Magnus Lindberg

Born 1958

Magnus Lindberg



The Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg is one of the most visible contemporary composers working today. His works include solo and chamber compositions, but above all he is most renowned for his large-scale symphonic pieces. His creative evolution is remarkable in its trajectory from his fiercely avant-garde early works to his current, more classicist yet hugely eclectic language, with an emphasis on colour, emotion, melody, and the embrace of tradition.

Magnus Lindberg was born in Helsinki. His father, who worked for IBM, gave him an accordion when he was six, and by the age of seven he was writing down small compositions. Lindberg has said that the computers that surrounded him in his childhood were an important influence, inspiring him to later experiment with writing his own programs to generate musical material. A family friend began teaching him piano and he soon went on to enter the youth department of the Sibelius Academy in 1973. He began his professional compositional studies at the same school, studying with Einojuhani Rautavaara and Paavo Heininen. During his time as a student in Helsinki he also attended courses with Franco Donatoni and Brian Ferneyhough, and, after completing his degree, traveled to Paris to study with Vinko Globokar and Gerard Grisey.

In the summer of 1980, for the occasion of a performance of Stockhausen’s Plus-Minus, Lindberg founded the new music ensemble Toimii, in which he also performed on piano and percussion. The group became an important vehicle for Lindberg’s experimentation, leading first toAction-Situation-Signification (1982). Composed while he was still living in Paris studying with Globokar, and influenced by the sound classifications of Pierre Schaeffer and Helmut Lachenmann, the work utilizes recordings in the musique concrete style, juxtaposing real world recordings (Situation) with sounds produced by the ensemble (Action) leading to a new context for both (Signification). Another Finnish group of like-minded musicians that Lindberg was involved with and which also proved historically significant was the Ears Open Society, which also countedEsa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho among its ranks during the same period.

Lindberg’s major early work is Kraft (1983-1985). During this period Lindberg was living in Berlin and encountering the experimental music of rock groups such as Einstürzende Neubauten, who would perform with makeshift percussion objects and power tools. Kraft combines a large orchestra with soloists on amplified cello, clarinet, piano, and percussion, who also move throughout the hall in the course of the work, utilizing space as a compositional parameter. The usual battery of percussion instruments is augmented with found objects; Lindberg specifies that they come from the city where the piece is being performed. The music ranges from the expected cacophonous outbursts to more tranquil, resonant episodes, all with a deep organizational underpinning and sense of theatricality.

Feria (1997) is an example of Lindberg’s evolving style, where sonic experimentation has been gradually eschewed in favor of a more thematic and harmonic organisation. Composed for the 1997 BBC Proms, the work contains Lindberg’s characteristic grand orchestral gestures and pace filled out with constant, swirling activity. The title refers to a Spanish festival, the excitement of which is portrayed in the driving opening sections and repeated brass fanfares. The slower second section is centered on a quotation from Monteverdi’s Lasciatemi morire, framed by a shimmering, translucent web of dissonance in the strings and timpani.

Lindberg’s most recent works have been some of his most popular; part of a string of concertos, theClarinet Concerto (2002) and Violin Concerto (2006), in particular are well known and frequently performed. TheClarinet Concerto, written forKari Kriikku (who was working with Lindberg as early as the Toimii ensemble) is composed of five distinct, but continuous, sections, punctuated with explosive orchestral swells and the clarinet’s pastoral theme and fluttering virtuosic solo passages. TheViolin Concerto begins with a solo violin line that is strikingly reminiscent of the famous concerto by his countryman,Sibelius, before the darting solo violin lines quickly veer away from theSibelius’ lyricism.  Both works are filled with an enormous range of musical character, including memorable melodies, darkly dissonant passages, breathtaking chorals, and surprising effects.

Two of Lindberg’s more recent orchestral works are Al Largo (2009) and Era (2014). Al Largo was written during his tenure as the composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic. Written for a traditional Beethovian orchestra, the work is structured around two large ritardandi, a play on the words with title, which also translates to “on the open sea” in Italian.Era was written for the 125th anniversary of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra. Premiered alongside controversial works byBerg, Zemlinksy, and Stravinsky, the title of the piece is not only a reference to the history of the Concertgebouw orchestra, but also an homage to the explosive early 20th century period of music history.

Lindberg’s most recent work is 2014’s Accused; three interrogations for soprano and orchestra, written for Barbara Hannigan and the London Philharmonic Orchestra during his residency with the organisation. The work, his first use a vocal soloist, investigates conflict between individuals and the state in three texts from three centuries; taken from interrogations during the French Revolution, postwar East Germany, and the transcript of the trial of Chelsea Manning. About the musical realisation of the attacks he writes: “The dramatic aspect comes from the struggle of the singer against the orchestra, rather like the individual pitted against the collective will of the state. It is not a simple vocal line with accompaniment but a more complex relationship, generating friction and some extreme contrasts.”

Aside from his positions as composer in residence with the New York and London Philharmonics, Lindberg has been awarded the Wihuri Sibelius Prize, the Prix Italia, and the Nordic Council Music Prize.

Magnus Lindberg’s kaleidoscopic music neither adheres to one certain aesthetic nor jumps from historical style to historical style; rather it organically orients itself by the tension between various sources of meaning. It is, above all, expressive in a very classical sense, but with a modern interpretation of form and history. In the modern symphony orchestra he has found the perfect instrument for his writing, filled with historical allusions and infinite colors. He is, as conductor Simon Rattle has called him, “one-man living proof that the orchestra is not dead.”

Main header: photo credit Hanya Chlala / ArenaPAL Small image: courtesy of Opus Magazine