Tauno Marttinen: Composer of a thousand pieces

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The Independent Online

One of the dangers run by prolific composers is that even your supporters – publishers, if you are lucky enough, writers, recording companies and the like – find it difficult to keep up with what you are doing. The really productive creative spirits – men like Julius Röntgen, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Alan Hovhaness, Vagn Holmboe – end up being heard in a handful of works representing a body of work which is largely unknown.

That, too, was the fate of the prodigiously industrious Finn Tauno Marttinen: his output approaches 400 works with opus numbers, almost as many without, and a further quantity either rejected or lost along the way – probably close on a thousand pieces in all. Marttinen barely slowed down in old age, and lived to see his 95th birthday in September last year, celebrated with a mini-festival of his music. His tally of compositions includes 10 symphonies; four piano concertos, two for flute and for cello, as well as concertos for violin, clarinet, bassoon and kantele, the Finnish folk zither; works for voices and orchestra; two dozen or so operas; some 40 chamber works including four string quartets and, unusually, four nonets for wind quintet, string trio and double-bass; a raft of piano music and songs and much more.

Marttinen's long career began with lessons at the Music Institute in Viipuri (now Vyborg in Russia) in 1920-25, when his talent for the piano was pronounced enough to take him to Ilmari Hannikainen at the Helsinki Conservatoire, first in the late 1920s and again from 1935 to 1937. Hannikainen was sometimes nicknamed "Finland's Rachmaninov"; the country's other outstanding virtuoso pianist was Selim Palmgren, and during this period Marttinen also took private composition lessons with him.

Although Marttinen had intended to make his name as a concert pianist, the pull of composition was to prove too strong. His début as a composer came with an orchestral work, Night Sounds on the Plains, in Viipuri in 1935. In this and other early concerts, his late Romantic music was well received – but two concerts in Helsinki in spring 1945 earned a critical hammering: the long night of intolerant modernism had already set in.

Marttinen was by now making his living as the conductor of a light orchestra and, on a visit to Hämeenlinna, he was asked to step in to conduct the City Orchestra – and remained as its principal conductor from 1949 until 1958. Hämeenlinna now became his home, and he invigorated music-making there. He founded the Hämeenlinna Music Institute in 1950 and was its principal until 1975. He wrote reviews for the local newspaper from 1950 onwards, and conducted the Hämeenlinna Workers' Association Mixed Choir.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Marttinen had been growing dissatisfied with his initial late-Romanticism and was contemplating a change of direction. Acquaintance with Martti Vuorenjuuri, the music editor of the Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's leading daily paper, and a leading advocate of the avant-garde, aroused his interest in dodecaphonic techniques and in 1956 Marttinen both renounced all his previous works and produced the colourful Eagle, Bird of the Air for mezzo soprano and orchestra. Winning a prize in a competition organised by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, this new Op. 1 went on to become one of his most widely performed works. It also initiated a series of scores based on the Kalevala, the Finnish national folk-epic.

In 1958 Tauno Marttinen made the journey to Ascona, in Switzerland, to hone his 12-tone armoury with Vladimir Vogel, ushering in a five-year period of dodecaphonic composition. Its main fruits were the first three symphonies, the Violin Concerto, a powerful set of orchestral variations called The Milky Way and the 1963 opera The Cloak.

But for a composer like Marttinen who relied on the primacy of inspiration, the rigours of dodecaphony were never going to be an easy option, and he grew dissatisfied with what he was producing: "I ended up in a blind alley, experimenting according to safe old premises". The answer came in a return to a free tonality, an increased emphasis on mysticism and the influence of nature and, with time, an element of neo-classicality. The epic quality inherent, though not directly expressed, in his earlier works, was now more explicitly realised; his use of woodwind coloration in particular helped Marttinen's music to sound audibly Finnish.

His many operas – usually to his own libretti – run from small-scale chamber comedies under an hour in duration to the innovative three-act psychological drama Burnt Orange of 1968, first written for television. The subjects of his stage-works (he also wrote a number of ballets) range from ancient Egypt via absurdist plots to the ugly duckling, his sources encompassing the Bible and the Kalevala, Dante, Chekhov, Andersen, Wilde and Henry Miller. The comic operas are especially highly esteemed by the few who know them, but since most of Marttinen's operas received provincial productions – indeed, Song of the Great River (1980) is in The Guinness Book of Records as having had the most northerly of all operatic premieres, in Kemi – they have remained on the fringes of the repertoire, even in Finland.

A scattering of recordings of smaller Marttinen pieces appeared on small Finnish labels over the years, but it was not until 1994 that a CD of the First and Eighth Symphonies (1958 and 1983) and the Violin Concerto (1962) from the Swedish company BIS brought his larger-scale inspirations to an international public. By then he was 82.

As a mystical streak in his music and venerable old age combined, Marttinen came to be known affectionately as "the Hämeenlinna shaman". For the deeply spiritual composer, who wrote that "music is also an exercise in faith – a faith which has neither name nor form", the label was appropriate.

Composing for him was as natural a process as breathing: "The notes just flow with a natural force, almost in ready sketches," he said, explaining that he followed a piece of advice given to him by his teacher Selim Palmgren: "Just let the music come, and then erase some of it". Even then, there was still plenty left.

Martin Anderson

Tauno Marttinen, composer: born Helsinki 27 September 1912; married 1944 Ilmi Tuomisto (two sons, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Janakkala, Finland 18 July 2008.