Leevi Madetoja's Ostrobothnians - An opera about freedom Erkki Salmenhaara (FMQ,1986)

In one respect Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947) succeeded where his teacher, Jean Sibelius, failed: he created a national Finnish opera. The premiere of The Ostrobothnians at the Finnish Opera on October 25th, 1924 marked the birth of the first truly full-blooded Finnish opera. It was a special occasion in another way too, for it was the one thousandth performance given at the Finnish Opera.

In his essay "French Colouring in a Bothnian Landscape" (FMQ 3-4/1985) Jouni Kaipainen dealt with the essence of Madetoja's music and his works for orchestra, so a brief reminder of the background to his music will suffice here. Madetoja was at heart a National Romanticist. But unlike his slightly older friend Toivo Kuula (1883- 1918), destined to a tragic and untimely death, his romantic aspirations were offset by a strong inborn sense of classical proportion and form. Following in Kuula's footsteps, Madetoja went to Paris to study in 1910. This was of some significance in view of the fact that then, as later, Finnish musicians tended for the most part to look towards the German tradition. But Madetoja was not so interested in the ‘Neo-French’ trends of the time, expressing unveiled skepticism in his letters to Kuula and more veiled doubts in his public writings. Although the two composers are known to have been deeply impressed by Pelléas et Mélisande, Madetoja did not join the Debussy camp and felt more affinity towards the ‘symphonic Frenchness’ of d’Indy and the Schola cantorum, its most ‘Madetojan’ representative being Albéric Magnard (1865-1914). Not until the next generation did a Finnish composer, Uuno Klami (1900-1961), swear by Ravel, de Falla, and the Stravinsky of the Russian period.

Despite their contrasting temperaments (Kuula fiery and romantic, Madetoja elegiac and resigned) the composers were bound by a common childhood inheritance: they were both born way up on the western coast of Finland, in Ostrobothnia, the region in which Madetoja's opera is set and from which it takes its name. The flatness characteristic of the Ostrobothnian landscape is reflected in Ostrobothnian folk tunes and to some extent in Finnish folk melodies in general. This is sometimes an obstacle to the foreigner's understanding of music based on them. Even as a child in Oulu Madetoja heard the religious music of Ostrobothnia and he readily admitted their influence on his own melodies. But both Kuula and Madetoja made an even more concrete contribution to Ostrobothnian folk music. At the beginning of the century it was commonly believed that Ostrobothnia, with its tendency towards strict sectarian religion and a simple way of life was incapable of producing anything but bleak religious tunes. As young students Kuula and Madetoja joined the band of folk music collectors who disproved this belief and proved that the Ostrobothnian folk tune was far richer than people generally thought. Kuula, in collecting, arranging and publishing folk tunes, in fact laid the musical foundations for The Ostrobothnians, for a few of them were appended to the folk play of the same name (1914) by the Ostrobothnian journalist and writer Artturi Järviluoma (1879-1942) as vocal items for use in stage performances of the play.


Too realistic for Kuula

It was in fact Kuula who was originally prevailed upon by the firm advocate of Finnish opera, Väinö Sola (himself an opera singer) to turn The Ostrobothnians into an opera. On November 26th, 1917 Järviluoma wrote to Kuula: “I met Sola recently. He has got an ‘idée fixe’ that you should turn The Ostrobothnians into an opera. He asks about it every time I see him.” However, Madetoja was also interested in the idea at about that time. A little later Kuula wrote to Järviluoma and said he had nothing against Madetoja's taking on the job. Kuula did indeed consider The Ostrobothnians "an excellent idea", but he felt it was too realistic, his idea of opera being Wagnerian and tending towards fairytale or legend-like subjects.

As far as the actual plans for composition are concerned, Madetoja unfortunately had little to say on the subject, either in private or in public. We can, however, gather something of how the opera progressed from his letters to his mother:

10.12.1917. I have been planning an opera too. It remains to be seen whether anything comes of it. If I did manage to produce one that in anyway appealed to the public, I might make a good bit of money.

23.5.1920. I ought to get the opera finished within the year. - - If it's successful, I might be onto a good thing.

16.1.1921. Just at the moment I am, in addition to some smaller works, composing an opera, which I will try to finish before the year is out. It could even be a good source of income, if only it appeals to public taste or attracts a lot of attention and makes a name for itself abroad. Naturally I am concerned only with the dictates of my own art, but sometimes a composition may have worldly advantages too.

1.8.1921. I'm writing an opera that should be finished this winter.

20.12.1921. The opera - I'm trying to get it finished. A laborious task in that I do not know when I'll get it performed or whether I'll get paid much for it. I must finish it - I've got so far and put so much effort into it. Maybe one day it will be a financial and an artistic success.

10.6.1922. I absolutely must get the opera finished in the summer or autumn, there are 600-700 pages to be written.

7.9.1923. I have now finished my opera, but I've still got to make the piano arrangement. I'm writing that at this very moment as if my life depended on it.

8.1.1924. Today the opera is to be played to the Opera trustees. It will probably not be performed until the autumn, otherwise there won't be time to rehearse properly.

9.9.1924. The opera is to be performed at the end of October, rehearsals are in full swing.

28.10.1924. My opera was a complete success - - I got three crowns of laurels. - -Let's hope it will be put on abroad.

Something of a cold shower for the aestheticians anticipating artistic theorising on the idealistic strivings of opera to find expression and the act of creation. But Madetoja was a skilled craftsman of the old school who expressed what he had to say in his music and not in aesthetical theories. The majority of his works were the outcome of commissions and were always highly professional. But then Mozart's Requiem, for example, was written to order. We must remember that in the early decades of this century the composer's financial position (whether in fact he could in general afford to compose) was far less secure than it is today.

This was before the days of the Copyright Act and royalties. The Finnish composer might hope to receive payment from his publisher for little pieces, or he might arrange a concert of his works in the hope that enough tickets would be sold to cover the costs, if nothing else. But best of all was a successful stage work that would provide the author with a percentage of the ticket revenue and thus a regular income.



The ingredients of a succesfull opera

Madetoja's attitude was not in fact as perfunctory as his letters might indicate, for he was merely trying to reassure his mother, who worried constantly about his precarious finances. We should look instead at the sentence in which he mentions “the dictates of his art”, since he virtually never discussed aesthetical issues with his mother. A professional composer, Madetoja made allowance for the musical and social realities of a successful opera (and every composer hopes to produce successful works), but he then worked within the confines he had set himself with genuine inspiration and profound artistic dedication. The subject of the opera and its musical, stylistic environment suited his innermost need for expression perfectly; not so with Kuula. Although Madetoja's work easily gets across to the public at large, there is absolutely nothing that courts the audience. What appeals to the listener is the artistic integrity and the genuineness with which the composer captures the very essence of the events and the characters.

Madetoja's opera quite simply blended together the numerous ingredients needed to make a successful opera; any one of these ingredients may, by its very absence, cause the downfall of an otherwise masterly work. This was to be the case with Madetoja's other opera Juha (1935) - an opera of even greater musical refinement and originality. The play on which The Ostrobothnians was based was well-known and popular, and it had even been performed abroad. Not only was the play itself in keeping with Finland's own history; so were the allegorically expressed ideals of freedom from oppression, the taciturn independence of the Finnish peasant (for which read the Finnish nation), his honesty, sense of honour, belief in the triumph of justice and the right to decide his own affairs. Nor was the work any less relevant at the time it was planned, Finland only just having won political independence at the cost of bitter sacrifice. This timeless ideal of freedom gave Madetoja's work a relevance that exceeds its national confines and is always topical. Although stylistically and historically dated, and difficult to envisage in a ‘modernised’ version, its music in principle exudes the same ideal as in Luigi Nono's Intolleranza. Madetoja's The Ostrobothnians is an opera about freedom.

The fact that the melodies on which the opera is based were familiar to the audience was naturally of great significance. One of the great achievements of Madetoja's work was indeed the natural and imperceptible merging of folk music with his own musical idiom. Kauko Karjalainen, in studying the opera, called it a grand manifestation of folk song. Madetoja transformed the folk melody into an integral part of art music in two ways: by harmonising it in a manner that was original yet in keeping with its style and giving it a rich, even polyphonic orchestration, and by using it as a source of motifs for most of the opera's symphonic texture. In this respect folk melodies are in a position similar to that later occupied by Paavo's Hymn in the opera The Last Temptations by Joonas Kokkonen. A folk song thus lends itself in the most natural manner to a Leitmotiv technique giving the drama coherence and depth which Madetoja used both with moderation and with a wealth of nuance, completely independent of Wagnerian constructivism. Although the idea of a national opera based on folk tunes may on first hearing sound stereotyped and even conservative, Madetoja's solution was clearly to be more lasting than the ostensibly more modern Post-Wagnerism of the opera Aino (first performed in 1909) by his predecessor Erkki Melartin. By that time Wagnerism had in fact already become a stereotype formal trend, whereas Madetoja's national romanticism was genuine and its sincerity carried an immediate urgency. (The lack of understanding from which Aarre Merikanto’s opera Juha suffered is a very different matter.)


No opera tradition

The apparent stylistic conservatism of Sibelius's music prevented people from understanding the significance of his work in the 1920s, especially outside Finland. And Madetoja's The Ostrobothnians in fact suffered from a similar optical illusion. Because it is a national opera traditional in its idiom, its pioneering nature is often overlooked. There was, of course, an established national opera tradition in Europe at the turn of the century. But not in Finland, which in practical terms had no operatic tradition whatsoever. Some writers, such as Seppo Nummi, have pointed to a certain coarseness in The Ostrobothnians and the weaknesses of its dramaturgical concentration. These were clearly caused by an absence of tradition. As an orchestral composer Madetoja was practically self-taught, but as a symphonist he could draw on the tradition created by Sibelius. When it came to opera, Finland had no such tradition, and so Madetoja was by force a self-taught opera composer too. He personally adapted the play to form a libretto and even added text of his own. Seen in this light Madetoja's opera was a pioneering work; and more than that, a master achievement, for in its musical and dramatic integration and its entire scope it is no longer an experiment but a consistent and impressive work of art.

It is a social reality that people go to the opera to hear familiar melodies, to admire colourful scenes and characters and to enjoy the cathartic, soul-stirring experience that a great musical drama can provide. This may sound trivial, but it does contain something of the essence of musical experience. The ingredients of such an experience can be created in the deepest sense of the word only by a composer with true mastery of his craft - and one fundamental element of this craft is a capacity for inspiration. Leevi Madetoja's The Ostrobothnians meets these qualifications.


Synopsis of The Ostrobothnians

A young peasant, Antti, is charged with disturbing the peace and awaits trial. His fiancée Maija has converted to the Pietist faith, which despises all things worldly. Antti, dressed as a prisoner, is brought to old Harri's house. Jussi, the young master of the household, arranges for the doubting Maija and Antti to speak together alone.

A drinking session among the farmhands that cleverly portrays their intoxication and self-pity provides a humorous interlude.

The much-hated and hard-handed bailiff comes to inspect the prisoner. He strikes Jussi's hat off with his whip as Jussi pays obeisance to the Law.

Liisa, a serving-girl, is in love with Jussi. Left alone with her, Jussi suddenly becomes aware of the clearness of her gaze and his own love for her.

Maija hears that Antti is not to be released. In her opinion it cannot be God's will for Antti to go to prison, or possibly even Siberia. She persuades Antti to escape.

There is dancing in the village, but the merry-making is interrupted by the arrival of the dreaded 'villains' intent on plundering and fighting. Jussi beats the villain leader Kyösti in an honest wrestiling match and the villains take back their demand for a sheep. While the fighting is on Antti escapes.

The bailiff and his sanctimonious clerck (who has a weakness for the bottle) interrogate the farm people about Antti's escape. The smooth-tongued Kaisa provides light relief when questioned. Inside the bailiff tries by means of his whip to make Jussi confess to organising Antti's escape. Jussi rushed indignantly into the yard: he has been whipped like a dog, like an old nag. He breaks his chains and threatens the bailiff with his knife. The bailiff fires two shots, but Jussi manages to stab him to death.

The dying Jussi has a vision: the people are free, their gaze is clear. Never will this nation bow down to the slave's whip. He asks Liisa to close his eyes, so that her image will be the last thing he sees. But Liisa's gaze is no longer clear.


Originally published in the Finnish Music Quarterly 2/1986