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One last Finnish temptation
by Thanos Kalamidas
2008-07-06 09:45:31
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Reading again my recent article about the Estonian music conductor Neeme Järvi, I felt that I fell into the usual Sibelius trap. Every time I connect Finland with classical music I feel that I always mention Sibelius unfairly missing the contribution of other Finnish composers, especially the more contemporary ones. The names Uuno Klami, Sven Einar Englund, Usko Meriläinen, Juhani Komulainen, Teppo Hauta and Joonas Kokkonen are just some of them, and I suppose most of them are influenced by their compatriot and are attached to the romantic school of classical music.

But then again, when you live in the land of the thousands of lakes and the endless forest, when you grow up in a country that triggers your imagination with forest elves and lake trolls, along with witches and wizards, the soft romantic sound of the piano and the strings are the only ones that can accompany the imagination. So my next thought is going to be like a fairytale.

At the end of the eighteenth century a six-year-old boy gets a Bible as a present and till the time of his confirmation he has learned the holy book by heart, making the Bible a way of life and often using the words and the stories in his every day talk. In the small farmers village he was growing up, the people were simple and poor and they were expecting the son of a farmer to become a farmer and not a daydreamer, even if these daydreams were referring to the Bible, so young Paavo became, slow-foolish Paavo.

The young man was sixteen when he first heard about the priest Jakob Högman and his preaching, though he actually walked the two hundred kilometers from his village to Jyväskylä to find his mentor and the truth way to God and his inner church. That’s why he became part of the revivalist movement, and in the protestant church movement that wants Christians open-minded and more accepted to life - something opposite to the ruling sectarians at the time in Finland.

Paavo Ruotsalainen literally walked the whole country meeting with other preachers, monks and priests talking about the demand of church for a change and started by spreading a movement not much appreciated from the state and the well-established church hierocracy, which soon became his enemy and hunter. This actually cost him the life of his very own son and of course the end of his marriage. With this hard way to preach and having the state and the church often after him, he had to face and fight a lot of temptation and his fight with those temptations would make him part of the establishment and keep him away from his natural roots; the simple folk inspired a composer for his master opera, The Last Temptations!

There is one moment in the play where Paavo is standing in the middle of the scene, tears in his eyes asking forgiveness while he is demanding help for the simple people who worship God in every single move of their life, while they breathe, while they work on the farms, while they eat. And this is the temptation that tempted Joonas Kokkonen to compose this magnificent opera. An opera that combines the drama of the events with the romantic music.

The Last TemptationsJoonas Kokkonen was born in Iisalmi in 1921 and spent most of his life in Järvenpää. He served in the Finnish army during the Winter War and studied in Helsinki University with his love to music soon leading him to the Sibelius Academy where he soon studied composition. An uneasy spirit, he got involved in a lot of societies and organizations and served as a chairman for the Society of Finnish Composers and the Board of the Concert Center. His aim was always to improve music education at schools and the status and appreciation of classic music in Finland winning a series of prestigious awards.

Despite his studies in the Sibelius Academy and according to his own words most of the composition learning he did it himself and that helped him to create a unique and personal music style that often balanced between romantics, the twelve-tone style and tonality. Most of his work is chamber music and his operas just like his inspiration foolish Paavo balanced between the twelve-tone using triads and octaves. The magic of the opera, The Last Temptations is that apart his classic roots; there is a reference to the African-American spirituals and the certain opera has been performed and recorded by the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Joonas Kokkonen died October 1996 and his magnificent work is here to remind that classical music in Finland didn’t die with Sibelius, but continues to contribute to Finland's international heritage.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-07-06 15:36:43
Good informative article, Thanos.

I for one tend to agree with Schopenhauer that whereas science is necessarily limited to the realm of appearances (Plato's cave?),art can reveal metaphysical truth and that of all the art forms music is the most fundamental. That is so because rather than simply representing Ideas, music brings us into direct contact with the Will itself, both as the substance of ultimate reality and as insatiable. Music and the Will are two interchangeable languages in which everything said in one can be said in the other.

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