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Benchmarks in the life of Uuno Klami

Helena Tyrväinen

The cultural roots of this distinctive Finnish composer lie in the cosmopolitan world that vanished when St. Petersburg became the scene of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Uuno Kalervo Klami was born at Virolahti in SE Finland on September 20, 1900. Finland had been an Autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire since 1809, and by the time this era drew to an end, many ordinary Virolahti people had come to look eastwards to St. Petersburg. The imperial city was a mighty market frequently visited by many of the local shippers – among them the Klamis. The Russian merchants in the region, like the owners of the noble and bourgeois estates, had their own contacts across the border and in St. Petersburg. The cosmopolitan worldview that later became an integral part of his music was quite possibly inherited by Uuno Klami from his childhood environment.

As we have seen, the young Uuno Klami was brought up in a relatively modest social environment. His career prospects would, by contemporary standards, have been anything but obvious. The descendants of Erik Klami (1820–1868) – a distinguished representative of the peasant estate in the Finnish Diet and a sea captain who had sailed both the Mediterranean and the Black Sea – were nevertheless booklovers and socially enlightened. They were also known for their musical talents and performance of folk music. Uuno’s shop-assistant father Anton could likewise play the fiddle and write a tune. His mother Amalia came from a music-making family, too, and could accompany her singing on the guitar. But some heavy early losses and loneliness awaited Uuno. His father died of consumption when Uuno was only four, and his younger sister, Vieno, had died only shortly before. Amalia also suffered from TB and was obliged to spend long periods in a sanatorium while Uuno was still a child. As befitted the son of a folk musician family, Uuno appears to have found solace in music. He taught himself to play the harmonium and fiddle and a photo taken when he was a lad shows him with a guitar on his knee. As an adult, he astonished the villagers by sitting at home playing, reading and doing crosswords and wandering round the village in his pyjamas. Amalia was not a great one for discipline, but she had faith in her son’s musical potential. She even lived with him in Helsinki when he began his studies at the Helsinki Music Institute in autumn 1915, but died after his first year there in June 1916. He was only 15 years old and it remained for his relatives to look after him.

At around the turn of the century, Virolahti was no hinterland. There were so much going on there that its inhabitants were not in principle without cultural stimuli. Uuno was lucky to make the acquaintance of Dr Huugo Niinivaara, principal of the Harju Agricultural College. Dr Niinivaara had obtained a doctorate in the 1920s and had an enlightened, music-making family. Kasimir Leino, a member of Finland’s cultured elite, was related to Huugo’s wife Elsa and godfather to their daughter Kaarina. Tempted by the new Hellas piano that awaited him at Harju, Uuno got into the regular habit of trudging six kilometres through the forest to play it. A quiet, retiring young man, he preferred to play on his own, but he did join in the family’s musical sessions. Amalia later bought him a piano of his own out of her dowry and her widow’s pension. Uuno did not enter into formal education until he was 111, but at the age of 13, or so it is said, he announced his intention to be a composer when he grew up. His cousin Hilja helped mould his fate, apparently in spring 1915, by sending some of his compositions to the Helsinki Music Institute. Soon after, Uuno received a letter inviting him to contact the Institute. At the entrance exams in Helsinki he played (presumably on the piano) a well-known Finnish polka (the Säkkijärvi Polka) and was accepted.

Uuno Klami studied with interruptions at the Helsinki Music Institute (later renamed the Sibelius Academy) 1915–1917, 1920–1921 and 1922–1924. The fact that he stopped studying and concentrated on playing from time to time was no doubt due to the turbulent early years of Finnish independence (from 1917) and his feeling of rootlessness after his mother’s death. We meet him again in spring 1918, during the Finnish Civil War, fighting at Ahvenkoski in Pyhtää as a member of the Civil Guard, later in 1918 as a voluntary solider in the Estonian War of Independence, leading an artillery platoon in the Battle of Marienburg against the Latvians, and finally, in 1919, taking part in the Aunus expedition seeking to occupy parts of East Karelia. Back home when life became calmer again, he made his living as a restaurant and cinema pianist. In autumn 1921, composition became his subject at the Music Institute. His much-admired teacher in composition was the liberal-minded Erkki Melartin, a cosmopolitan Karelian and frequent visitor to St. Petersburg who kept a close watch on contemporary trends. Uuno now studied in earnest. Two of his other teachers, Leevi Madetoja (history of music) and Ilmari Hannikainen (piano) were well acquainted with French music. Hannikainen and his other piano teacher, Ernst Linko, had studied in St. Petersburg. It was while he was a student that Klami composed his Viola Sonata, a Piano Quartet that was well received at an Institute concert, a Piano Quintet and the set of String Quartets bearing the homespun French title Nain tragédie (Toy Tragedy). Critics at the time drew attention to the Modernism and French influences of the Quintet and the String Quartets. Väinö Raitio, an older composer colleague and critic, saw in Klami the orchestral composer of the future, and Klami’s reputation as a composer does indeed rest on his works for orchestra.

Klami’s interest in France is already evident from the notes he made in French in the scores of his student days. He travelled to Paris on a grant after the Institute year ended in spring 1924 and stayed there until May 1925. It was a decisive period for his orientation and his career as a composer. He now seems to have deliberately set about constructing his “French-Russian” orchestral style and received some instruction from the renowned Florent Schmitt. He may also have made the acquaintance of Ravel. The information about his studies with both of these is, however, founded on his own, unreliable assertions, but there is no denying that Ravel did enjoy his life-long admiration. He was also impressed by the works of Stravinsky’s Russian period and those of Prokofiev, Honegger and new Spanish music. The world’s ongoing trends – Spanish, Oriental and jazz – evoked a response in the Finnish cosmopolitan and led Klami the artist far away from the world of Sibelius’s symphonies. H also distanced himself from both the Debussy of la belle époque and the most radical avant-garde.

On returning to Finland, Klami brought with him the recipe for “scandalous success”, a Parisian form of musical provocation of that would prove useful in the Finnish musical climate: attracting the attention of the public at large by means of new music. In this, he really was successful. The first concert of his works, conducted by Leo Funtek, in 1928 was a sensational success. The audience particularly liked the Karelian Rhapsody – an unashamedly primitive yet optimistic work incorporating elements of folk music – and the jazz-influenced Piano Concerto Une nuit à Montmartre he had written in Paris and that had already aroused quite a stir. The Modernist, humourist and Karelian cosmopolitan had made an eye-catching entrance on the Finnish scene.

Klami’s second study trip abroad was to Vienna, in 1928–1929, where he appears to have taken private lessons from Hans Gál. His biggest thrills were, paradoxically, the visits to Vienna of Ravel and Bartók. In Vienna that he wrote his brilliant orchestral waltz Opernredoubte reflecting the influence of Ravel. By contrast, he did not stray into the domain of the Second Viennese School, and later went so far as to proclaim the death of atonality. “Paris is the promised land of new music, Vienna of the old,” he wrote.

Klami’s integration with the cultural and musical life of the by now independent Republic of Finland was this time successful. He was able to concentrate on composing as an active, full-time occupation. After the first concert of his music, the magazine Tulenkantajat carried enthusiastic reports of a “young and European composer”, a representative of the “national Modernism” popular in Paris. Klami shared with the Tulenkantajat artists’ collective an interest in jazz and exoticism, and a non-romantic view of all things Finnish that was subsequently expressed in many ways. His most important Tulenkantajat contact was composer colleague Sulho Ranta. He also had dealings with writers: Arvi Kivimaa, for example, and Yrjö Jylhä, who was still inspiring him in the 1950s (his realistic-poetic Laulu Kuujärvestä/Song of Lake Kuujärvi on the theme of war). Lauri Viljanen also belonged to the same circle of acquaintances as the taciturn composer.  Klami got drawn into in the national themes, and the national epic The Kalevala, on the suggestion of the influential Robert Kajanus, Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and hence of Finland’s leading orchestra. 

His first work inspired by The Kalevala began to take shape in 1929. His initial plan, reflecting the influence of Paris, was first for a choreography or an oratorio, but the work ended up as the Kalevala Suite for orchestra. Encouraged in many ways by its music director Toivo Haapanen, the newly-formed Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra became a sort of laboratory and the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) a major source of income. Most of Klami’s greatest orchestral works were nevertheless premiered by the full-sized Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. His experience of teaching at the Helsinki Folk Conservatory directed by A.O. Väisänen was short-lived, unlike his part-time work as a music critic. Writing in a laconic but distinctive style under the pen name U.K–i, he replaced Leevi Madetoja as music critic of the Helsingin Sanomat in 1932. His Karelian Rhapsody was performed in Berlin in 1932. This was also the year in which he married Toini (née Nykänen) and they were among the first residents of the Lallukka artists home founded in 1933. They would live there for over 20 years.

In 1931, in a review of the second concert of works by Klami, the influential Madetoja issued a legendary warning to Klami, whom he described as “pan-European”: for art to be viable, it must reserve “some little corner of our Finnish soil” and place the foundations “closer to home”. This warning has been regarded as the wise counsel of a mature artist while also bearing echoes of the emergent Finnish nationalism, i.e. an attempt to bring artists in the young nation state to heel. It is, however, possible that Madetoja recognised in the “sea pastorale” 3 Bf (referring to the Beaufort scale) that later became part of the orchestral Sea Pictures suite its very obvious source of inspiration, Ravel’s Bolero. To his vexation, many listeners would, as time went on, point this similarity out to Klami. They could also have noted the French influence behind the melodic line, the orientalism and the rhythmical orchestral texture that had by now become Klami’s hallmarks. 

Another of the works at the concert was the poetic-virtuosic Cheremissian Fantasy for cello and orchestra – a fine work combining exoticism and ethnic sympathy on a par with the Basque-inspired one by Ravel. Klami had by now proved himself a master second to none in his handling of the orchestra. The Kalevala Suite, one of his greatest works, was an undisputed success even in its 4-movement format in 1933. It does not call to mind the National-Romantic works of our earlier Finnish composers, enthused the critic Evert Katila. Elmer Diktonius described Klami as a typical representative of the “Neonational school”. Ernest Pingoud, however, an emigrant from St. Petersburg, spotted that The Lullaby for Lemminkäinen borrowed a popular Russian folk song. This, then, is one reflection of Stravinsky’s influence on Klami; even as his Finnish ties grew stronger, the origins of his creative thinking nevertheless lay to a great extent on the St. Petersburg-Paris axis. Ten years later, during Finland’s war with the Soviet Union, he did change this melody while greatly revising the Kalevala Suite.

Klami was very much in the public eye in 1930s Finland, as both a composer and a critic. Audiences and critics were united in their liking of his unconventional unpredictability. They came to expect surprises, also in his views on subjects of national significance. In 1937, they heard the spiritedly humorous Nummisuutarit (Cobblers on the Heath) overture written in Prague and the masterly Psalmus for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra. The text of the latter is an epic poem by Juhana Cajanus printed in 1683 and one of the first examples of literature in Finnish. Possibly inspired by the Psalmus hungaricus of Zoltán Kodály and his memories of Honegger, it had been poorly rehearsed at its first performance. It met with a certain degree of opposition due to its religious topic, its colourfully realistic descriptions and to some extent its archaism tinged with humour. The Modernist Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto (1893–1958) nevertheless liked its unconventionality.

Psalmus then fell into oblivion for more than two decades and was not revived until 1960, after which it was hailed as one of the greatest works in Finnish musical literature. The cosmopolitanism underlined by Klami in the titles of many of his works and subjects appears to have waned in the 1930s. At about this time, he also stopped drawing on Finnish folk music and foreign exoticism. (The Sérénades espagnoles of 1944 is based on earlier works.) For years, overawed by the shadow of Sibelius, he avoided the symphony as a genre, and not until 1938 did he write his first symphony, maybe as proof that he was worthy of the state grant he was awarded the following year. It is an original, unconventional work, but the rich instrumental invention detracts from the symphonic events.

The Second World War found Klami back in uniform. During the Winter War of 1939–1940 he served in the medical corps, suffered from frostbite and was hospitalised in February 1940. He was a postman in during the Continuation War (1941–1944) until February 1942. This time the war faced him with an artistic-moral crisis. It can be felt in the fairly conventional, conservative Suomenlinna Overture and in the background of the second Symphony with its recurring echoes of war, and it did not really raise him to the ranks of a great symphonist. The delightfully unconventional Violin Concerto in the Classical-Romantic virtuoso tradition and the by now five-movement Kalevala Suite both heard at the third concert of his works in 1943 finally established him as the most eminent active Finnish composer. It soon became clear from the colourful Karelian Market Place and the Aurore boréale that his innovative grip on the French-Russian orientation had not slipped.

Klami spent six months in 1949–1950 back in Paris, where he became aware of such new, prominent French composers as Messiaen and Jolivet. The decades-old idea of composing a ballet now began to take shape, stimulated by the libretto and sets by costume-stage designer Regina Backberg. It was partly during this second stay in Paris that Klami wrote the pioneering Neoclassical Piano Concerto performed at his 50th birthday concert.

Another major work, the Tema, 7 variazioni e coda for solo cello and orchestra that won a prize in a composition competition held by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, was in the same spirited, “absolute musical” style. Music by Klami was being played both at home and abroad, but fewer new works were forthcoming. At last, in 1958, his piano score for the first act of a ballet called Pyörteitä (Whirls) loosely based on motifs from The Kalevala won first prize for a ballet in a composition competition held by the Wihuri Foundation.

The following year Klami received the highest distinction in Finnish musical life on being elected composer member of the Academy of Finland, as successor to Yrjö Kilpinen. He now found himself surrounded by publicity such as he had never experienced before. Meanwhile, relations with the Finnish National Opera were strained. For young composers – to generalise slightly – the only acceptable contemporary trend in composition was the 12-tone technique and serialism of German origin. Not being a theorist, Klami did not subscribe to this trend. This was the second reason for the intellectual isolation he experienced in his late years, the first being his status as Academician. Excerpts from Whirls were performed in public, but the full ballet never appears to have been completed. At his 60th birthday concert in autumn 1960, there were no new works by him on the programme. Yet only ten days before his death at the end of May 1961, while spending a holiday in Virolahti, his inspired festive cantata Kultasauvallinen (The Bearer of the Golden Staff) to words by P. Mustapää alias Martti Haavio (a former member of the Tulenkantajat and later an Academician) was premiered at a degree ceremony at the Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration. This last work by Klami in the modern, airy style of Whirls incorporates motifs from the ballet.

When Uuno Klami made his breakthrough on the Finnish musical scene, world-famous Jean Sibelius had stopped publishing any new works. To some extent Klami deliberately distances himself from the Järvenpää maestro. His French orientation, his avoidance of symphonic form and his unceremonious use of humour and parody may be seen in this perspective. They nevertheless represent his unique, inherent features. He has also been described as the most skilful Finnish orchestrator; he had a passion for exploring the potential of a virtuoso orchestra but also its most delicate expressive devices. The fact that, throughout his career, he often viewed the essence of Finland from a new, anti-romantic angle should not prevent us from seeing his creative achievements in many other fields. He never ceased in his search for the new.

From the very first concert of his works in 1928, these properties evoked a lively interest in Finnish concert audiences. For conductors, his “French-Russian” orchestral skills provided a welcome challenge. His works thus won an established place in Finnish concert halls of which the older Modernists of the 1920s – Aarre Merikanto, Väinö Raitio and Ernest Pingoud – might only dream. In the 1940s, he became the undisputed leader among active Finnish composers. In 1953, the audiences of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra named him their favourite Finnish composer after Sibelius. Music by him was also being played outside Finland at an early age, and during his lifetime in Germany, England, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, France, the United States, Estonia, Spain, Italy, Australia, South America and elsewhere. The silence that followed his death was to prove only temporary, and the dawn of a more pluralist era paved the way for his return in the 1980s. Proof of this are the numerous concert performances and recordings, the growing international interest and the founding of the Uuno Klami Society in 1987. In an enquiry conducted by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1994, audiences said that after Sibelius, the Finnish composer whose music they most wished to hear was Klami. Instead of claiming that he had been too susceptible to alien influences, people had gradually come to appreciate his true, unique music.