Finnish composers never seem to be able – or allowed – to escape the shadow of Sibelius. On the occasion of his 150th death anniversary in 2015 the Scottish Chamber Orchestra commissioned Lotta Wennäkoski to write a piece referencing his music. She found inspiration in En Saga and composed Verdigris. It will have its continental premiere on 21 June, when the Dutch radio station NPORadio4 will air a pre-recorded concert of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds.
On her website Wennäkoski writes: ‘How to refer to the music of Jean Sibelius in a way that would hopefully lead to something personal and fruitful in 2015? Not an easy task.’ She admits being a staunch admirer of his symphonies, because of their ‘solidity of material and the incredible economy with which this is processed’.
We must not take this as an abstract kind of professional admiration, though, she stresses: ‘The music actually speaks to me directly. It crystallises something essential of the human condition and comes across as pure spirit and emotion. It stops you and pierces you.’
Patina over music history
The title Verdigris refers to patina – a thin layer on a surface that is produced by age. This term is usually employed to describe the greenish haze covering bronze statues and refers to a pigment known as ‘green from Greece’, that was already used by the Romans. ‘Verdigris’ is a corruption of the French word vertegrez (vert-de-Grèce).
The idea of a hazy coating accumulated through age appealed to Wennäkoski: ‘Isn’t that more or less what composers do – write new layers over music history, even if their work explicitly refers to older music?’
Yet it was out of the question she would allude to or quote from his symphonies. Instead she sought inspiration in the tone poem En Saga. She feels attracted to its energy and found that some musical gestures match her own ideas about orchestral music, such as the string arpeggios and the back-beat rhythms. Thus inspired, she decided ‘to continue the fairy tale!’
To be or not to be capricious
Titillated by the lamentation of the critic Karl Flodin that Sibelius’s musical intuition in En Saga was a bit too ‘capricious’, Wennäkoski decided to ‘be as capricious as I can’ with the material she used from Sibelius’ original. This may manifest itself relatively innocently in placing quotes of single motifs in such a different context that entirely new melodies develop.
More daring are the written phrases sprinkled through the score that quote from and respond jocularly to the critique from 1893. These are spoken or whispered in cut-up repetitions by the musicians: ‘A critic found the work puzzling and his intuition too capricious’…. ‘papa removed some violent passages from the piece, now it is more civilised, more polished’…. ‘Finnish composers must be much more capricious.’
Enjoying herself, Wennäkoski impulsively decided to throw in a quote from yet another piece by Sibelius, Andante Festivo. ‘I couldn’t withstand turning this into a howl, by prescribing hysterical vibrati on harmonics from bar 235 onwards.’ Towards the end of Verdigris the strings weave a chain from a slowed-down Sibelius-melody, adding on an abundance of harmonics that ‘blur’ the original.
The premiere of Verdigris in Edinburgh in October 2015 was a success. The Scotland Herald lauded its ‘delightful Ravel swirls’, The Guardian heard an ‘absorbing new work’ from ‘a composer with play at the heart of her music. Here the joke is fondly on Sibelius, with some striking gossamer textures wrapped around fragments of his music’. – For good measure on 21 June the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra will perform his Suite nr. 2 from The Tempest.
Verdigris is part of an eclectic programme: apart from Wennäkoski and Sibelius there’s music by Webern, Stravinsky and Vasks. More info at Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest. Wennäkoski is presently working on the opera ‘Regine’, commissioned by the Savonlinna Opera Festival 2022.
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