Obituary: Joonas Kokkonen

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In 1979, Joonas Kokkonen's only opera, The Last Temptations, then just four years off its composer's desk, was taken by the Finnish National Opera on a tour of seven foreign houses, the most prestigious of them the Met in New York. In London, the visitors had to make do with the cramped conditions of Sadler's Wells Theatre.

The unglamorous libretto, dealing with the obsessive religiosity of a backwoods evangelist who neglects his family for his intemperate faith, is clad in music that expresses deep human sympathy, hinting through the course of the opera at a hymn that finally emerges in an uplifting, infectiously joyous major-key chorus. At the curtain the capacity Sadler's Wells audience leapt to its feet and gave the work a tumultuous reception, with an enthusiasm such as I have never experienced for any other work, new or old, opera or anything else. To date, The Last Temptations has had well over 200 performances - an achievement probably unrivalled in recent times.

Its success confirmed Kokkonen's position as the most important figure in Finnish musical life after Sibelius and launched single-handedly the current revival of Finnish opera. Kokkonen was also a pianist, a writer, a music administrator and a teacher. And for 40 years he composed, slowly and steadily, eventually producing a catalogue of some 50 works that contains music of unambiguously high quality.

Born in central Finland in 1921, Kokkonen studied musicology and piano, with Selim Palmgren, at Helsinki University and, military service interrupting his time as a student, graduated in 1949, a year after completing the Piano Trio that marked the beginning of his career as a composer. He had also taken classes in instrumentation with the gifted Leo Funtek and spent some time abroad with Hanns Jelinek in Vienna. "But especially," he later reminisced, "I studied with Bach. Bach is the greatest teacher."

Kokkonen supplemented his income as a pianist and chamber musician with work as a critic and broadcaster. Though his music may have come to him hesitantly, he was a fluent producer of words, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s: the closely set catalogue of writings at the end of an anthology assembled by Kalevi Aho in 1992 comes to over 40 pages.

As a teacher, Kokkonen was a magnet for composition students from all across the Nordic countries, many of them going on to become the most prominent composers of the following generation: Sallinen, Paavo Heininen and Pehr Henrik Nordgren in Finland, Ragnar Soderlind from Norway, and countless others. For a decade, beginning in 1949, Kokkonen lectured at the Sibelius Academy, until he was made professor of composition there. In 1963, he was elected a member of the Finnish Academy, the most prestigious honour in Finnish intellectual life. Two years after that, he became the president of the Society of Finnish Composers, one of many positions in which he worked tirelessly to improve musical life in Finland.

Whatever his local standing, the music makes Kokkonen a figure of international significance. Besides The Last Temptations, his crowning glory, there are several choral works, including a Requiem, four symphonies and a handful of other orchestral pieces, three string quartets, a piano quintet and that trio, piano pieces (mostly early) and a scattering of songs.

Like Beethoven's, his output falls into three approximate phases, each development marked by a string quartet, though across these divisions his style, which has something of Sibelius refracted through Bartk, remains unmistakably his own: luminous, melodious, calmly powerful. His earliest compositions led to a period of experimentation with dodecaphony, passing through a more explicit preoccupation with logical, symphonic growth, to the diatonic world of his last few works, not designated as in specified keys but adhering unambiguously to tonal centres.

Indeed, even in his 12-tone pieces, Kokkonen uses triadic harmonies, giving off a deep, warm glow in all his scores. His First Symphony, for example, despite its use of 12-tone tows as the cornerstones of its construction, is saturated with triadic harmony: he was too much of a humanist to write music that didn't appeal to the heart as much as to the brain. And the best of it - honest, sincere music of a type many composers seem reluctant to write these days - affects the heart very directly.

Kokkonen told me in 1991, "I am a composer who gets everything ready in his head. No sketches, no short score. I write everything directly out in full score." But he never found composing especially easy (The Last Temptations, for example, took him 16 years) and he seems never really to have recovered from the death in 1979 of his second wife, Maija, commemorated in the luminous and deeply felt Requiem finished in 1981.

In his last years, writing music became harder yet, and neither Kokkonen's prodigious intake of alcohol nor his severely arthritic hands can have helped. One result is that a Fifth Symphony, long rumoured to be in preparation, never made it on to paper and will go with him to the grave.

Martin Anderson

Joonas Kokkonen, composer: born Iisalmi, Finland 13 November 1921; married 1943 Maire Sisko Makinen (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1953), 1954 Maija Heljo (died 1979; two daughters), 1980 Anita Pakoma; died Jarvenpaa, Finland 2 October 1996.