The Finnish composer Paavo Heininen has died

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The 'most uncompromising Finnish composer of his generation' was born on January 13, 1938 and died on January 18, 2022

The composer Paavo Heininen has died. In the February 2021 issue of Gramophone, Andrew Mellor gave the following overview of the composer's life and music, which we re-publish as a tribute.

Contemporary Composer: Paavo Heininen

The Swedish composer Anders Eliasson told a well-worn story about the day in 1993 when he pitched up at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, reporting for duty as a guest professor. The Academy’s composition chair met him with an outstretched hand: ‘I’m Paavo Heininen, modernist.’

Schools and ‘isms’ were already on their way out in the ’90s, but even if Heininen knew it, he didn’t much care. He is the most uncompromising Finnish composer of his generation and perhaps of the last 70 years (‘Finland’s doughtiest modernist’, for Gramophone’s Guy Rickards) – a creator and pedagogue who cleaves to his serialist methods even when he appears to be concealing them.

Heininen was the last pupil of Aarre Merikanto, and reconstructed a number of his old teacher’s self-vandalised or unfinished pieces. In 1993, for instance, he wrote a concept piece in his memory: Tuuminki – ‘A notion … of what might have been Aarre Merikanto’s 3rd Violin Concerto’ (a work that Merikanto had destroyed). Keen to be at the heart of the avant-garde in spite of Finland’s peripheral geography, Heininen travelled to Cologne to study with Rudolf Petzold and BA Zimmermann before enrolling at the Juilliard School in New York, where he was primarily a pupil of Persichetti. He would study privately with Lutosawski later on.

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

The event proved pivotal – traumatic enough for Heininen to consider his future, and newsworthy enough for his name to be lodged in the consciousness of the Nordic new music scene as that of an enfant terrible. But Heininen wouldn’t change direction – as such. Rather, he became aware that in some works the full implementation of his serial ideas would be more viable and indeed possible than it would be in others. Two equally important strands emerged in his oeuvre. In one, he indulged his musical imagination fully and with a stringency many found abrasive; in the other, he put his technique in the service of chiselled, distilled music that could be appreciated as a simple, beautiful expression of the same rigorous principles.

The composer’s symphonies illustrate the difference neatly, oscillating between both strands. After the horror-show inauguration of Symphony No 1, its successor of 1962 aimed to please. It was written for a slimmed-down orchestra, is subtitled Petite symphonie joyeuse and has shades of Martin≤’s spirit and Berg’s lyricism (it recalls the latter in its instrumentation too, particularly 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 stringently disciplined attempt to force potentially billowing material into tight and simple forms – a challenge for a composer known for sheer abundance of detail per unit of time. In a sense, it embodies the central paradox of Heininen’s whole compositional project: his material’s fertility and his mind’s concentration. Again, it proved technically overwhelming. Only a proportion of the score could be presented at its premiere, and debate still rages as to how many movements the full score even has. Symphony No 4 (1971) reacted once more, slimming down and simplifying. Its two movements carry the title ‘Sinfonietta’, and it has elements of both aleatoric technique and sonata form.

It took three decades for Heininen to return to the symphony, but No 5 (2002) is forbidding indeed, as if it had spent all that time straining to get out. Its successor, No 6 (2013-15), first performed in 2015, is perhaps the composer’s best attempt yet to invest serial techniques with symphonic momentum. Despite the task in hand, it is not without playfulness.

If the even-numbered symphonies are full of stress and strain, they speak of Heininen grappling with the challenge of his own self-imposed discipline. Some feel that his constraints deliver cold-hearted, empty music that argues itself into corners; Gramophone’s own doyens of Nordic music David Fanning and the late Robert Layton have both expressed reservations about major works from the composer’s pen in these pages. Time, and the march of postmodernism, have exposed qualities that have long been ignored. One of them is that very sense of strain, heard most clearly in the Mahlerian edifice for strings Arioso (1967). That piece is a good starting point for Heininen newcomers and leads naturally on to the impressive Adagio … concerto per orchestra in forma di variazioni (1963, rev 1966) – a monumental variation set in which a huge orchestra plays like a chamber ensemble, a testament to the composer’s meticulous instrumentation.

The same quality can be heard in music altogether more piquant but with the same chronology (with origins before the composer’s 30th birthday), that of the sextet Musique d’été (1963, rev 1967). Kimmo Korhonen has described the piece as Heininen’s ‘closest approach to Serialist Constructivism’ while drawing a useful comparison with its direct predecessor, Soggetto (1963) for chamber orchestra, in which sound fields and aleatoric elements are used (the latter piece was among the composer’s first widely acclaimed successes). Both devices are also found 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 defeating the purposes it set out to achieve while flying in the face of social democratic principles of inclusivity and public worth. Heininen’s response was to look into other uncompromising expressions of modernism that might be better understood, using spatial elements, separated ensembles and echoing space–time techniques propagated by his kindred spirit Erik Bergman, most notably in Tritopos (1977). Not that it stopped Heininen using dodecaphonic techniques entirely. In a grand assembly of scores from 1974-75 united under the opus number 32, he included the sprawling piano sonata Poesia squillante ed incandescente, a string quartet and two shorter piano pieces. All of them, Heininen insisted, were ‘the same music’ (meaning, they were built on the same note row).

In the 1980s, Heininen would embrace computer-aided methods and follow his nervous, windswept Piano Concerto No 2 (1966) with a playful third concerto for the instrument (1981) as well as lyrical concertos for saxophone and cello (1983 and 1985 respectively). He would also move into music theatre. Silkkirumpu (‘The Damask Drum’, subtitled ‘Concerto for Singers, Players, Words, Images and Movements’; 1981-83) rests on the symbolism of an old Japanese Noh play and is conceived holistically as one large musical and dramatic crescendo; it was followed by the more dramatically conventional and musically typical Veitsi (‘The Knife’, 1985-88). The latter won Finland’s Savonlinna Opera Festival competition in 1988 and was performed the following year in celebration of the city’s 350th anniversary.

Heininen joined the faculty of the Sibelius Academy as a part-time lecturer in 1966; he was appointed a full professor in 1993 and remained in post until 2001. In both capacities he instructed a golden generation of Finnish composers including Jouni Kaipainen, Magnus Lindberg, Veli-Matti Puumala, Kaija Saariaho and Jukka Tiensuu. The individual paths pursued by those figures testify to the principle that no matter how stringently Heininen kept to his own rules, he avoided imposing them on others. And still, he hasn’t given them up: his latest recorded work, the Boston Violin Sonatas (2016), suggests his dodecaphonic method is as fresh as ever.

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