Sallinen, Aulis

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Aulis Sallinen

Prolific and versatile Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen (born 1935) composed successful works in numerous musical forms, but he achieved his greatest renown through his operas. Regarded by many as Finland's finest opera composer, Sallinen helped establish a Finnish operatic repertory with works such as The Horseman and The Red Line. He studied with composers Aarre Merikanto and Joonas Kokkonen at the Sibelius Academy before moving on to develop his own tonal style.

Sallinen was born on April 9, 1935, in Salmi, Finland, on the northern shore of Lake Laatokka, an area that the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) would claim from Germany in the later years of World War II and which now is part of Russia. His early musical experience included playing the violin, but influenced by jazz and other musical forms, Sallinen turned to the piano as a teen and began writing original musical compositions for that instrument.

Pursuing advanced studies in music, Sallinen enrolled at the Sibelius Academy, studying composition under Aarre Merikanto. In 1958 he earned a teacher's certificate, then decided to continue his training under Joonas Kokkonen. Graduating from the Academy in 1960, he accepted a position as orchestral manager with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and remained there for nine years. In addition to his management position, Sallinen returned to the Sibelius Academy as a teacher from 1963 to 1976.

Over the course of his career, Sallinen has proven himself a prolific composer, producing an extensive catalogue of compositions most often developed in a variety of conventional forms. He is best known for his symphonies and his operas—but most especially his operas, which have been staged all across the world. His music is characterized by its tonality and melody; indeed, Sallinen has sometimes been criticized as being too "audience friendly," due to his traditionalist approach. Rather than exploring the avant-guard, he has consciously focused on creating a solid structure. At the same time, his compositions reflect the development of a unique style that includes a strong tonal imprint, simple—but not simplistic—thematic formulas, clarity of formal construction, and a use of repetition. In fact, repetition is one of Sallinen's trademarks.

Early Works, Early Directions

When Sallinen was constructing his earliest compositions in the late 1950s and early 1960s, modernism and serialism dominated Finnish music. While Sallinen was influenced by both, he nonetheless developed his own style in the mid-1960s, and at various times focused on tonality or atonality. His String Quartet No. 1, from 1958, uses a strict twelve-note technique or tonality, while his Concerto for Chamber Orchestra from 1959 and 1960's Second String Quartet, Canzona, saw the composer moving toward a more atonal composition. Canzona features many repeating chords and shows the direction Sallien's more mature work would likely take, particularly through its use of repetition. The use of repetition was likely inspired by the influence of his teacher, Merikanto.

Other works from this period included Mauermusik, a 1962 composition for orchestra and the work that marked the end of Sallinen's modernistic period; a Variations for Orchestra, completed in 1963; 1964's Elegy for Sebastian Knight, for solo cello; Quattro per Quattro, a 1965 composition that highlights the transition from his early period to the more free-tonal style that can be heard in his 1968 Violin Concerto; and the 1969 work Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik's Funeral March, Sallinen's third string quartet. He also wrote a ballet, Variations sur Mallarmé, completed in 1967.

Sallinen's most important period of creativity began in the early 1970s and was initiated by a life-long government stipend that allowed him to quit his orchestra job and give up teaching at the Sibelius Academy. Thus, Sallinen was able to devote full time attention to his composing, which would demonstrate an increased emphasis on orchestral and chamber music and opera. During this period his major efforts focused on orchestral music. Major works from the early part of the 1970s included 1970's Chorali. 1971's First Symphony, a concentrated, single-movement piece; the moody and meditative string quartet Quiet Songs, also from 1971; a second, concerto-like, single-movement symphony titled Symphonic Dialogue, written for percussion and orchestra in 1972; and 1976's Cello Concerto. Other string orchestra pieces, such as Chamber Music I and II from 1975-76, contained folk-music influences, while two other compositions, Suita grammaticale, from 1971, and 1974's Songs from the Sea, were written for children's choir.

The Operas

It was through the composition of his operas that Sallinen gained international renown. In the middle of the 1970s, Finland experienced an opera boom that was fueled by the new works of Sallinen and his former teacher, Kokkonen. The public embraced these operas because of the composers' choice of nationalistic subject matter and the traditional compositional language, which made the works easily accessible to the listening audiences. Also driving the popularity was the importance placed on the quality of stage direction. The best stage directors were recruited from the dramatic theater to design and produce each opera. In particular, Sallinen chose Kalle Holmberg to direct all of his operas. The theatrical element made it possible to avoid the pretentiousness or quaintness that had frustrated Sallinen about traditional opera productions, and it helped him achieve the "dramatic truth" he sought. At least in the realm of Finnish opera, Sallinen put theater back into music theater.

Starting in the mid-1970s, Sallinen focused most of his energy onto opera, and he produced a new operatic work every five years. Thematically, his operas involve the relationship between man and woman, and he explored the differences in their diverse natures and destinies. Musically, his operas are characterized by string clusters, strident woodwinds, staccato figures, and Sibelian crescendi from the brass section.

While in each of his operatic compositions Sallinen reached for a unity of conception, each focused on a unique subject. In his first opera, The Horseman, written in 1974 and with a libretto by poet and playwright Paavo Haavikko, Sallinen explores Finland's history, both real and mythological. This first venture into opera was the result of a competition of operatic works to honor the quincentenary of the castle of Olavinlinna, where the Savonlinna Opera Festival is held each year. Specifically, two composers were invited to participate in the competition. With The Horseman the winning work, Sallinen's career turned a major corner. At the opera's premiere at the 1975 festival, the production was a tremendous success with both the critics and the public. The Horseman went on to win the Nordic Music Prize in 1978 and was staged in a local production at the Kiel Opera in Germany two years later.

The Horseman is dynamic and rhapsodic, and, at times, it exerts the effect of an extended nationalistic ballad. It is set in some three or four centuries in the past, when the Finnish people were being squeezed on two sides by Sweden and Russia. The language is both modern and archaic, enhancing the poeticism of Haavikko's libretto. What makes The Horseman stand out is its musical and thematic unity. Sallinen achieved this through concise melodic subjects, the repetition and variation of easily identifiable rhythmic motifs, its tonality, and strategic combinations of sequential or superimposed triads.

Sallinen's second opera, 1978's The Red Line, became the Finnish National Opera's most popular international touring production. It was staged in London, England, in 1979, in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1980, and in both Wiesbaden, Germany, and Zürich, Switzerland, in 1981. In addition, it was presented in Moscow (USSR), in Leningrad, Russia, and in Tallinn, Estonia, in 1982. It also showed in New York City, New York, in 1983. The Red Line is a realistic account of Finland's first parliamentary elections in 1907. It reflected social conditions in Finland at the time of those elections.

The libretto, fixed more in reality than The Horseman, is based on a novel by Ilmari Kianto that describes how a starving people, dealing with poverty and the danger from wild animals roaming the countryside, struggle with opposing choices: acceptance and humility as encouraged by religious leaders, versus the sometimes violent activism advocated by social reformers. The tone of the libretto is more fatalistic, and the roles of the individual characters are more clearly delineated than in Sallinen's previous work.

In this second opera, The Red Line, Sallinen's musical language is more tonal and melodic, its orchestration is more balanced, and its style more coherent. Sallinen also employed an imaginative use of musical quotations and stylistic pastiche, including traditional Finnish folk songs, workers' marching songs, and nationalistic choruses and chorales.

Sallinen's third opera, The King Goes Forth to France, was commissioned by the Savonlinna Opera Festival, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and the British Broadcasting Company. The work, completed in 1983, is a three-act allegorical drama, and it is subtitled A Music-Theatrical Chronicle from the Time of Some Future Ice-Age. As such it has a large number of characters. At the forefront is a narrator who moves in and out of the work. The opera starts in the future then moves backwards in time over 600 years to the Middle Ages and the Battle of Crécy and the Siege of Calais, France. Befitting the scope of the work, Sallinen's orchestration, harmony, and tonality are much more multi-dimensional, more highly developed, and more colorful. The King Goes Forth to France had its premiere in 1984.

Kullervo, Sallinen's fourth two-act opera, was started in 1986 took only two years to complete; it was written on commission for the opening of the new opera house in Helsinki, Finland. An adaptation of an Aleksis Kivi play, the work retells a solemn story involving a tragic anti-hero. This lead role dominates the work, and the somber protagonist's fate shadows the opera like a heavy, dark cloud. Kullervo presented a primitive, violent world wherein the darkness is only occasionally brightened by glimpses of friendship and romantic and maternal love.

Sallinen's fifth opera, 1983's The Palace, was commissioned for the Savonlinna Opera Festival, and features a libretto by Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Irene Dische. It made its premiere at the Festival in 1995, and is a satire on the corrupt regimes of dictators such as Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Four years later, in 1999, Sallinen composed his sixth opera, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's King Lear. Its September, 2000 premiere at the Finnish National Opera was a triumph for the composer.

Sallinen employed different approaches in each of his operas. The Horseman contained allegorical elements, while The Red Line demonstrateed strong characterization, despite the work's political context. Both The King Goes Forth to France and The Palace were richly symbolic and highly stylized works that represented the universal rather than the individual, while Kullervo and King Lear focused on individual dramas. The literary approach adopted by each opera is reflected in Sallinen's musical composition. For instance, the music of The King Goes Forth to France and The Palace tended to be lighter and more ironic, while operas that involved nationalistic subjects, such as The Red Line, featured music that was more somber and tragic.

The Symphonies

While operas were the most significant works of Sallinen's vocal compositions, his eight symphonies comprise the major works of his instrumental output through the early 2000s. While his first two symphonies, composed in 1971 and 1972, were single-movement works, his third Symphony utilizes a multi-movement form. In his fourth Symphony, completed in 1979, Sallinen explores the musical "mosaic" technique that would serve as a central component of his fifth symphony, titled Washington Mosaics and first performed in 1985. In these mosaic symphonies, certain musical motifs are repeated identically, just like identical pieces in a tile mosaic, in the various movements of the overall work.

Sallinen's next two symphonies were more programmatic. His sixth symphony, 1990's From a New Zealand Diary, is a sort of musical travelogue, while the comoser's seventh symphony, The Dreams of Gandalf, was inspired by the fantasy works of J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In addition to composing this 1996 work, Sallinen returned to Tolkien once again, in October of 2001, with the ballet, The Hobbit. Sallinen's eighth symphony, first performed in 2001, was commissioned by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and is subtitled Autumnal Fragments.

A Rich, Illustrious Career

In addition to his operas, Sallinen composed some major vocal concert works, including 1978's Dies Irae, an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of the Earth, and Songs of Life and Death, a 1994 work that expressed Sallinen's humanitarian beliefs. His catalogue also includes chamber and ensemble music, and his works have been commissioned and performed throughout the world.

Throughout his career, Sallinen has had numerous prestigious positions and associations. He was administrator of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1960 to 1969, and from 1958 to 1973 he served as secretary and member of the board of the Finnish Composers' Society, in addition to serving as the society's chairman from 1971 to 1973. He was also a member of the board of TEOSTO, the Finnish copyright society, from 1970 to 1984, and chairman from 1988 to 1990. A member of the Royal Swedish Music Academy and recipient of honorary degrees from the Universities of Helsinki and Turku, he also served for several years on the board of the Finnish National Opera. In 1981 the Finnish government made Sallinen professor of arts for life, the first appointment of its kind. Two years later, in 1983, he shared the Wihuri International Sibelius prize with Krzysztof Penderecki, another widely renowned Finnish composer.


International Directory of Opera, St. James Press, 1993.


"Aulis Sallinen,", (January 10, 2005).

"Aulis Sallinen," G. Schirmer Inc., Web site, (January 10, 2005).

Finnish Music Information Center Web site, (January 10, 2005).