This classic might not be quite in the same weight-class as the previous three, but I wanted to present something from between 1930 and 1950, as well as feature a piece that was quintessentially Finnish-Swedish.
The period between 1890 and 1915 is often considered to be the Golden era of Finnish art. It saw an unprecedented and unmatched booming of all the arts from literature to music and painting to architecture. The reasons for this blossoming are difficult to pinpoint, but I would venture to guess that at least the following played a role: general growth of wealth, improved education in general and in arts specifically, a stronger influx of European influences and tight-knit multi-art artist communities, where ideas were presented and discussed. Add to these the nationalistic project where a Finnish national identity was forged above all through the highly appreciated arts, and you have the ingredients for that incredible period.
Looking at the birth years of the most important figures of that time never ceases to amaze, especially considering we are speaking of a country with a population of approximately two million people in 1880. Authors: Juhani Aho (born in 1861), Volter Kilpi (1874), Eino Leino (1878), L. Onerva (1882), V.A. Koskenniemi (1885); Painters: Albert Edelfelt (1854), Helene Schjerfbeck (1862), Eero Järnefelt (1863), Akseli Gallén-Kallela (1865), Pekka Halonen (1865), Ellen Thesleff (1869); Architecture: Lars Sonck (1870), Eliel Saarinen (1873), Armas Lindgren (1874); Composers Jean Sibelius (1865), Selim Palmgren (1878), Toivo Kuula (1883) and Leevi Madetoja (1887). This is literally one generation that produced master after master of their respective arts.
As all golden periods must, even this one had to come to an end. In music, this happened in the 1920s. Kuula had been killed in 1918, Madetoja was struggling with alcoholism, and Sibelius went into a deep silence of many decades after his last major works from 1926. Of the Big Four, only Palmgren carried the torch, even if most of his major works date from before 1930. There was a brief and promising flourish of modernism in the 1920s, but the reception of works in the new style was so crushing that the blossoming was nipped in its bud. The war naturally only deepened this trough and post-war sentiment and isolation was not exactly conducive to new musical thinking.
It was in this world Nils-Eric Fougstedt [‘fu:gstet’] grew up. He had been born in Raisio, near Turku on the west coast, in 1910. The early trajectory of his life as a composer was astoundingly similar to those of Sibelius, Kuula and Madetoja. He studied at the Helsinki Conservatory (formerly Music Institute) between 1929 and 1933 and continued his studies abroad with study trips to Germany, Italy and France. Contrary to the aforementioned trio, Fougstedt was not predominantly a composer. He taught music theory and was an accomplished orchestral and choral conductor, conducting both the Radio Choir and the Radio Orchestra. A congenital kidney disease often hindered his professional life and ultimately led to an untimely death at the age of 51.
Fougstedt’s mother’s tongue was Swedish, the second official language of Finland. The Swedish-speaking minority is fairly small, approximately six per cent of the population, but is definitely culturally more prominent than the numbers might suggest (for example, Sibelius and Palmgen were both Finnish-Swedish). Fougstedt’s ties to the Finnish-Swedish community are apparent in his choral music, much of which was written for Swedish-speaking choirs, and is almost exclusively in the Swedish language. Ironically, whilst Fougstedt’s highly ambitious orchestral music – modernistic, masculine – is almost totally forgotten, his choral music – light, lyrical, much less ambitious – is still very much alive. He wrote most of his choral works during the summer and many of them have a strong tie to nature.
Fougstedt’s Sommarsvit is from the summer of 1941 in the midst of WW II. It is a setting of three poems by Finnish-Swedish poet Karin Mandelstam and almost reads and sounds like an escape from the gruesome times of war. The first movement, Andantino, is both a depiction of summer bliss and an exhortation to revel in this delight. The second movement, Adagio, is a musical sketch of sailing the sea on a perfect summer’s day, something Fougstedt had plenty of personal experience of (a former student of his told me that Fougstedt would teach counterpoint classes in May on his sailboat; one student would be dropped off at the pier and another taken on in an orderly fashion). The last movement, Scherzo, depicts a summer dance, the young fleet feet, accordions and the spell of a light summer night.
To give a little context, I assembled a playlist of some of Fougstedt’s finest works for mixed choir. The choir is Jubilate, conducted by Astrid Riska, who was in her youth a student of Fougstedt’s.
1 Björkarnas valv
2 Tiga blott
3 I folkviseton
4 I vimmel och vammel
5 Ett ensamt skidspår