My first exposure to Einar Englund's music was (as I'm sure it has been for many people lucky enough to make the discovery) this Naxos disc that was released in 1999. As I have always loved Finland's art and it's musics and folklore (my interest in the latter ignited entirely due to Sibelius), I was especially excited to find a "new" name in Finnish composition. Happily I was not at all disappointed.
A Finnish musicologist (in the early 1950's) once said "As a composer, Englund is the salt of the earth." This comment illustrates the key position held by Einar Englund (1916-1999) in postwar Finnish music. The premiere of his First Symphony in 1947 marked a turning-point and heralded a new era in Finnish music. Englund gave voice to a young generation which had survived the war and lost all its illusions, and in so doing he swept away the lingering National Romantic idyll. It was also no mean feat that he succeeded in rejuvenating the symphony, the most highly valued genre of all in the land of Sibelius. Ever since his breakthrough years, Englund’s style was associated with Neoclassicism, and his music shows affinities with Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Bartok’s late period. His oeuvre, stylistically coherent, is dominated by rhythmic drive and a clear, powerful orchestral sound with frequent use of doubling, with a melodic-harmonic thinking peppered with dissonances but founded solidly in tonality. Dense motivic work and thematic thinking underlie his compositions. Englund favored the established genres symphony, concerto, sonata and also cultivated traditional forms in the individual movements of his works. Englund was an accomplished pianist, and often moulded his material at the piano. "I play through my material hundreds of times to test it for its fatigue point. Only if the musical idea retains its original freshness despite wear is it worth keeping", he has said. It is not surprising that the efficient use of instruments and unaffected expression were his guiding principles.
Englund's weightiest works are his seven symphonies; other major series include concertos and, especially during the late 1970s, chamber music. He also composed smaller orchestral pieces, a few theater works, solo instrumental and piano music, and a handful of vocal/choral pieces. Here his Symphony No. 6 can be noted as it is for orchestra and chorus. Although Englund gained early attention with a Piano Quintet (1941), the premiere of the First Symphony (1946) in January of 1947 marked his real breakthrough. The war was generally perceived as the work’s psychological background, echoed in the heavy tread of march rhythms and the desolate melancholy of the slow movement. The composer, however, later rejected the epithet War Symphony, preferring to characterize the work as "the joyous shout of a young man who survived the war".
Englund wrote his Second Symphony "The Blackbird" in 1948, and it continues the path opened up by the First, but takes the means of expression further in every respect (in contrast with a lyrical feeling for nature, the music also contains tragic and grotesque elements). What is unforgettable about this music is the questioning voice of the flute that haunts this symphony from the beginning of the first movement, Allegro moderato. The Symphony's subtitle reflects these woodwind figures accompanying the main theme, including the birdsong imitation in the slow movement. As the symphony unfolds, the other wind instruments pick up some of the burden of the flute and the flute begins to strut at the edge of our hearing like a blackbird on a reed, or perhaps a schoolboy whistling-but a schoolboy of 1948, who has seen or heard terrible things. This is probably the composer’s best-known work, and it set the tone for much of the Finnish music of the period.
Music critic Heikki Aaltoila summed up the "Blackbird" Symphony as "a sarcastic statement by a rebellious soul on the brutality of Man and our distorted civilization, compared with the purity of Nature." That seems exactly right.
The wonderful First Piano Concerto of 1955 is (apparently) still one of the most frequently played Finnish works of its kind, although unless I procure a ticket, room and board etc. I (sadly) cannot confirm this. Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto has been mentioned as the work’s closest predecessor. Apart from stylistic affinities, Bartok is brought to mind by the use of folk music; here an original Lapp joiku (Lapland singing) "yoik" or chant is used in the material for the principal theme of the first movement. The motif is used extensively in the energetic finale-it re-emerges at the beginning of the movement, parts of the fugue are based on its retrograde, and the concerto closes with the motifs romantically grandiose reappearance. Anyone who likes Shostakovich, Stravinsky, or of course Bartok-will find much to enjoy here, I know I sure do!
The Symphony No. 4 "Nostalgic", is from 1976, when Englund was 60 years old. As the name suggests, it's the work of a composer who is perhaps beginning to wrestle with the ideas of time, memory, and perhaps mortality. Scored for strings and percussion only, the 'nostalgia' is deepest in the two middle movements, which contain touching references to Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. It is the two center movements especially that make this symphony well worth hearing. The second movement is marked "Tempus fugit" and does indeed convey-in a hectic 4:34-the sense of moments fleeing away, irrevocably. Englund, a Swedish-speaking Finn, was apparently remembering childhood days on the Baltic island of Gotland in passages of this symphony. Nevertheless, the geography of this work seems more internal-it is not about an island in the Baltic Sea so much as it is about time lost, and remembering. The third movement, "Nostalgia," is where Englund writes his most heartbreakingly beautiful music of this work. It contains a reference to Sibelius's "Tapiola". Englund apparently had met Sibelius and spent at least a brief time with him at Ainola. The grim last movement (which I'm listening to now as I type..it's quite moving and just as worthwhile as what has come before it!) apparently carries out the composer's intent. Englund wrote that the music subsides, "with nostalgia and melancholy, into a silence black as night."