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Kilpinen, Yrjö Henrik


Photo: Siipi Saari

Photo: Siipi Saari

Photo: Siipi Saari

When Yrjö Kilpinen’s popularity as an exponent of the Germanic lied tradition was at its peak in 1930s Germany, it was one of the greatest successes which a Finnish composer had ever enjoyed outside his own country. In Finland, many of Kilpinen’s 767 songs were welcomed and spread in a fashion we associate with folksongs. Today, only a few people outside of Finland know of Kilpinen or his music, and it is only rarely heard even in Finland.

There are reasons for the waning of his popularity:

  • His music and personality aroused strong reactions, some favourable, others not
  • His instrumental works for piano and cello never gained a foothold in the standard concert repertoire
  • When the lied became a peripheral artform, it was inevitable that someone for whom that was a primary specialty would also be marginalized

Kilpinen’s style and compositional approach was uncomplicated; the reasons for this lay partly in his inadequate formal schooling, but also in the musico-historical environment into which he was born. His simplicity was meant as a conscious antithesis to the bombast and decadence of Late-Romanticism. His expression does not always sustain the listener’s interest, and occasionally falls back on cliche. That said, Kilpinen’s best work contains soaring melodies of great elegance, accompanimental support of strong character and moods superbly attuned to the musical message.

Yrjö Kilpinen was born the second of four sons into a family of first-generation Helsinkians on Feruary 4, 1892. Though showing little interest in school, Kilpinen did study music, beginning with piano and composition at age 15. He also spent periods of time in Vienna and Berlin before marrying Darling Alfthan, daughter of an influential businessman, in 1918.

Kilpinen went through a number of sporadic periods in which his enthusiasm for writing peaked and waned. His Jalkanen songs were written in 1919 and his Leino songs in 1920. He was published by Breitkopf & Hartel, and his reputation began to spread. Performances of his songs at the Nordic Music Days festival opened important doors in Scandinavia, and the Copenhagen firm of Wilhelm Hansen began publishing much of his work. The first concerts dedicated solely to his works were held in Helsinki in 1923 and 1925. Without a doubt, the 1920s were the high point of his career in terms of both the volume and quality of his output.

In the 1930s, Kilpinen’s public profile was at its height. He was setting the works of German poets to music, people were requesting specific pieces for concerts, and his reputation had spread to London where 19 of his songs were released on records. In 1942, Kilpinen was awarded the title of Professor honoris causa in Finland, and was appointed to the Academy of Arts and Sciences as its first representative from the field of music.
 

Kilpinen’s choice of texts during the 1940s and 1950s were attempts to placate those angered by his musical affiliation with the Germans during World War II; he wrote music for the Finnish language by left-wing poet Katri Vala, and verses taken from the Kanteletar folklore collection.

During his later years, Kilpinen lectured on many different subjects, among them Finnish musical history and the need for establishing music libraries. He started summer music camps, including the Savonlinna Music Days in 1955, which later developed into the Savonlinna Opera Festival.

Kilpinen died at the age of 67 on March 2, 1959.

His Aesthetic

One of the leading ideas of Kilpinen’s aesthetic was without a doubt the freeing of music from the extraneous burdens of Romanticism. He wanted to bring a breath of fresh air to an environment which had become stifling ? a running brook on the Lapland fells instead of a glittering fountain. "Color is the element of music most likely to fade," he declared. With this thought in mind, he based his compositions on graphic motivic interplay, sketched out in black and white rather than the garish colors of the National Romantic tradition. Seppo Nummi, one of Kilpinen’s handful of composition pupils and himself a devoted composer of lied, described his teacher as an ’arctic puritan.’ Some commentators have criticised Kilpinen’s music for being unsensuous and lacking in direction. In terms of the renewal of the German lied tradition, Hugo Wolf is often said to be Kilpinen’s model. Extended cycles based around the work of a single poet are something they have in common. Kilpinen’s diatonic compositional language, where a thorough exploration of the text is of secondary importance to detailed motivic thinking, is far removed however from the chromatically-dominated Wagnerian style practised by Wolf. The fact that Kilpinen treats the voice and piano as equal partners in the dialogue suggests that a better model would be Schubert. A direct line of ancestry exists from Schubert’s Die schone Mullerin, whose piano part is built around endless variations of arpeggiated triads, to the rich variegation of limited materials which appear in Kilpinen’s Kanteletar Songs, op. 100. Kilpinen is interested in rhythm and melody; following his convictions, he pays less attention to harmony, which he himself termed ’color.’ Polyphony - Neo-Classical as it may be - is something rarely to be found in his music.

His Body of Works

Kilpinen did not progress stylistically in any real way; his musical language sprouted ready-formed. Even in his early works, the bare chords without thirds and climaxes built out of motivic sequences - typical stylistic features of his masterworks - are discernable. His cantilena lines are spacious, reaching for grandeur. It is only the rough joins between sections which reveal his inexperience.

The Jalkanen Lieder of 1918-19 aready fall into Kilpinen’s mature period. Most of the songs are riddled with morbid, resigned pathos, which surely explains in part why they have had so few performances in the later half of the 20th century. Among them one nevertheless finds songs of substance, such as Ah, missä lienet nyt with its long chromatic suspensions, or the haughty Yli hohtavan hangen.

Kilpinen’s Nordic Period, 1922-26, includes songs to words by Josephson, Bergman, Lagerkvist, Österling, Ullman, Cnattingius and Blomberg. In his cycle Fantasi och verklighet to poems by Josephson, Kilpinen found a way of depicting the unusual middle ground between the idyllic and the macabre created by this poet and painter.

The Koskenniemi Lieder, of which there are 37 dating from 1927, include some of Kilpinen’s best-known creations. In the brilliant Kesäyö, the poem’s image of distant accordion-playing becomes one with the rhythm of the listener’s heart in a way to which only a grand master can aspire. Ihme is a song in which Kilpinen builds an almost euphorically noble, hymnlike conclusion. Rannalta I has come to enjoy a folksong-like popularity with its open landscape and plaintive motive. A strange light hovers over the fifth song of the Lakeuscycle.

The Lagerkvist Cycle is said to be where Kilpinen comes closest to atonality. The world of Lagerkvist, a Christian existentialist, is at one and the same time steadfast and disconsolate. Kilpinen’s musical language in songs such as Var är den djupa glädje and Regnet slår och slår succeeds in capturing both these aspects of his poetry. Nowhere else does Kilpinen, Neo-Classicist as he was at heart, come as close to Expressionism.

1928 was the year of the Morgenstern Lieder, a collection totalling no less than 75 songs. The Lieder der Liebe cycles are some of Kilpinen’s best known, their merit being a unique immediacy and spontaneity. Gems such as Heimat, Kleines Lied and Anmutiger Vertrag remind us of the controlled forms of traditional German lied. Lieder um der Tod is Kilpinen’s most widely recognized work internationally. Kilpinen’s bequest to the Finnish people was op. 100, which contains 64 songs to poems from the Kanteletar, the sister work to Finland’s national epic, The Kalevala. The way in which Kilpinen varies repeated melodic formulae arouses admiration. He consciously tried to apply the traditional performance practice of Finnish folk tradition to the lied context. The subject matter of the poems covers many aspects of human existence from daily labour to weddings and funerals. The cycle includes songs of heart-rending beauty - some with tragic overtones - such as Tuuti, tuuti tummaistani, and some which invoke ancient magic, such as Oi Ukko ylinen Herra. The cycle is so extensive and varied that one also finds gems of humorous character depiction such as Nyt on kaikki kallistunnaand Silloin laulan.

The cycles Liederfolge, Herbst, and Hochgebirgswinter, to poems by Hesse, are all examples of the composer’s austere late period. They do not reach to the level of his previous works in terms of musical accomplishment, being more staid and lacking in innovation. In addition, there are the Hermann Lons songs from 1943-46, and the as yet unpublished Katri Vala songs from 1946.

When one considers the extent of Kilpinen’s works and the popularity they have enjoyed from time to time, it is surprising that so little has been written about his life. Tauno Karila’s biography, written in 1964, is the only book to cover the subject in any thorough way, but it does not stand up to scholarly scrutiny. The need exists for a biography based on original sources which would thoroughly and objectively explore the lofty and highly personal figure of Kilpinen the man and composer.

It also remains to be seen whether the renewed interest in Kilpinen which his 100th anniversary celebrations provoked in 1992, causing a spate of recording and publishing projects, was just a passing phenomenon or was the beginning of a true renaissance for this composer and a fresh perspective on his work.

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