He was born at Ljugarn on the Swedish island of Gotland in 1916; the sense of being on the Swedish side of the linguistic divide in Finnish culture was to stay with him all his life, providing a focus for quiet resentment when he felt - entirely justifiably - that he had been sidelined from the mainstream of Finnish music.
Englund entered the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in 1933, when he was only 17; he was already a prodigious pianist. He studied composition with Bengt Carlson and Selim Palmgren (Finland's piano-composer equivalent of Rachmaninov) and piano with Martti Paavola and Ernst Linko. Another important teacher, of orchestration, was Leo Funtek; Englund would still speak of him with considerable respect over half a century later.
After Englund was awarded his diploma in 1941, he was called up into active service: Finland was at war with the Soviet Union. The experience was to mark him deeply. Most immediately, it put an end to his aspirations of becoming a concert pianist. In later life he told the story of what happened with a rueful, ironic smile, although at the time it must have been terrifying.
He was one of a group of soldiers guarding a lighthouse on a small island near the border. A Soviet landing party, mistaken by the watchman for Finns, got close enough to launch a mortar attack, and Englund had to leap from the top to avoid slaughter or capture. In the escape he broke the little finger of his left hand and knew that his career as a concert pianist was over. A little later, when he discovered the bullet holes through his beret, he realised he had been luckier than he first imagined.
The war also left an indelible stamp on his music, most obviously in the First Symphony (1946), which, thanks to its incessant march rhythms, was instantly christened the "War Symphony" - although, as Englund commented years later, it
was an exorcism of the war. I was struck that all the themes of the first two movements came to me as marches. But the symphony as a whole is an ode to life. I was alive! It is not a war symphony in that sense at all - it is a survival symphony. I had survived a terrible time.
Although it was Englund's first work for large orchestra, the First Symphony revealed a fully mature symphonic thinker, a master contrapuntist using tonality with liberal dissonance and capable of lucid, luminous orchestration - which he ascribed to the "inspired instruction" he had had from Funtek.
The First Symphony also alerted the Finnish public to the fact there was a new and important voice among them. In 1991 the poet Lassi Nummi, brother of the composer Seppo Nummi (another neglected master), told me that younger generations of Finns do not now realise just how important Englund's music was at this time: it helped articulate the aspirations of the war-battered country, providing a cultural focus to a nation that had not long won its political independence. "We were four and a half million against 25 million", as Englund put it - and they had survived.
The Second Symphony, the "Blackbird Symphony", followed only a year after the First. It owes its nickname to a motif that occurs throughout the work. Englund was making his living from playing jazz piano in night-clubs and would cycle home at 3am, sometimes 4am, just as the dawn chorus was starting. It wasn't until a critic drew attention to the motif in a review of the first performance that Englund realised he had indeed unconsciously used the call of the blackbird that used to welcome him back in the wee hours.
Finland's post-war political balancing act between east and west meant that cultural contacts with Soviet composers were easier than for musicians elsewhere, and a visit to the Soviet Union shortly after the war introduced Englund to voices that were to colour his own music considerably, chiefly Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Their dramatic power appealed, of course, but so did their irony, and Englund's music, like his conversation, was rarely without a similar vein of grim humour. Other potent influences were the neoclassical, middle-period Stravinsky and Bartk.
In 1949 Englund won a stipend to study with Aaron Copland at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "Copland was a very nice man," Englund told me in 1992. "He looked at my Second Symphony and said `I have nothing to teach you', so rather we discussed music."
One of the highlights of Englund's stay in America was playing jazz with Leonard Bernstein who, Englund discovered with surprise, had never heard of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, so it was with some satisfaction he saw Bernstein's recording of Nielsen's Fifth Symphony win the Sonning Prize a few years later.
Although Englund produced a series of large-scale orchestral scores from then on - including two ballets, Sinuhe (1953) and Odysseus (1959), the Cello Concerto (1954) and the First Piano Concerto (1955), which quickly became his best-known work, as well as some incidental music and a number of film scores - he soon felt out of kilter with the times. He considered that composition was an activity that demanded the highest craft: the second subject of the first movement of the First Symphony, for example, was designed at the outset to allow contrapuntal combination with the first subject at the climax.
That kind of care was axiomatic of Englund's approach to music, so he viewed with deep disappointment the growing dominance of serialism in Finland (the Finns used to refer to it as "internationalism", as if strict 12-notery was all the rest of the world was interested in). Englund felt he had nothing to say to a world that valued dry theory more than living craftsmanship, and so he shut up.
He now made his living in various ways. He enjoyed a cabaret act with his second wife, the singer Maynie Siren. Between 1957 and 1976 he was music critic of Hufvudstadsbladet, Helsinki's Swedish-language newspaper. And he taught: from 1958 until 1982 he was on the music-theory faculty of the Sibelius Academy, where some of the most prominent Finnish composers of the next generation were to pass through his hands. He later confessed that he didn't like teaching although, with typical modesty, he found some compensation in the achievements of his students.
It was 1971 before the Third Symphony appeared (23 years after No 2), signalling Englund's return to composition and resuming a series of works of impressive power and concentration. In them the emphasis on thematic transformation found in the earlier pieces was complimented by a lyrical freedom and, in particular, an acute awareness of rhythm, demonstrated with exhilarating inventiveness in the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies (1976 and 1977) and the Concerto for Twelve Cellos (1981).
The Sixth Symphony (1984) is choral, setting aphorisms by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Englund's last symphony, No 7, was composed in 1988, coinciding with the advent of the heart disease that was ultimately to kill him, and his Clarinet Concerto of 1991 (his sixth concerto) was completed shortly before a stroke so affected his right hand that he found composing physically impossible; further complications arose from kidney failure, necessitating dialysis for the rest of his life.
But he fought back, and when I last visited him in September 1997 (always an excuse for him to get out the bottle of whisky that Maynie, following his doctor's orders, kept a watchful eye on), he proudly showed me the beginning of an adaptation for string orchestra of the Concerto for Twelve Cellos - if he lived to finish it, which is not yet clear, it will be as major an addition to the string repertoire as his symphonies are to the orchestral catalogue.
Sven Einar Englund, composer, pianist and teacher: born Ljugarn, Gotland 17 June 1916; married 1941 Meri Mirjam Gyllenbogel (died 1956; one son, two daughters), 1958 Maynie Siren (nee Smolander; one son); died 27 June 1999.Reuse content