[originally published in Finnish in the philosophical journal niin & näin;
for the original publication details & the text itselt, see "Julkaisut"]
Though I have in the recent years fallen entirely in love with the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, this was definitely not love at first sight. My earliest recollections of the event, to the contrary, were tainted with prejudice. I recall to having childishly tasted the word “chamber music” in my mouth. Which chamber? What I could mostly think of was the sleeping chamber of the house my grandparents used to inhabit, and in that chamber my grandfather frequently took naps and whose ambiance was, in a word, dusty and stagnated…
In these days, the Chamber Music Festival is all but stagnated and stuck in routines. In the programme notes to the festival of the past summer, the artistic director of the festival, Vladimir Mendelssoh, unequivocally declares: “We are part of the avant-garde that is actively — if not furiously — trying to turn the tide with all the convictions we possess and stand for and with all the positive energy we can invest in a single cause.” The sentence suffers from somewhat convoluted phrasing yet succeeds in opening up an important perspective: perhaps in the pervasively anticlassical world of today — where classical music is used, at least in Finland, to drive idle youth away from hanging around the shopping malls! — it is precisely chamber music that stands for the free-thinking avantgarde. The basic concept of the festival indeed intelligently deconstructs the myth of elitism so often associated with classical music: seemingly difficult works are carried into a town bristling with natural beauty and thus made easily accessible.
From year to year, first-rate national and international musicians thus prove the viability of the original idea behind the festival. The festival concept had its origins, so the story goes, in the urban grind of a vibrating roller, as the then-student of the Paris conservatoire, cellist Seppo Kimanen came up with the idea of transporting chamber music from the hustle and bustle of the cities into the proximity of nature. Music abounding with complex ideas, indeed, called far nature to act as its own catalyst! During its 42–year journey, the festival has grown from its somewhat elitist origins into an eye-opening and ground-breaking musical gathering: this summer the climax of the festival was provided by the Finnish big band UMO, and last year saw the featuring of the eminent contemporary composers, Krzysztof Penderecki and Kaija Saariaho. New chamber music festivals both in Finland and worldwide often imitatete the original Kuhmo idea of merging the peace of nature with the interiority of chamber music, yet in Kuhmo this marriage receives its most precise and artistically unique expression.
When Kimanen was the artistic director of the festival, he would weave the programme of each year around a couple of themes. In 2002, for instance, the prevailing themes were Vienna (in particular, Schubert and Brahms), Russia (in particular, Shostakovich) and the music of the Mediterranean. In contrast, the artistist director of the festival since 2006, Vladimir Mendelssohn is keener on large strokes of brush and philosophical thinking. This summer the main theme of the festival was “Metamorphoses”, and the theme was further divided into daily sub-themes. Such a point of view is much to the point, given the very centrality of the idea of musical themes and their development to classical music. In Richard Strauss’s (1864–1949) Metamorphoses, composed for a string orchestra, such a method of varying themes turns so radical as to make the entire work breathe organically from the seamless blending of musical motives into one another.
In contrast to concertos and symphonies composed for large orchestras, then, music-making in chamber music takes place between a handful of artists. In consequence, chamber music comes to life via the communicative gestures emerging upon the performing of a particular piece; here body language as well as movements of the eyes become important. Using examples from this year’s festival, there are, on the one end, pieces composed for solo instruments, such as Beethoven’s piano sonatas or Bartok’s violin sonatas, while on the other end, one finds works composed for small chamber orchestras, for example, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or the Metamorphoses by Strauss just mentioned.
In chamber music, there is usually no conductor, but each instrument plays an independent part. Hence, the different instruments might be understood as taking up distinctive roles, engaged in a dialogue or a debate with one another. The common prejudice of faultlessly beautiful classicism needs no other means for its refutation than the listening of, say, Beethoven’s Die grosse Fugue op. 133 for a string quartet, where the four string instruments manifest the helpless cacophony of a conflicted soul. Some evidence for the radicality of the piece is gained from the very observation that the contemporanous audiences could not quite digest the discordant anger of the piece. Upon the request of his publisher, Beethoven was asked to compose an alternative finale to his antipenultimate string quartet op. 130, whose original climax the Great Fugue was originally intended to form. This year saw the performance of the mentioned quartet with its original fugue finale, after which the audience was feeling breathless yet cathartic.
Its own chapter in this year’s programme was the two-hour piece by Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), Twenty Glances on the Jesus Child (Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, 1944). Whereas chamber music is essentially absolute, this work by Messiaen stands for so-called programme music, where the composer himself puts to words the extramusical content of his composition. Messiaen not only named the piece but also its separate movements. Amidst the movements, for instance, one finds Glance of the Father (Regard du Père) and The Kiss of the Child-Jesus (Le baiser l’Enfant-Jésus). It srikes the listener as somewhat staggering, indeed, how far the composer went in supplying details describing the movements in his programmatic notes to the work. In a movement titled The Exchange (L’échange), to cite an essential example, he reports to having composed a theme of God in a major third, while Glance of the Virgin (Regard de la Vierge) reportedly depicts the perfect purity of Virgin Mary. At the same time the music is unyiledingly modernist, even avantgardist. A listener approaching the work from the shores of popular music may observe certain tones reminicient of blues or jazz.
Various attendants of this year’s festival seem to have found in Messiaen’s piece one of the climaxes of the festival. But I, to the contrary, find myself veering towards a degree of skepticism as regards the possibility of depicting God in music. I have no intention of denying the religiosity of Messiaen — he was, indeed, a pious Catholic, whose music was in his own words composed in praise of God — yet the strings of my own soul resonate more strongly to the attemtps of adumbrating divinity indirectly rather than directly (the latter attempt running the risk, so it seems to me, of dogmatism). For comparative purposes, it was thus illuminating to hear in this year’s festival the most serene, or if you like, spiritual, of Beethoven’s late string quartets, op. 132, whose composition was interrupted by the composer’s severe illness. The third and middle movement of the piece, lasting 15 minutes, carries the subtitle Holy Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Deity (Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart). In this movement, one can hear the climactic and turn-taking moment of the work, a musical expression of the burgeoning lust for life (strong precisely because it emerges from illness) just before the work’s triumphant finale.
If Seppo Kimanen is anywhere near correct in claiming that chamber music belongs to the most sensitive forms of art — verging on what might be characterized as an expression of interiority — then the composer comer closer to truth, as I would think, through indirect allusions than strictly programmatic approach. A moving example may be found, indeed, in the later style of Beethoven, reaching its pinnacle only after the ninth symphony, when the composer had already fallen entirely numb, in particular, in the last six string quartets (in a chronological listing, opus number 127, 132, 130, 133, 131 and 135). In these intellectually and emotively inexhaustible late quartets the composer is not so much concerned with expressing human emotions — grief, despair, ecstasy or joy — as much as he is gesturing towards something braver, or if you like, an encounter with the abyss of being, on the fearless vanguard of darkness.