Nicky Gluch looks at the career of underrated Finnish composer Joonas Kokkonen

Illustration by Lyndon Pike
Illustration by Lyndon Pike

In writing his obituary, music critic and champion of neglected repertoire Martin Anderson described Joonas Kokkonen as ‘the most important figure in Finnish musical life after Sibelius’. Kokkonen has also been described as Sibelius’ ‘spiritual successor’. For those of us less au fait with Finnish composer chronology, it could be supposed that Kokkonen was a teenage acolyte of Sibelius, reaching adulthood as the latter declined.

It’s a romantic idea, but alas … Kokkonen, who would have turned 100 this year, lived half of his life in Sibelius’ shadow; he was just 35 when Sibelius died in 1957. It is more likely that he had to tussle with the great man’s fame. Perhaps this is why his ‘breakthrough’ orchestral work was only written the year Sibelius died.

The question is, how does a composer find his own voice when his world is dominated by such a luminary? Sibelius’ symphonic writing influenced not only Finnish composers, but also inspired British ones to pick up their pens. Elgar inspired the British symphonic revival, but it was Sibelius who held the allure for composers such as Arnold Bax and Vaughan Williams. Sibelius was not just a great artist – to the small Finnish nation, he was its voice, his music the essence of its long-fought independence. Accordingly, the year Kokkonen turned 18, the Helsinki Music Institute was renamed in Sibelius’ honour. Ten years later, Kokkonen would become a lecturer there, the shadow looming long…

By the time Kokkonen came to write his first symphony, he was experimenting with serialism. This dalliance is characteristic of his middle period (c. 1959-1967), though Kokkonen was far from a zealot. Indeed, his love of harmony led him to twist the rules of dodecaphony to educe triads (chords) out of his tone rows. In Anderson’s words, Kokkonen was ‘too much of a humanist to write music that didn’t appeal to the heart as much as to the brain’

Kokkonen’s second symphonic venture continued in this vein. Indeed, the composer suggested that in writing his Symphony no 1, he had been left with some residual ideas that warranted spinning out. Symphony no 2 is the result, a complex and highly dissonant work described as ‘enigmatic and austere’. Kokkonen was now 40 – did he have to push music to its limits in order to break free?

Over the next six years, Kokkonen would be honoured with a series of prestigious appointments. In 1963, he was elected a member of the Finnish Academy and in 1965, he became president of the Society of Finnish Composers. As such, in the year that Sibelius would have turned 100, the baton was finally passed to the next generation. Kokkonen’s music may be lesser known, but the impact he had on improving musical life in his country should not go unrecognised.

The year 1967 was a turning point for Kokkonen; with the composition of his third symphony, he entered his third stylistic period – free tonality. In this new mode, Kokkonen would go on to write some of his best-known works, his Symphony no 4 (1971), an opera, The Last Temptations (1975); and his Requiem (1981), written in memory of his second wife, Maija. The man who wrote for the heart, now wrote from the heart; as the shadows slipped away, so he allowed melody to sing.