was at this time that the Tampere City Orchestra, directed by Leonid Grin, released a series of recordings of the symphonies on the Ondine label, which prides itself on its recordings of lesser-known Finnish composers. Since then, the orchestra has also recorded Melartin’s Violin Concerto.

Characteristics of Melartin’s symphonies include late-Romantic stylistic leanings, greatly influenced by Mahler and Bruckner. His interest in Mahler most likely came about during his period of studying in Vienna, as he would have come into contact with Mahler’s work as a conductor and composer. As a general rule, he steered clear of Sibelius’ style. In his later works, Melartin’s works expand in style to include elements of 1920s Modernism, such as Expressionism and Impressionism. However, he never fully abandoned his roots, which were based in Karelian folk music and classical counterpoint. Of all his compositions, the piano pieceFantasia apocaliptica (c1920-22) was the most Avant-garde and was even described by critics as atonal, when in reality it just used some new features.

The premiere of his Symphony no. 1 (1902) took place in 1903 and gained much attention, as the symphonic tradition in Finland had only just begun several years prior, with Sibelius. The work was well-received as a whole, though only theScherzo would become popular, as it would often be performed on its own as a concert piece. Its popularity likely came from the inclusion of the folk song Ol’ kaunis kesäilta(‘It was a fair summer evening’), which was seen as a political statement, as the Russian government was oppressing Finland at the time. The finale of the Symphony no. 1 also contains a theme that he later developed in the incidental music forPrinsessa Ruusunen (‘Sleeping Beauty’).

The success of Melartin’s first symphony led to much anticipation for the 1905 premiere of his Second Symphony (1904), which was composed in one single movement. In his own thematic analysis of the work, Melartin described the moods of each of his themes, though never implying any programmatic nature. He gave the themes specific names such as “the threatening fifth motif”, the “battle motif”, the “cry-for-help motif” and “the lonely autumn melody”. With this symphony, Melartin also established his use of an increasing amount of counterpoint towards the end of his works.

While Sibelius’ fame has certainly survived longer, Melartin’s Fourth Symphony was received much better than that of Sibelius. This symphony, which includes theSummer Hymn and three female singers, is perhaps his most popular symphony. It was also quite revolutionary for the Finnish public to hear singers in a symphony.

While the Fifth Symphony (1916) was Melartin’s longest symphony, the Sixth (1924) was his most modern, as it contained no key signatures and depended more on harmonic clusters than counterpoint. In addition, the melodies were no longer based on folk songs. This final symphony seems to have led the foundation for Allan Pettersson’s compositions.

In addition to his symphonies, Melartin composed the opera Aino (1907), which uses the Wagnerian concept of leitmotif and was premiered in 1909. He was also the first Finnish composer to compose the music to a full-length ballet,Sininen belmi(‘The Blue Pearl, 1929-1930). He wrote a number of chamber pieces including four string quartets, two violin sonatas and many piano pieces. Additionally, he wrote about 300 songs. His total output was approximately 1,000 works, of which many are still waiting to become a part of the repertoire.

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