Erik Bergman

Grand Old Man of Finnish music
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The Independent Online

Erik Valdemar Bergman, composer, conductor, critic and teacher: born Uusikaarlepyy, Finland 24 November 1911; married first 1942 Sylvelin Långholm (marriage dissolved 1955), second 1956 Aulikki Rautawaara (marriage dissolved 1958), third 1961 Solveig von Schoultz (died 1996), fourth Christina Indrenius-Zalewski; died Helsinki 24 April 2006.

For as long as anyone can remember, Erik Bergman was the Grand Old Man of Finnish music, a figure admired and respected the world around. But if the label suggests some stuffy conservative defending "traditional" values, Bergman doesn't fit the bill at all: he was one of the pioneers of Finnish modernism, with a spirit as open as the high seas to new developments in music and to the discoveries of other cultures. He was no seat-of-the-pants adventurer, though, always insisting on the importance of a thorough training. "Technique is vital," he said.

There's no getting away from it, no compromising, because without it you get lost in daydreaming. But every composer must use his technique to express his innermost being, his very own message.

Bergman was born in Uusikaarlepyy (the Swedish name is Nykarleby), on the coast of north-western Finland, in Ostrobothnia. At Helsinki University in 1931-33, he studied musicology with the composer and ethnomusicologist Ilmari Krohn - the founder of the discipline in Finland - and literature with the critic and folklorist Yrjö Hirn; concurrently (1931-38) he was a student at the Helsinki Conservatory - composition with the composer-pianist Erik Furuhjelm and with Bengt Carlson, who had studied under Vincent d'Indy in Paris, and piano with Ilmari Hannikainen, one of the major Finnish pianists. Two extended periods in Berlin (1937-39 and 1942-43) allowed him to learn from the composer Heinz Tiessen at the Hochschule für Musik.

Bergman's first compositions, in the 1930s and early 1940s, were Romantic in style - Sibelius's shadow was difficult to avoid in those days - and he soon rejected most of them. But he had come into contact with Schoenbergian dodecaphony in Berlin - for all that the Nazis had driven Schoenberg himself from the city - and it began to exert its discipline on his musical language.

A brief period of neo-Classicism generated works such as the Bartókian Burla for orchestra in 1948. But his language was growing increasingly chromatic, and within a year he had written the atonal piano piece Intervalles. Bergman produced his first 12-tone piece - indeed, the first 12-tone piece by any Finnish composer - in Espressivo, for piano, in 1952. Not entirely happy with it (he described it as "an attempt at dodecaphony"), two years later he wrote Three Fantasias for clarinet and piano, already his op. 42, which is generally deemed to signal the birth of modernism in Finnish music. Later in 1954 he travelled to Ascona in Switzerland to sharpen his 12-tone technique in lessons from Wladimir Vogel.

In 1953, between the two landmarks of Espressivo and the Three Fantasias, Bergman wrote Rubaiyat for baritone, chorus and orchestra. Although not itself dodecaphonic, Rubaiyat signalled much else: Bergman's fascination with the Orient, his taste for choral textures, a liking for extended percussion writing, a keen ear for orchestral colour.

The next obvious step on Bergman's stylistic journey was serialism, extending the control of the fixed tone-row (or "series") over melody to the other elements of music. And so, in 1957, he attended the summer school in Darmstadt, the hotbed of international musical modernism, to attend lectures by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono. The fruits of his reflection emerged in the orchestral Aubade in 1958, which applied serial techniques to rhythm as well. Not that you need to know that when you listen to the piece: Aubade is a powerful piece of nature-painting, atmospherically evoking the emergence of daytime energy from the Stygian still of night. Bergman explained that the idea had come to him in Istanbul, "where the morning fog lay over the Bosporus and the foghorns were calling here and there".

Although Bergman found serialism a useful tool, by the early 1960s he felt he had squeezed as much juice out of it as he could: other considerations were becoming more important, not least tone-colour and a clearer sense of structure. The logical outcome was another orchestral piece, the kaleidoscopic Colori ed improvvisazioni (1973), whose title points to its principal preoccupations. The central of its three movements is a hypnotically inventive "study of raindrops", textures of gossamer delicacy and testament to an extraordinary imagination.

Bergman's interest in ancient and exotic cultures was bound to find expression in his music - he relished the tension between age-old texts and modern forms of musical expression. As early as 1959, Aton, for baritone, speaker, choir and orchestra, had used Akhenaten's Hymn to the Sun. The Hathor Suite of 1971 sets German translations of ancient Egyptian cultic texts for soprano, baritone, choir and an ensemble consisting of flute, cor anglais, harp and percussion. Noa (1976), for baritone, chorus and orchestra, retells the biblical legend of the Flood. And Bardo Thödol (1974) for speaker, mezzo- soprano, baritone, choir and orchestra, is based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Bergman enjoyed travelling, his magpie mind absorbing influences wherever he went. His trove took more concrete forms, too, and he built up a considerable collection of unusual instruments - and, of course, they were deployed in his works: Bardo Thödol calls for a Tibetan shell trumpet, rattle drum, hand-bells and ritual cymbals.

It is to the example of Bergman's ceaseless curiosity, the composer Kalevi Aho feels, that much of Finland's current musical prominence can be ascribed:

This kind of very open-minded mentality was totally new in Finnish musical life and liberated it a lot and so greatly influenced also the exceptional rise and international success of contemporary Finnish music.

Bergman looked north as well as east and south, with the choral Lapponia (1975) and orchestral Arctica (1979). Not until 1984 did he visit the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, for Lemminkäinen, for speaker, mezzo- soprano, baritone and choir.

In the meantime he had begun to explore two other genres: the concerto, and chamber music. Dualis, a cello concerto, appeared in 1978, Birds in the Morning for flute and orchestra in 1979, and concertos for piano and violin in 1981 and 1982, respectively. After a long lull, another wave of concertos broke in the mid-1990s, with The Maestro and his Orchestra (1996) for violin and strings, Cadenza (1996) for oboe and orchestra and a second cello concerto (1998). His last work was a concertante piece for trumpet, the Fantasia per tromba e orchestra, written in 2003.

Chamber music remained a more constant concern, beginning in 1977 with Solfatara for saxophone and percussion. Although there are two string quartets, from 1982 and 1997, Bergman generally used his smaller combinations to explore colour, often also introducing the voice, as in Triumf att finnas till ("Triumph of Being Here"; 1978) for soprano, flute and percussion.

Bergman's long stylistic journey reached its final goal in his only opera, Det sjungande trädet ("The Singing Tree"), which took two years (1986-88) to write. The preoccupation with instrumental colour now found room for a renewed interested in melody, requiring a return to conventional notation.

The ease with which he handled choral textures - Lapponia, for example, is textless and uses extended choral techniques, including microtones - was based on experience: Bergman had conducted a number of different choirs until midway through the 1960s. He was also a critic, writing for three Helsinki papers - Nya pressen, Svenska pressen and Hufvudstadsbladet - between 1945 and 1981. On top of that he was a prominent teacher, as professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy (1963-76).

Bergman was an important figurehead for his younger colleagues, as Kalevi Aho recalled:

He has been an idol for many composers - especially because he was mentally so vivid and curious and, as a personality, so open and social. Erik wanted to know what happens in music everywhere in the world.

Bergman's understanding of the obstacles facing younger composers came from within himself:

Every time you have to start right from zero. You always have to take yourself by the scruff of the neck and decide what you really want to do, independently. You can ultimately only rely on yourself. If I were 18 now, I would study the use of a computer in music, and modern studio techniques. It's too late for that now. Whatever you do, be thorough. And I think my music still has something to say, even by conventional means.

He retained his open-mindedness throughout his long life. In an interview given to mark his 70th birthday, he remarked:

"Age is no objection! Being an Ostrobothnian, I've always been ready to follow the popular cry of my youth: "Come out and fight!" Figuratively speaking, of course - I mean that I am always willing to undertake anything new and interesting."

Martin Anderson