Music Review: Scandinavian Consolation

Henryk Gorecki in Poland, Arvo Part in Estonia, Peteris Vasks in Latvia, Rodion Shchedrin in Russia (at least in his extraordinary work, The Sealed Angel) and Giya Kancheli in Ukraine—all are composers musically meeting the spiritual needs of their countries for mourning over, and recovering from, having been on the ideological rack of the twentieth century. One senses in their music the meaning of Andre Malraux’s remark, “Either the twenty-first century will not exist at all or it will be a holy century.” But what of the ever-free and prosperous West? Who speaks to the contemporary spiritual needs of the secularized West where, after all, death continues to make its scheduled family visits, and where it has expanded its embrace to millions of the unborn and now to the infirm and the hopeless? How to speak to, much less assuage, that special sense of loss—the emptiness at the heart of plenty?

That one of the answers to this question should come from Scandinavia may well be a surprise since Scandinavia is not known as a hotbed of spirituality, or perhaps even of music (aside from Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius in the first half of the century). But like England, the Nordic countries have undergone a major musical renaissance in our time. One of its leaders in Finland is Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935). He has just written an extraordinary work, his greatest, entitled, Songs of Life and Death, for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, “Dedicated to all my Dead, to those whose memory and strength still linger this side of the border.” This work speaks to our condition of mortality, the harrowing loss of loved ones, the problem of evil and how to live in the face of these close-to-incomprehensible experiences, made more so by the contemporary loss of faith.

I confess that I would not have expected Sallinen to produce this stunning work. I thought I had detected a coarsening in his more recent music, if only from its pronounced element of parody and its more extrovert character.

With his later compositions, there has been less a sense of mystery, but bigger gestures, a few of them harsh, and some highly romantic swells to rival the best of John Williams. The big gestures, though as impressive as the music is sometimes beautiful, do not seem to add up to a major statement; they seem to be the atmospherics of a major statement. For instance, the Dona Nobis Pacem movement of Symphony No. 4, lovely though it is, cannot carry the expressive weight of its title. Sallinen’s Symphony No. 5, Washington Mosaics, written for Mstislav Rostropovich and the Washington National Symphony Orchestra, is my least favorite of his symphonies. I found myself missing the sense of mystery and delicacy, the shimmering textures, the allusiveness, and the evocative melodies that initially drew me into Sallinen’s melancholic reveries.

In the music that first brought him to attention more than twenty years ago, mystery itself seemed to provide the expressive content. For expressive means, Sallinen did not go in for big effects. With long-lined themes and highly atmospheric orchestration favoring chimes, bells, wood blocks, harp, and winds, he slowly, patiently created a subtle sound world that is utterly beguiling and convincingly unique. One can detect in it the fine lineage of Sibelius’s nature mysticism. This side of Sallinen can be heard to best advantage in a BIS CD (CD-41) featuring his beautiful Sinfonia, which begins with a rhapsodic lament of great eloquence; Chorali, a magical evocation in brass and winds; and the gravely mysterious Sinfonia III. (Also, Naxos has just issued an excellent survey CD of Sallinen’s Complete Works for String Orchestra [8.5537471.)

In retrospect, Songs of Life and Death is not such a surprise because so much of Sallinen’s prior music is some form of lament. Even as a young man in his twenties he was drawn to the subject of death. His 1962 work, Mauermusik, is, as Sallinen says, “an elegy to the cries for help of a young man condemned to die, cries which echoed in vain from the Berlin Wall to a world which calls itself civilized.” His Four Dream Songs of 1973 are haunted by death and, in 1977, he composed a cantata, Dies Irae. Death is also a frequent visitor in his critically acclaimed operas. Even in music not so directly concerned with the subject of death, such as Sinfonia, the elegiac tone is pronounced.

In the Songs of Life and Death, Sallinen has finally written his Requiem, though it is not an explicitly religious work. It speaks of experience and of hope. The experience is death. The hope is love. It is not so much an expression of faith as it is an invitation to faith. The text is provided by a set of eight poems written for Sallinen by Finnish poet Lassi Nummi. Even in English translation the poems are beautiful in their simplicity and purity. Two of them carry liturgical titles—”Tuba mirum” and “Dies irae,” but they otherwise speak to the world of modern, secular man. While Sallinen and Nummi have a clear grip on eternity, they invite their listeners into their reflections on whatever terms their listeners can accept. As the penultimate poem says while speaking of where the dead may be:

Let your mind be full of love
if you know where they are
and even if you do not know
if you believe
and even if you do not have a grain of belief
if you still hope
and even if you have lost hope too
if you still love
for the greatest of all is love.

The work starts with a short reflection on mortality, followed by a beautifully chanted prayer, “Grant them peace,” for both the dead and the living—including those “whose hearts begin beating at this moment.” The work then depicts, in a most extraordinary way, an abortion from the perspective of the child undergoing it in “I, Unborn.” The baritone, Jorma Hynninen, sings the part of the child, which begins with the hint of a lullaby. Then, as “the seas trembled and the gulf swallowed me,” the music grows agitated. After the abortion, the child sings, “I have peace,” and then tenderly prays for those who took his life. I have listened to several composers’ attempts to write requiems for the unborn, but have heard nothing to compare to the poignancy and power of this. It is unique in that it contrasts the strength of the unborn child with the weakness of those involved in the abortion. With ineffably moving magnanimity, the aborted child prays “give them peace” for those who “could not/ or did not wish/ or did not dare/ to stretch themselves,/ the arms of the world,/ to receive me.”

The next poem, “Tuba mirum,” is a turbulent jeremiad against man’s pride and a depiction of the destruction it invites. Sallinen and Nummi then use the forces of nature to introduce the theme of resurrection, which is invoked in a hushed and exquisitely gentle way with the promise of spring in “I Can Think You Departed.” Songs of Life and Death ends with the invitation to “surrender to life to its uttermost,” for it may even bring you to “endless light?” The deliberate question mark is there for modern man to ponder.

In his composition diary, Sallinen wrote that he was trying “to seek a form which would match the text’s wonderful message: live a full life . . . when the stars come ever nearer. The issues dealt with are the ultimate ones: the inseparability of life and death, death’s harshness and beauty . . .” He has succeeded with a noble and eloquent score whose vocal lines flow with great natural beauty. The music is at times subtle and tender; at others, angry and powerful; in any case, both wrenching and deeply consoling. Sallinen composed Songs of Life and Death with Jorma Hynninen specifically in mind. Hynninen’s sublime performance on the Ondine label [CD ODE 844-2] is artistry at its highest level. Okku Kamu, a longtime champion of Sallinen’s music, leads the Opera Festival Chorus and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in a moving performance.

Socrates argued that eternity must exist because the demands of justice require it. Sallinen and Nummi say that it is love that makes such demands. Perhaps their masterpiece can help modern man understand where he is ultimately headed.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...