Erkki Salmenhaara

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Erkki Salmenhaara, composer and musicologist: born Helsinki 12 March 1941; married 1960 Anja Kosonen (two sons; marriage dissolved 1978); died Helsinki 19 March 2002.

Erkki Salmenhaara was one of the tentpoles of Finnish musical life, indefatigable as composer, musicologist and administrator.

He made his mark as a front-line modernist in the 1960s, but – like several other once gung-ho avant-gardists, Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki among them – turned to a more tonal, even diatonic, idiom, producing music of considerable elegance, which got him cold-shouldered by the modernist leaders of Finnish music. Paradoxically, his musicological writings – particularly on Finnish music – put him right at the centre of the academic establishment. Simultaneously, he was insider and outsider, an ambiguity he viewed with an ironic smile.

Salmenhaara studied under Joonas Kokkonen at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, graduating in 1963 and going on to musicology, aesthetics and theoretical philosophy at the University of Helsinki, earning his PhD in 1970. By that time he had been a lecturer there for four years, becoming an Associate Professor in 1975.

His engagement with Finnish musical life began early. He was a critic for the Helsingin Sanomat, the leading Finnish-language daily, from 1963, holding the post for 10 years. Almost immediately thereafter he took on two important organisational positions: chairman of the Society of Finnish Composers (1974-76) and of the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras (1974-78).

He had long since made his mark as a composer. His earliest surviving work, Seventeen Small Pieces for piano (1957-60), show some vestiges of tonality, but he was very soon in the thick of radical experiment, using clusters, aleatoric techniques (his Suoni successivi of 1962, for piano four hands, for example, give the performers only rudimentary guidance on pitch and rhythm), graphic notation, timbral innovation, and whatever other intriguing device his curiosity led him to. Nils-Eric Ringbom, a more conservative composer and critic, complained about "completely uncontrolled nursery noise"; the label stuck and from then on the "nursery concerts" cradled the new works of the emergent avant-garde.

Salmenhaara's Catherine-wheel radicality was soon given a sense of direction. In the autumn of 1963 he spent a period of study with György Ligeti in Vienna: his doctoral thesis, in 1970, was on Ligeti's music; the effect on his own was much more immediate. In his Second Symphony (1963, revised 1966), individual melodic lines are lost in a complex polyphonic weft, and in the Third (1963-64) cluster-chords in the winds and unstable, chromatic melodic lines in the strings are set in a static framework where colour and texture are of more interest than motivic evolution.

Salmenhaara was now poised on the edge of his mature style, triggered with the orchestral Le Bateau ivre (1965-66), which is based on a Rimbaud poem. The textures were now triadic, which inevitably turned him towards tonality – not a black-and-white, major-minor tonality but an impressionist, allusive tapestry of sounds tonally anchored though not always in a single key. Another orchestral work, the gently repetitive La fille en mini-jupe (1967), made its Debussyan references clear with quotations from La fille aux cheveux de lin; it briefly quarries Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata, too.

Two major vocal-choral works now followed: the humanist Requiem profanum (1968-69) and the lyrical opera Portugalin nainen ("The Portuguese Woman", 1970-72), based on a Robert Musil story, which had to wait until 1976 for an ineffective staging.

He always rejected the label of "minimalist", but the fourth and last of his piano sonatas (1981) weakens his case: its first movement repeats the same patterns, in a 5/8 rhythm, with minimal modification, for over 800 bars (the second and last movement offers only 44 bars of Adagio to round the work off).

Salmenhaara's music was indeed growing increasingly simple, even pure, the harmony almost entirely triadic, the rhythms arising smoothly from gently repeated melodic phrases, its lyricism winning and heart-warming – to the extent that disgruntled critics and composers, suspecting a sell-out, christened his style "neo-simplistic" and "primitivistic". He was unfazed, and continued to write the music he wanted to write. The Fifth Symphony, Lintukoto ("Isle of Bliss", 1989), sets a text by Aleksis Kivi, the major Finnish poet of the 19th century, for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, in a relentlessly consonant manner. The tone, though, remains identifiably Finnish, its Sibelian inheritance clearly audible – and, even as one wishes for a little more action, the sheer beauty of the language underlines one's objections. If one has to label his later music, "nostalgist" might be a term worth coining.

Had Salmenhaara never penned a note of his own, he would still be an important figure in Finnish musical history thanks to his scholarly writings. He chronicled contemporary developments from the early 1960s onwards and also reached backwards, producing biographies of Sibelius and Leevi Madetoja, analytical commentaries on Ligeti, Sibelius' tone-poem Tapiola and the Brahms symphonies, histories of 20th-century music and of the Society of Finnish Composers, and a textbook on theory. He made a major contribution to the four-volume "official" history of Finnish music published (in Finnish) in 1995-96, and maintained a steady flow of articles – on Toivo Kuula, Uuno Klami and other important composers hidden in the shadow of Sibelius.

If Salmenhaara had been a little pushier, a little better at self-promotion, his music might be far better known internationally than it is. Audiences that respond to the works of Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, John Adams and other such "simplicists" would find much to enjoy in Salmenhaara. They just have to hear it.

Martin Anderson